by Tawni O'Dell
Published by Crown
2 1/2 Stars
When I read Tawni O'Dell's Coal Run a few years ago, it became an instant favorite. So I was certain that I would love Fragile Beasts. I hate it when I'm wrong.
Set in Pennsylvania coal country, Fragile Beasts tells the story of the wealthy and reclusive Candace Jack, a woman who has tried to recreate the Spain of her youth in the remote mansion where she makes her home. Her obsession for all things Spanish begins as so many obsessions do: with a loss. The love of her life, a Spanish bullfighter, is killed in the ring, leaving Candace to forever mourn what could have been. Understandably, the town sees her as the crazy old spinster lady that nobody ever sees--although, in lieu of cats, she keeps a bull. That's right. A bull. She bought the bull that killed her lover and has always kept one bull from each generation of his progeny.
So, we have an old woman nearing the end of a life created from walling herself off from her own emotions and from other people. We've been here before. There's only one thing to do: create a plot device by which she is forced to interact with a young person who is damaged himself/herself and through this unlikely pairing, both will be forever changed. In this case, Candace agrees to take in two teenage boys who have recently lost their father in a drunk driving accident. Their mother left years ago and is clearly an unfit parent, even though she returns to collect the boys and move them to Arizona. Candace reluctantly agrees to take the boys in mainly to spite the mother, to whom she takes an instant dislike. The rest of the novel follows the uneasy relationship between the two boys, Kyle and Klint, who are coping with the death of their father, and Candace, a woman whose motherly instincts are non-existent.
The main issue with the book is that there is simply too much going on. There are two stories, one set in the past during Candace's experiences in Spain and one in the present. The present day story is narrated from 3 points of view: Candace, Kyle (the sensitive, more emotionally open boy), and her Spanish butler/friend, Luis. However, the "voice" between these three perspectives isn't varied enough. Kyle in particular seems inauthentic as his chapters don't always read like that of a young teenager. Sure, he's mature for his age, but I've never known a teenager to be that insightful. Candace Jack is exactly what one would expect of a wealthy older woman--always concerned with the proper way of dressing, speaking, eating, behaving, etc. If she had been more salty and cantankerous it would have given the novel more energy and perhaps more suspense. She has flashes of humor, but they're sparse. These first person points of view also lead to a lot of telling and not showing. Most of the chapters are presented as internal dialogue in which the character reflects on the progress being made in forming the tentative bonds that may eventually bring them together as a family. Instead of reflections, I would have preferred to see more in the moment interactions between the characters. The Luis chapters serve primarily to explain what happened in Candace's life decades ago.
Despite its predictability and its flaws, there are some compelling moments, some witty dialogue, and I admire O'Dell's refusal to shy away from the dark corners of life. For me, the back story of Candace and the bullfighter are the most interesting, as are Luis's stories about being a boy in Spain. These stories made me wish an entire novel had been dedicated to Candace's youth. As it is, the competing story lines never seem to get the breathing room they need to come alive.