Monday, August 10, 2015

A Place We Knew Well: A Book Review

The Cold War era is now far enough in the past to be considered historical, making A PLACE WE KNEW WELL a work of historical fiction.

Set in Florida during the period of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the novel puts us into the heart of a single family that lies in the crosshairs of those Cuban missiles, portraying the stress and madness of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. The book opens with the only child of this family, Charlotte, making a last visit to her father's garage in the present day. There she finds some odd treasures in his safe, and with that author Susan Carol McCarthy pulls her readers into the story. What do the keepsakes mean, you'll wonder, and you'll turn the page.

The story then returns to the past, to the very beginning of military manuevering at a nearby army base. The locals realize that something unusual is up. Charlotte's father Wes, the proud owner of the garage, fought in the Second World War and flew over the remains of Hiroshima. He's fervently against war, you see, and if you don't see it at first you'll get the point repeatedly. The novel gets a bit preachy about the anti-war message.

Charlotte's mother Sarah is teetering on the edge of nervous collapse, the stress of her very existence numbed by prescription drugs. Mother's little helper, the Rolling Stones called those pills. It's a touch of authenticity, to have Sarah popping little yellow pills to deal with her disappointments in life. Those miseries are many, from crushed dreams of a musical career to infertility and misguided medical treatment.

The book starts slow as the military build-up escalates, but most of the action revolves around the ordinary activities of this Florida-based family. There are school functions, business matters to attend to, dresses to buy and meals to eat. Halfway through the author introduces a surprise character from the family's past, and suddenly a deep dark family secret is thrown into the mix. Will the new arrival blow up the family's peaceful existence, and will the Russians deliver those nuclear warheads to Cuba?

The tension ramps up and the novel moves at a more enjoyable pace through the second half. Personal interactions become more complex and the character of Wes develops very nicely as he notices things that the average man did not notice in the early 1960's, like the fact that his wife is falling apart mentally.

After the slog through the first half I was not sure that I liked the novel all that much, but the second half was well-written and held my attention. The book is a short one, a nice weekend read that I would recommend to anyone. The emotional core of the story is fleshed out with incidents of madness as the local populace react to the possibility they could be vaporized at any moment, and the author does a fine job of presenting the atmosphere through which her characters move towards a fitting resolution.

By the way, I received a copy of the book from Penguin's First To Read programme. In case anyone should ask.

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