Ben Hanson, the protagonist of Patrick Somerville’s fourth novel, This Bright River, is a loser. When the novel opens he’s been in jail and gone through a million-dollar trust fund—how, he can’t really say—and still doesn’t know what to do with himself. In the meantime he’s turned up at the St. Helens, Wisconsin, home of his recently deceased uncle, having been deputized by his family to sell it and pocket 25 percent of the sale. His family, at least, knows he’s down and out.
Lauren Sheehan, on the other hand, isn’t a loser. Lauren is just unlucky, and has fled to St. Helens, her childhood home, after surviving a disastrous marriage. She and Ben knew each other briefly and uncomfortably in high school. Now, these unhappy and rudderless people meet again.
Of course, there are many obstacles for this sad-sack couple to overcome before they find peace, if not happiness. A lot of it has to with their own inertia, their utter inability to go forward until some past traumas are resolved. In Ben’s case, his problems are tangled up in his wealthy parents and his almost-but-not-quite perfect sister, who took her trust fund and quadrupled it. There’s also Ben’s former friend, who not only stole Ben’s idea for a now wildly successful computer game, but his girlfriend as well. Most of all, there’s Ben’s unfinished business with his weird, brilliant, long-dead cousin, Wayne. In Lauren’s case, it’s her memories of her erratic upbringing and rackety mother, her calamitous stint as a doctor in Africa and her ex-husband, all of which have combined to give her a massive case of PTSD.
Somerville is excellent in telling this peculiarly 21st-century story about two youngish people who can’t quite get themselves together despite the advantages of brains and money. He’s also adept at unveiling those secrets that families keep hidden, most of all from themselves—despite a couple of over-the-top scenes and lurid revelations that briefly unbalance the narrative. Still, we learn to pull for Ben and Lauren as they grope and stumble their way out of the personal cul-de-sacs they’ve found themselves in. Somerville is confident and skillful enough as writer to dare to be hopeful.