In Chris Bohjalian's absorbing new novel, Before You Know Kindness, a family's outwardly serene existence is shattered by one violent moment on an ill-fated summer night. As the aftermath of this event is depicted, Bohjalian effectively draws the reader into the inner lives of every family member, each of whom is dealing with the tragic event in his or her own unique way.

Interwoven into this detailed family portrait are gun-control and animal-rights issues, as well as a keen observation of our litigious society. Meet the Setons, an upper-class, all-American extended family that gathers for a week each year at their sprawling summer estate in New Hampshire to indulge in days at the country club, cocktails on the porch and numerous badminton sessions. This summer is no different from any other until the night 12-year-old Charlotte brandishes a hunting rifle discovered in the trunk of her uncle John's car and accidentally shoots her father after mistaking him for a deer, irreparably crushing his right arm. Her father, Spencer, is a key figure in FERAL, a militant animal rights organization. As the family copes with the pain of Spencer's debilitating injury and the rift the ensuing accident creates between the vegan Spencer and John, whose gun is at the center of this tragic incident, the folks at FERAL gear up for a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer hoping it will further their own cause.

One of the novel's strengths is that the author refuses to take definitive sides on the issue of deer hunting, laying out the pros and cons and allowing the reader to make an educated personal decision. Bohjalian's character depictions are strong and complex, and readers will find themselves caring about the Seton clan. The lawyers and representatives of FERAL are less intricately drawn, and sometimes the action drags a bit when they are on the scene, but overall Before You Know Kindness is an engrossing story that entertains while making you think.

Rebecca Krasney Stropoli lives and works in New York City.

 

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