The O'Briens by Peter Behrens is a compelling and haunting novel about love, both familial and romantic. I caution you, Behrens' take on love is neither gentle nor joyful. Love is temperamental and tenacious in the world of the O'Briens, and it is the framework around which all other aspects of life are explained or excused, protected from or bravely endured. For Joe O'Brien, self-made man and family patriarch, love is all mixed up with childhood desperation and manly aspirations. Having been left head of his family of four younger brothers and sisters after his father is killed and his mother falls apart, Joe steels himself to the task of security at all costs, and succeeds. But his lost childhood and fear of poverty (and all the ugliness it entailed for him in western Quebec) will forever cripple him, even as his business and his family grow.
Aren't we all crippled, to some extent, by our pasts, just as much as we are buoyed and supported? The lucky ones have more support, less damage; the less lucky, more damage and a greater need for control, at all costs. And the costs are often borne, unfortunately, by the ones whom we love. When two damaged souls meet, there can be mutual saving, but also mutual fear and reciprocal costs of pain, insecurity, neediness, and stonewalling -- and so it happens for Joe, when he meets and marries Iseult, a fragile and yearning young woman on the lam from her own suffocating childhood of privilege.
Their courtship, marriage, and eventual parenthood all provide scenes to explore the theme of love, as do the accompanying stories of Joe's brother Grattan and wife Elise, and of their children's experiences through youth and into adulthood. There was a television show, long ago, called Love, American Style, which consisted of silly and bouncy skits about love and desire, cliché after cliché, week after week. The O'Briens is the antithesis to Love, American Style, providing what could be called Love, Canadian Style, with not an ounce of humor or levity offered in its 384 pages, and not a single cliché dared; love is not all light and joy, it is a burden but also a necessity; a prison but also the only foundation for anything else worth having. As Iseult realizes early on in her marriage to Joe, "love changed in marriage, became an element in a compound with a complex chemistry. It was never quite stable, it seemed." But stable or not, is cannot be destroyed.
We follow Joe and Iseult through their joined but separate journeys ("really people were alone. Even in marriage -- perhaps most of all, in marriage -- they were still alone"), witnessing their moments of convergence and connection along with the forces of misunderstanding, isolation, and fear that pull them apart again. Are the moments of connection enough to keep a couple together? There is no romance in acknowledging the roles played by fear, religion, and tradition in keeping Joe and Iseult married -- but there is great truth, and much to think about in Behrens' exploration of all the elements that keep any family together, or pull it apart.
The story of Joe O'Brien and his family is epic in its scope (the building of the North American railroads, two world wars, the Depression, Prohibition, children and grandchildren, businesses built and lost and restarted) and lifetimes unfold in its pages. That the lives hold our attention so closely is a tribute to Behrens' beautiful writing, and a reminder of just how vital, brutal, and pervasive, love is.