Tuesday, December 20, 2011

We the Animals

I first became aware of We the Animals, Justin Torres’s debut novel, late last October when I attended a session presented at the 2011 Texas Book Festival by Torres and two other first-time novelists, Chad Harbach (The Art of Fielding) and Amy Waldman (The Submission).  I was impressed enough with each of them to walk away from the session wanting to read all three of the books presented that day.  We the Animals completes that reading cycle for me.  Different as they are, all three novels turned out to be interesting, worthwhile reads that I would probably have otherwise missed, so I am grateful for having had the opportunity to hear their authors speak about them that day.

If I remember correctly, Torres stated in Austin that We the Animals began as a group of individual short pieces, and that it was only later that he realized that he had the makings of a novel on his hands.  By stringing the stories together in chronological order, he has produced that novel (although its brevity makes it as much akin to a novella as to a novel, I think). 

Justin Torres
We the Animals is the story of three brothers who grow up in upstate New York alongside their white mother and Puerto Rican father, two people who have plenty of growing up of their own to do.  The boys’ Brooklyn-born mother became pregnant for the first time at age 14 and her baby’s father was not much older.  As the novel unfolds, it can be difficult to remember that Ma and Paps are still in their twenties as they try to cope with poverty and the challenge of raising three young boys together.  The couple’s passionate relationship creates a family dynamic that will severely test the strength and character of their children.  Fortunately for the boys, they bond in a way that forges a unit stronger than the sum of its individual parts.  

The stories told in We the Animals vary from laugh-out-loud funny ones to tear-jerking sad ones, but taken as a whole, they paint the picture of three boys who somehow thrive despite the hands-off approach by which they are mostly being raised.  They have each other.  They adore their mother and, despite often fearing him, they love their father.  One feels good about their chances - and then comes the book’s jarring last chapter, a piece of the story that changes everything before it.

Rated at: 4.0  

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