Before You Know Kindness

( 28 )

Overview

Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of Midwives, presents his most ambitious and multi-layered novel to date--examining wildly divisive issues in today’s America with his trademark emotional heft and spellbinding storytelling skill.On a balmy July night in New Hampshire a shot rings out in a garden, and a man falls to the ground, terribly wounded. The wounded man is Spencer McCullough, the shot that hit him was fired–accidentally?–by his adolescent daughter Charlotte. With this shattering moment of violence, ...
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Overview

Chris Bohjalian, bestselling author of Midwives, presents his most ambitious and multi-layered novel to date--examining wildly divisive issues in today’s America with his trademark emotional heft and spellbinding storytelling skill.On a balmy July night in New Hampshire a shot rings out in a garden, and a man falls to the ground, terribly wounded. The wounded man is Spencer McCullough, the shot that hit him was fired–accidentally?–by his adolescent daughter Charlotte. With this shattering moment of violence, Chris Bohjalian launches the best kind of literate page-turner: suspenseful, wryly funny, and humane.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Before You Know Kindness may very well be his best. . . . Masterly . . . timely [and] well-wrought." –The Boston Globe

"An irresistible read. Moving from quiet domestic drama to legal thriller." –The Washington Post

"A dark psychological dance of family estrangements, lies and self-righteousness . . . plenty of finely wrought characters and thought-provoking personal and political drama." –The Seattle Times

"Extraordinary. . . . Bohjalian has had much success in the past, including a selection as an Oprah Book Club author. Before You Know Kindness is better than anything he's written before." –Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

From The Critics
(starred review) Bohjalian's new novel is a focused look at how a family copes with a tragic accident and how their own deeply held beliefs and desires affect their relationships with each other. Every summer, Nan Seton has her daughter and son and their respective families up to her New Hampshire summer home. Her daughter, Catherine, is married to Spencer, an animal rights activist, and the two have a precocious 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte. Her son, John, has two children, quiet 10-year-old Willow and baby Patrick, with his wife, Sara. John also has a secret; he's taken up hunting. When Charlotte, under the influence of stolen beer and pot from a teenage party, finds John's gun, she fires it at what she thinks is a deer in the distance but is actually her father. Though Spencer lives, the damage caused by the gun leaves him crippled, and the company he works for, FERAL, wants to use his injury to rail against guns and hunters, which creates significant rifts in the extended family. Bohjalian's elegant, refined writing makes even the most ordinary details of family life fascinating, and his characters leap off the pages as very real, flawed, but completely sympathetic human beings. Bohjalian manages to examine some very weighty issues without ever coming off as preachy or pedantic. A triumph. -Kristine Huntley
Booklist
(starred review) Bohjalian's new novel is a focused look at how a family copes with a tragic accident and how their own deeply held beliefs and desires affect their relationships with each other. Every summer, Nan Seton has her daughter and son and their respective families up to her New Hampshire summer home. Her daughter, Catherine, is married to Spencer, an animal rights activist, and the two have a precocious 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte. Her son, John, has two children, quiet 10-year-old Willow and baby Patrick, with his wife, Sara. John also has a secret; he's taken up hunting. When Charlotte, under the influence of stolen beer and pot from a teenage party, finds John's gun, she fires it at what she thinks is a deer in the distance but is actually her father. Though Spencer lives, the damage caused by the gun leaves him crippled, and the company he works for, FERAL, wants to use his injury to rail against guns and hunters, which creates significant rifts in the extended family. Bohjalian's elegant, refined writing makes even the most ordinary details of family life fascinating, and his characters leap off the pages as very real, flawed, but completely sympathetic human beings. Bohjalian manages to examine some very weighty issues without ever coming off as preachy or pedantic. A triumph. -Kristine Huntley
Publishers Weekly
Bohjalian's new novel begins with a literal bang: a bullet from a hunting rifle accidentally strikes Spencer McCullough, an extreme advocate for animal rights, leaving him seriously wounded. The weapon-owned by his brother-in-law, John, and shot by his 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte-becomes the center of a lawsuit and media circus led by Spencer's employer, FERAL (Federation for Animal Liberation), a dead ringer for PETA. The many-faceted satire Bohjalian (Midwives, etc.) crafts out of these events revolves around Spencer and Jon's families, but also involves a host of secondary figures. Bohjalian excels at getting inside each character's head with shifts of diction and perspective, though he makes it difficult for readers to connect with any one in particular. This is in part because his portraits are often unsympathetic; the characters are allowed to hoist themselves on their own petards. While some are credibly flawed-Spencer is both a loving father and an obnoxious activist-others are cartoonishly mocked with their own thoughts, like high-powered attorney Paige, who mourns the loss of her leather chairs and briefcases, hidden away for as long as FERAL is a lucrative client. If there is a grounded center to this work, it is 1o-year-old Willow, Spencer's niece, who distinguishes herself from this baggy ensemble by always trying to do the right thing. She alone is spared the narrator's irony, and it is Willow, years after the accident, who has the last word. Bohjalian's skewering of the animal rights movement gets the better of his domestic drama, but his skillful storytelling will engage readers. Agent, Yellow Barn Books. (Oct.) Forecast: More like Midwives and Trans-Sister Radio than the recent, more intimate The Buffalo Soldier, this patented blend of social commentary and soul-searching moral drama for the public radio crowd should do well for Bohjalian. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
KLIATT
Spenser McCullough—animal rights activist, father, husband, son—is accidentally shot with his brother-in-law's rifle by his teenage daughter on the first pages of this novel. The reverberations of that rifle shot make up the plot of the novel and the members of his family and his associates at his workplace fill out the character list. Everyone takes a turn being analyzed and fleshed out as the author looks at the social issues of animal rights and the legal issues connected with them, and, more importantly, at the family relationships that are altered when a disaster, especially one fraught with so much philosophical baggage, occurs. Bohjalian is a modern master at looking at families under stress and has used the familiar pattern of something unexpected happening to good people that causes them to reconsider their beliefs and their relationships. In this novel, he does it again. His writing style is not difficult, but the questions he raises are and will elicit much discussion among readers. Since the most sensible character is Willow, the youngest character in the novel, mature young readers will easily relate and may learn something about unintended consequences of rash acts. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2004, Random House, Vintage, 429p., Ages 15 to adult.
—Nola Theiss
Library Journal
All it takes is a loaded hunting rifle, badly handled, to shatter the pleasure of ten summers spent by the extended Seton family at their New Hampshire country home. From the author of the best-selling Midwives; with a regional tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The privileged summer of a prosperous family is shortened by a bullet in the night. Courteously observing dramatic unities, Oprah-blessed Bohjalian (Midwives, 1997; The Buffalo Soldier, 2002, etc.), America's answer to Joanna Trollope, sees to it that the jammed rifle in the back of Vermont lawyer John Seton's borrowed Volvo goes off to critical effect when it's fired by 12-year-old-going-on-16 Charlotte McCollough into her father's right shoulder. The great irony in this suavely perceptive story is that novice hunter Seton's bullet had been intended for a deer, a deep dark secret hitherto kept from the brutally winged Spencer McCollough, Seton's brother-in-law and the public face of FERAL, an animal activist organization. Spencer has been vegan since repenting of the murder of countless lobsters as a kitchen laborer during his college years, and his dedication to the well being of animals is deep and long-standing. That dedication, Bohjalian politely points out, has not always extended to the animals in his own herd-wife Catherine, a meat-sneaking Brearley instructor, and daughter Charlotte. In fact, his vegetarian rigidities and professional absences have so distressed Catherine that she was ready to discuss separation just before the pot- and beer-befuddled Charlotte fired the rifle at what she thought might be the deer that had ruined that summer's ambitious vegetable garden. Nan Seton, Catherine and John's immensely energetic, capable, and prosperous mother, manages the immediate effects of the crisis, which occurred at her New Hampshire cottage, but she is helpless to patch the rift that develops between the families of her two children when Spencer refuses to forgive his deeplyrepentant brother-in-law and allows FERAL to push for publicity and a lawsuit. The balance of power rests with Charlotte's younger cousin Willow, a real sweetheart who'd shared that spliff with Charlotte hours before the disaster. The finely drawn scenes and characters here will suck in all but the hardest-hearted. Pretty much irresistible.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400031658
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/9/2005
  • Series: Vintage Contemporaries Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 149,564
  • Product dimensions: 5.19 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Chris Bohjalian
CHRIS BOHJALIAN is the bestselling author of nine novels, including Midwives (a Publishers Weekly Best Book and an Oprah’s Book Club selection), The Buffalo Soldier, and Trans-Sister Radio, as well as Idyll Banter, a collection of his magazine essays and newspaper columns. His work has been translated into seventeen languages and published in twenty countries. He lives in Vermont with his wife and daughter.

From the Hardcover edition.

Biography

It was March 1986 when Chris Bohjalian made a decision that would have an incalculable impact on his writing. He and his wife had just hailed a taxi home to Brooklyn after a party in Manhattan's East Village when they suddenly found themselves on a wild and terrifying 45-minute ride. The crazed cabbie, speeding through red lights and ignoring stop signs, ultimately dropped the shaken couple off... in front of a crack house being stormed by the police. It was then that Bohjalian and his wife decided that the time had come to flee the city for pastoral Vermont. This incident and the couple's subsequent move to New England not only inspired a series of columns titled "Idyll Banter" (later compiled into a book of the same name), but a string of books that would cause Bohjalian to be hailed as one of the most humane, original, and beloved writers of his time.

While Bohjalian's Manhattan murder mystery A Killing in the Real World was a somewhat quiet debut, follow-up novels (many of which are set in his adopted state) have established him as a writer to watch. A stickler for research, he fills his plotlines with rich, historically accurate details. But he never loses sight of what really draws readers into a story: multi-dimensional characters they can relate to.

The selection of his 1997 novel Midwives for Oprah's Book Club established Bohjalian as a force to be reckoned with, igniting a string of critically acclaimed crowd pleasers. His literary thriller The Double Bind was a Barnes & Noble Recommends pick in 2007.

Good To Know

Bohjalian's fascination with the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald extends beyond the author's prominent influence on The Double Bind. In an interview with Loaded Shelf.com, Bohjalian estimated that he owns "at least 42 different editions of books by or about F. Scott Fitzgerald."

. Two of Chris Bojalian's novels have been adapted into critically acclaimed TV movies. An adaptation of Past the Bleachers with Richard Dean Anderson was made in 1995, and a version of Midwives starring Sissy Spacek and Peter Coyote debuted in 2001.

In our interview with Bohjalian, he shared some fascinating and fun facts about himself:

"I was the heaviest child, by far, in my second-grade class. My mother had to buy my pants for me at a store called the "Husky Boys Shop," and still she had to hem the cuffs up around my knees. I hope this experience, traumatizing as it was, made me at least marginally more sensitive to people around me."

"I have a friend with Down syndrome, a teenage boy who is capable of remembering the librettos from entire musicals the first or second time he hears them. The two of us belt them out together whenever we're driving anywhere in a car.

"I am a pretty avid bicyclist. The other day I was biking alone on a thin path in the woods near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, and suddenly before me I saw three bears. At first I saw only two, and initially I thought they were cats. Then I thought they were dogs. Finally, just as I was approaching them and they started to scurry off the path and into the thick brush, I understood they were bears. Bear cubs, to be precise. Which is exactly when their mother, no more than five or six feet to my left, reared up on her hind legs, her very furry paws and very sharp claws raised above her head in a gesture that an optimist might consider a wave and guy on a bike might consider something a tad more threatening. Because she was standing on a slight incline, I was eye level with her stomach -- an eventual destination that seemed frighteningly plausible. I have never biked so fast in my life in the woods. I may never have biked so fast in my life on a paved road."

"I do have hobbies -- I garden and bike, for example -- but there's nothing in the world that gives me even a fraction of the pleasure that I derive from hanging around with my wife and daughter."

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    1. Hometown:
      Lincoln, Vermont
    1. Date of Birth:
      August 12, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      White Plains, New York
    1. Education:
      Amherst College
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

The sun was up over Washington, Lafayette, and the trio of nearby cannonball-shaped mountains that were called the Three Graces, and Nan Seton—elderly but far from frail—sat sipping her morning coffee on a chaise lounge on the Victorian house's wraparound porch. She noted how the sun was rising much later now than it had even two or three weeks ago: It was already the twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth of July (it disturbed her that she couldn't grab the precise date right now from the air), and her children would be arriving tomorrow. Friday.

A golden retriever—old like her but not nearly so energetic—lolled near her feet on the outdoor rug.

She had been on the porch close to half an hour and even the coffee in the stovetop percolator she had brought outside with her was cold, when she heard her granddaughters pound their way down the stairs. The older girl, Charlotte, was twelve; the younger one, Willow (a name that drove Grandmother crazy both for its absolute lack of any family resonance and its complete New Age inanity), was ten.

The girls collapsed into the two wicker chairs near the outdoor table, opposite their grandmother and her chaise. She saw they both had sleep in their eyes and their hair wasn't brushed. They were still in their nightgowns, their feet were bare, and Charlotte was sitting in such a fashion—the sole of one foot wedged against her other leg's thigh—that her nightgown had bunched up near her waist and she was offering anyone who cared to see an altogether indelicate and (in Nan's opinion) appalling show of flesh.

"Good morning," she said to them, trying hard to resist the urge to put down her cup and saucer and pull Charlotte's nightgown back down over her knee. "How are my two little wildflowers?"

"Sleepy," Charlotte said, her voice already the uninterested drawl of an urban teenager.

"You girls are up early. Any special reason?"

"There's a bird on the roof," Charlotte said.

"A woodpecker," Willow added, and she reached down to pet the drowsing dog.

Nan nodded. She decided the bird must have been on the roof over the kitchen porch on the other side of the house, because otherwise she, too, would have heard him just now. "They don't normally drum this late in the season," she said to her granddaughters. "They—"

"Trust me, we are not making this up," Charlotte said. "It sounds like there's some guy up there and he's trying to open a tin of Altoids with a machine gun." The girl had two tiny hillocks starting to emerge on her chest. Not yet breasts and not visible in this particular nightgown. But they were evident in bathing suits and T-shirts. Her eyes were the shape of perfectly symmetrical almonds, her nose was small, and her mouth was a luscious pucker at once waiflike and impudent. She lacked her mother's paralyzingly sensual red hair, but her mane was thick and dark with natural hints of henna, and it fell on her shoulders like a cape. In a few years, Charlotte would be gorgeous, an absolute knockout. For the moment, however, she was in that murky world between childhood and serious adolescence. In one light she might pass for ten; in another she might be mistaken for fourteen.

"She didn't say we were making anything up," Willow murmured, and then she did exactly what her grandmother wanted most in the world that very moment: She reached over to her cousin from Manhattan and pulled the older girl's nightgown down over her knee so that taut and tanned twelve-year-old thigh once again was decently covered.

"If I had a gun, I would have shot it," Charlotte grumbled, widening her eyes as she spoke because she understood her remark was so gloriously inflammatory. But then—and here was that child—she still lacked the anarchic courage of a truly angry adolescent, and so she allowed herself a retraction of sorts. "Well, not it, of course. Dad would completely disown me if I ever did something like that. But maybe I would have shot near it. Scared it. Scared its beak off."

"Do you know why a woodpecker might drum in July?" Nan asked them.

"Because it's an idiot."

"Charlotte—" Willow began, but her cousin cut her off.

"It is! Why do you think we have the expression birdbrain? "

The woman watched Willow's round face carefully. The girl was two years younger than Charlotte, and she lived in northern Vermont—barely two hours from this house, actually. She had worried this whole month that Charlotte would (and the word had come to her the moment she had spoken to her own adult children that spring when they had begun planning the girls' annual summer stay in New Hampshire) corrupt young Willow. So far that hadn't happened, but she knew there was still plenty of time. She saw now that Willow was more hurt by Charlotte's tone than impressed by her attitude. The girl was gazing down at her toenails, and the salmon-colored polish that she had layered on them the night before. Her feet were elegant and small. The soles were smooth, the skin was soft.

"It's not likely the bird is stupid, Charlotte," Nan said. "He's either boasting of his responsibility for a second clutch of eggs or he's lonely and still trying to find a mate."

"I wish I spoke woodpecker, then. I'd tell him to go write a personal ad. It would be a lot quieter."

"Have you seen the crow?" Willow asked her grandmother.

"Yes, why?"

"It's so big. I never think of crows as big. But twice yesterday near the garden—by the apple trees—I saw it."

Charlotte rolled her eyes. "It's probably a raven then. Ravens are much huger. Right, Grandmother?"

"No, it is indeed a crow. There's a family with a nest at the top of one of the white pines near the strawberry patch. Try an experiment later today, if you feel like it. Before we leave for the club, place a dime in the driveway near the trees. Maybe even tilt it on its side so it catches the sun. When we return, there's a good chance the dime will be gone."

"Oh, good," Charlotte said, and she smiled. "A woodpecker so dim he thinks bashing on the roof will get him a girlfriend and a crow who's a petty thief. What nice birds you have, Grandmother."

"He wants the dime because it's shiny," Nan said simply, as she carefully placed the wicker tray that held her coffee on the table beside the chaise and stood up. "Now, what would you two like for breakfast? I actually have some pancake batter in the refrigerator from yesterday and, of course, sausages—"

"Dad would freak if he knew how much meat you were trying to feed us," Charlotte told her.

"Yes, your father probably would. You don't have to eat it. But Willow and I still eat—"

"Dead things."

"Yes, we do."

Willow's hair was the color of a sand dollar that has not yet been bleached by the sun. She looked up now, brushed her bangs away from her eyes, and said to her grandmother, "Maybe I'll just have pancakes this morning, too, please."

"What? No sausages?" Nan asked, unable to hide the surprise in her voice.

"No, thank you. Not today."

"Hallelujah," Charlotte said happily, and then she climbed off the chair and ran up the stairs to get dressed. The dog lifted his head, the vibrations from the human on the stairs causing his spot on the porch to shudder beneath his snout. Willow paused for a moment, and it seemed to her grandmother that there was something more she wanted to say. But then she stood, too, shrugged her shoulders and raced up the steps after her cousin.

AS SHE DROPPED the pancake batter—after nearly twenty-four hours in the refrigerator, it was thicker than pudding—onto the electric skillet, the phone rang. Nan Seton had never bothered to purchase a cordless phone, and so she made a mental note as she scooted in her slippers across the long kitchen to keep the call brief: She did not want the pancakes—which, because the batter was substantial and heavy, reminded her of small loofah sponges on the griddle—to wind up looking like charcoal briquettes.

"Hello?"

"Hi, Nan. It's Marguerite."

"I'm making the girls breakfast."

"Oh, I'll just be a minute. Do you remember how you noticed at the club yesterday that Walter Durnip's color wasn't very good?"

"Vaguely. He looked a little gray."

"He did, he did. Well, he died."

She sat on the wooden stool by the phone, and nodded to herself.

"How?"

"In his sleep."

"That's how I want to go. What was it? A heart attack? A stroke?"

"I don't know. But when he went to bed, he didn't say anything to Elizabeth about how he felt. He just went to sleep, and when Elizabeth woke up this morning she knew right away he was dead."

"He was eighty-four, wasn't he?"

"Something like that."

"He wasn't even ill."

"At least not visibly."

"Oh, we would have known if Walter was ill. He wasn't particularly stoic."

Nan heard her friend laugh, but she hadn't meant this as a joke. It was, in her mind, a simple reiteration of an obvious fact: Walter Durnip was a man, and men were notoriously unwilling to keep pain to themselves—which was where, more times than not, it belonged. As a general rule, old people who talked about their ailments made Nan Seton uncomfortable. Too much... body.

"Elizabeth doesn't know for sure when she's going to have the funeral yet, but it will probably be the day after tomorrow. Saturday."

"Saturday? Too bad. Oh, well. At least by then I'll have a houseful, so the girls won't have to go. John and Catherine arrive tomorrow," she said, referring not to a husband and a wife but to her son and her daughter. Nan knew from years of conversations exactly like this one with her friend Marguerite that she did not need to explain that when she said Catherine she meant Catherine and her husband, Spencer, and when she said John she meant John, his wife, Sara, and—now—their infant son, Patrick.

"How long are they staying?"

"Catherine and Spencer are both taking next week off. Isn't that nice? They'll be here for nine days—"

"And John and Sara are bringing the baby, right?"

"Of course."

"You will have a houseful."

"John and Sara will only be here for the weekend. Till Monday morning. Still, it will be good fun. I'm sure the girls miss their parents. The only hard part is going to be dinner because Spencer is just so difficult."

"Being a vegetarian is no big deal, Nan. Lots of people are!"

"There are degrees. And most people don't obsess about it the way he does or lecture their dinner companions the way he does. Soy milk. Soy hot dogs on the grill. Tofu. Yuck. It just makes things so complicated because I never know what to buy."

"Make him cook!"

"He does. Sometimes that's worse. Everything always seems to have lentils in it."

Upstairs in the bedroom above the dining room she heard a colossal thud and then she heard the girls laughing hysterically. Charlotte, she knew from experience, always woke up in a foul mood but tended to cheer up as the morning progressed. By lunchtime, she would be charming. Willow, on the other hand, seemed to grow tired as the day wore on and if she was going to be cranky (and it was generally rare for the younger cousin to grow irritable) it was likely to be at the very end of the day. Late afternoon, just before dinner. After they had returned from the club, where she had the children in a regimen of swimming, tennis, golf, and junior bridge lessons.

"How is Elizabeth doing?" Nan asked, referring back to her and Mar-guerite's mutual friend, a woman who—like her and Marguerite—was now a widow.

"Oh, I believe she's fine," Marguerite told her, her voice as light as a dandelion puffball in May.

"Good. Walter was a lot of work, wasn't he?"

"A lot of work," Marguerite agreed.

Across the kitchen, the deep black circles around the outer edges of the loofah sponge pancakes were spreading into the centers, and the acrid smell of badly burned batter was starting to waft through the house. Quickly Nan said good-bye and hung up. She flipped the pancakes, telling herself that if she scraped the creosote-like sludge off the bottom and served each one with the undercooked side up the girls would never know the difference. She didn't believe this for a second, but she wasn't about to waste all that good leftover batter.

WHILE THE GIRLS were picking apart their grandmother's pancakes with their forks—each curious in her own way as to exactly how the edges of the pancakes could appear charbroiled while the insides were the consistency of mayonnaise—Charlotte's father, Spencer, was standing before 150 executives and middle managers from the American Association of Meat Substitutes in the Ticonderoga Room in a conference center in Westchester County. The Ticonderoga Room was the largest of a series of meeting rooms in this wing of the building, all of which seemed to have been named after regional Revolutionary War landmarks (the Saratoga, the Delaware, the Yorktown Heights), though Spencer had yet to see anything anywhere in the conference center that in the slightest way reflected a colonial motif. Not so much as a bellhop in knickers and a tricornered hat, or a plugged-up wrought-iron cannon and hitching post along the exteriors.

Spencer was asked to speak here this morning both to provide the group with some light breakfast entertainment and to inspire them in their ongoing efforts to garner more (and more) refrigerator and freezer case space in the nation's mainstream supermarkets for their garden burgers and faux sausages, their Fakin Bacon and Foney Baloney, their ground round made from seaweed and soy protein.

In today's speech, before he got to his routine slides of the slaughterhouse in North Carolina that sent thirty-two thousand desperately frightened, squealing hogs to their death every single day (many of them dunked by mistake in vats of scalding water while still half-alive), he played a television commercial on the room's three large TV monitors. The ad was for a more individualized torture chamber called the Microwave Home Lobster Steamer. He chose this particular commercial to warm up the crowd—get them good and indignant before they had even finished their bagels and muffins and vegan granola—because this morning he was beginning his speech with his own restaurant experiences when he was nineteen, his very first summer in Sugar Hill. He guessed he was choosing this part of his life because he and Catherine would be flying to New Hampshire tomorrow for their annual summer vacation.

He had already told the crowd of the restaurant's snappish dying lobsters, those behemoth earwigs on steroids, and then of the busloads of senior citizens in their thin plastic bibs who came to the Steer by the Shore to devour them. They would come for dinner after gazing upon the craggy visage of the Old Man of the Mountain in nearby Franconia Notch—a curmudgeon who had since slid down the side of the cliff—someone inevitably observing that the natural granite bust indeed had a certain Daniel Webster-like resemblance from the side but from the front looked like nothing more than an outcropping of shale and rock.

"No one could cleaver a live lobster as quickly as I could," he said now, segueing from his well-practiced Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve-Step confessional tone into what he considered his Baptist preacher's crescendo. "That's not hyperbole, that's not immodesty. That's fact. I could kill two in a minute. One night I killed sixty-four in half an hour and change—enough for the whole bus! That evening every single man and woman on the tour ordered the restaurant's signature meal, the baked stuffed one-and-one-quarter-pound Maine lobster, and—honest to God, I am not exaggerating—I might have split even more if the restaurant's ovens had been larger, because there were three buddies from Texas on that sightseeing jaunt with their wives, and each of them volunteered his belief that the only thing better than twenty ounces of baked stuffed Maine lobster... was forty!"

The audience laughed with him, appalled, and he shook his head now, suggesting that in hindsight he couldn't believe what he had done. And, the truth was, he couldn't. He remembered those evenings well, especially the nights when there would be those sightseeing tours. As soon as the bus would coast into the dirt-and-gravel parking lot, he would retrieve the wooden coop with the torpid crustaceans from the walk-in refrigerator so that the creatures were right there beside him on the floor. Then, like an automaton, he would bend over and grab one from the container that reeked of low tide and pin the writhing, asphyxiating decapod (five pairs of appendages on the thorax, a word he'd found in the entry on lobsters in the dusty encyclopedia from the Coolidge administration he'd discovered in a spare bedroom in Catherine's mother's house) on its back. He would uncoil the springy ribbon of tail and hold down the bulbous crusher claw with his fingers for the split second it took him to line up the cleaver on the lobster's carapace (an unbuttoned sports jacket, he thought at the time) so that the animal's abdomen was exposed. Then he would press the metal blade straight down as it breathed.

But not, alas, breathed its last.

The point was to get the creature into the 450-degree oven while it was still alive.

And—whether he was cooking five or six lobsters on a given night or five or six dozen—after he had sliced the animal lengthwise down to the exoskeleton, he would pack the open cavity with rouxlike gobs of Ritz cracker crumbs and margarine, sprinkle paprika on the stuffing, and slide him off the cutting board and onto a baking sheet. Rarely did the animal have an aluminum leaf to itself, usually it would be one of three or four lobsters pressed together, the claws of one beside the tail of another, Y to Y to Y. Then he would deposit the creatures into the oven on whichever rack was not at that moment occupied by swirls of sole (wrapped around ice-cream-scoop dollops of the same Ritz cracker crumb and margarine paste), slabs of bluefish, or chicken breasts buried beneath bubbling puddles of tomato sauce.

"The animal would cook for ten to twelve minutes. I presumed it finished dying within the very first, but that probably wasn't the case," he said, his voice softening both for effect and because he knew this was true and it disturbed him.

First it's the whales, then it's the dolphins. Next it will be the tuna. It'll never stop, you know, until someone's protecting the bloody lobsters! The words of a whaler—an otherwise charismatic old bird with a furrowed, hard-bitten face—spoken to Spencer the year before last at a gathering of the International Whaling Commission he'd attended in Japan. He remembered their discussion now, as he did often when he talked about lobsters. Well, yes, he'd told the whaler. That's exactly the point.

In addition to being Lobster Boy—Spencer's title was actually second chef, but the grown men who were waiters all called him Lobster Boy—he also prepared the sole and the bluefish and the chicken Parmesan at the restaurant. The first chef, a burly guy who'd cooked on an aircraft carrier before enrolling in culinary school when he was done with the navy, worked behind a grill the length of a shuffleboard court in the dining room itself, searing the steaks and the chops before any customers who wanted to watch.

When Spencer would return to his girlfriend's mother's house, he knew he was sweaty from his hours beside the hot ovens and from his exertions—he moved quickly and he always pressed the cleaver down hard, convinced even then that it hurt the animal less if the evisceration was fast—but he knew he smelled mostly of fish. Consequently, in late June and July and early August, when the nights were still warm, he kept a bathing suit in the car and sometimes he would detour to Echo Lake before going home. There he would dive into the water and swim along the surface until he felt free of the smell of dead lobsters and sole, and the skin on his fingers no longer had an oily film from the bluefish.

He never went skinny-dipping, even though it was dark and he was alone, because he knew the lake was filled with crayfish, and he felt awfully vulnerable among them when he was naked. Most weren't even as big as his thumb and he didn't believe they would try to exact revenge for the way he slaughtered so many of their saltwater genus kin, but the idea had crossed his mind and so he always wore a suit—just in case.

He didn't tell his audience this part of his story. But even at the podium he recalled those swims vividly.

"I must admit, at nineteen I took no small amount of pride in my abilities as second chef, and I understood that Lobster Boy was a compliment of sorts," he continued. "No one killed lobsters with my supernatural speed, and speed mattered greatly to the waiters—and, yes, to the diners—at the Steer by the Shore."

The fact was that Spencer took pride in most of what he did, even then, whether it was cranking out a five-page essay on Gogol at the last minute—usually between 6 a.m. and the start of class at 9:10—playing pickup basketball at the gym his first spring semester, or butchering live lobsters in the summer that followed. He knew he was intolerant of ineptitude, and he understood that as he grew further into adulthood he would be the sort of person who was easily annoyed by incompetence. He sensed this both because he was impatient and because he viewed his impatience as a virtue. Serene people annoyed him.

"At the end of the summer," he said, lowering his voice once more as he prepared to build toward the particular moment in his life that marked the turning point for the sinner—the carnivore!—that he knew he once was, "I took the bus from New Hampshire to the Port Authority in Manhattan. I lugged my suitcase across town to Grand Central in sweltering, Bombay-like late August heat. At nineteen, it never crossed my mind to take a cab, and the only subways I could find then were those that followed the island's avenues north and south. I met my father at the platform where the 5:57 to Scarsdale was waiting."

By design Spencer did not add that once he and his father had boarded the train, he asked to see pictures of the new house. While Spencer had been having sex with his girlfriend in northern New Hampshire and scuppering lobsters, his parents had decided to move. Again.

"That night at dinner"—in, alas, an unfamiliar dining room in an unfamiliar house—"I realized that something had changed. The lamb—an animal nothing at all like a lobster, I know—made me gag. There I was with my parents and my sister and a serving plate layered with skewers of shish kabob, and I thought I was going to be ill. Really and truly ill. And I knew—I knew!—at precisely that instant that never again was I going to yearn for meat or poultry or fish and that I would always find the slick, rubbery touch of bologna revolting. I might never have nightmares about lobsters, but nor would I ever again dream of meat."

With his thumb he flipped the small button on the remote in his right hand that dimmed the room's overhead lights and then the second one that controlled his PowerPoint presentation slides, and instantly the FERAL logo—an image of lions and tigers and bears and cows and chickens and dogs and goldfish and cats and (at Spencer's insistence) lobsters planted on a grid on a lentil-shaped oval that FERAL's critics insisted was a subliminal hand grenade—filled the screen. (End of excerpt)

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. Before You Know Kindness opens with a blunt, clinical description of Spencer’s injuries. Is the preface a purely objective report or does it begin to develop some of the general themes of the novel? What does it convey about the Setons and their way of life?

2. Spencer’s speech pp. 16–19 and Nan’s descriptions of his behavior pp. 27–29 offer varying insights into his personality. Does the tone of the writing influence your impressions of him? What specific details bring out the differences between Spencer’s self-perceptions and the way others might view him?

3. How does Bohjalian portray FERAL and the people who work there? Do you think this is an accurate portrait of the animal-rights movement? What reasons might Bohjalian have for distorting their attitudes and activities?

4. Sara thinks, “The problem with Nan–and with John and Catherine, and yes, Spencer when they were all together–was that they could never just . . . be.” [p. 38] In what ways is this attributable to Nan and Richard Seton’s marriage and the atmosphere in which John and Catherine grew up? Why does Spencer, whose background is so different, demonstrate the same quality?

5. How persuasive are John’s explanations of why he took up hunting? What does the argument that hunting “is the most merciful way humans had to manage the herd” [p. 73] imply about the relationship between humans and the natural world? Does John’s anguish after the accident alter his view of hunting in general? Do you think that it should?

6. In talking to Willow about Catherine and Spencer, Charlotte says, “Sometimes I get pissed at both of them. I don’t think Mom would be the way she is if Dad wasn’t this public wacko.” [p. 117] Are Charlotte’s complaints typical of a teen-ager or does Spencer’s profession put an unusual burden on her? Is her criticism of her mother’s flirting well-founded?

7. Bohjalian suggests several times that Charlotte may have subconsciously wanted to injure her father. She herself says, “There were lots of reasons for pointing Uncle John’s weapon at what was moving at the edge of the garden. . . . ” [p. 133] and acknowledges that others might think, “She was just doing it to get your attention. . . . ”[p. 135] Is this speculation supported by the way Bohjalian describes the accident? By Charlotte’s subsequent behavior and her conversations with Willow?

8. The accident and Spencer’s permanent disability provide FERAL with an irresistible opportunity to make their case against hunting. Is their decision to bring a lawsuit totally reprehensible? Do the depictions of Dominique, Paige, and Keenan undermine the validity of their case?

9. Self-interest plays a part not only in FERAL’s reaction to the tragedy. Are you sympathetic to John’s concerns that the lawsuit will effect his professional reputation, as well as his fear that “for as long as he lived he would be an imbecile in the eyes of his daughter” [p. 142]? How did you feel as Catherine vacillates in the second half of the novel between wanting to help her husband and wanting to leave him?

10. “Nan was a particular mystery to [Sara]. Exactly what was it that she didn’t want to think about?”[p. 176] Were you puzzled by Nan as well? By the end of the novel, did you feel you had a better understanding of her?

11. What would have happened if Charlotte and Willow had not confessed to drinking and smoking pot on the night of the shooting? Were you relieved that Spencer decided not to pursue the lawsuit?

12. Although the plot revolves around Spencer, at various point in the novel each character moves to center stage to comment on the events and their repercussions. Which members of the family most appealed to you and why? How successful is Bohjalian at capturing their individual points of view and personalities? Did your opinions of them change as the novel progressed?

13. Does Bohjalian present both sides of the controversy in an evenhanded way? Which characters appear to embody his own point of view? What is the ultimate message of Before You Know Kindness?

14. Do you think that the issues Bohjalian examines in Before You Know Kindness are more important (or more relevant) than the topics he explored in (for example) Midwives or The Law of Similars or Trans-Sister Radio?

15. Why did Bohjalian use a passage from The Secret Garden as one of the epigraphs? In what ways is the children’s classic relevant to Before You Know Kindness?

16. Why did Bohjalian take his title from the poem, "Kindness," by Naomi Shihab Nye, a portion of which serves as the other epigraph?

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 28 )
Rating Distribution

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(5)

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(6)

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(9)

2 Star

(5)

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(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 28 Customer Reviews
  • Posted October 17, 2008

    A lesson in frustration

    Reading this book has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Bohjalian seems to be following a series of instructions from a writing seminar: incorporate description into dialogue, maintain interest by alternating between various scenes/characters, find "quirky" expressions ("a decade and CHANGE") and scatter them about to create "voice." The problem is that these tools seem too obvious--I'm conscious of him working VERY HARD, and don't seem to work. <BR/><BR/>I care about what happens to these people just enough to make me soldier on (I, too, read just about everything, and face life with an optimism that even if this moment is less than satisfying, what comes next might be different), but I find the parents incredibly inept and everyone quite whiny and self-indulgent. I fear that I will be disappointed at the end (I'm ~ 2/3 of the way through) either because I have been emotionally manipulated, or because everything is going to tie up in such a nice little bow it could be packaged by Hallmark. Either way, I'm not optimistic.<BR/><BR/>I also get the feeling that the author thinks I'm too stupid to recognize causality, even after I've been hit over the head with the same analogies or reminded of the same event over and over again. The book might have been decent with a more assertive editor, but I guess we won't ever know. If this is his "best work" so far, I'm certainly not interested in reading anything further.

    3 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 15, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    this deserves 4.5 stars...

    Before You Know Kindness is the story of a family thrown into an uproar after tragedy strikes. Twelve year old Charlotte accidentally shoots her father. She thought he was a deer. The result is the permanent loss of his right arm....and a press conference that almost tears a family apart. The big issue here is that Charlotte's father, Spencer, is head of a staunch animal rights organization called FERAL. FERAL wants to use this family's tragedy to highlight it's stance against guns and hunting, and that's where the family is divided. The problem is, that the infamous gun in this story belongs to the brother of Spencer's wife. You'll have to read the book to learn how and why Spencer's daughter Charlotte came to have that loaded gun in her hands the night she shot her father.

    Before You Know Kindness has some really interesting characters. Bohjalian does a great job at character development and making the reader care. Nobody in this novel is perfect. But that just makes the story more realistic.

    I was really drawn to the issues in Before You Know Kindness. Vegans vs. meat eaters. Animal rights activist vs. hunters. This is a very candid story covering these very divisive issues. Both sides are covered though, and no matter what your own persuasion, this is a good read. As the synopsis says, "Bohjalian manages to examine some very weighty issues without ever coming off as preachy or pedantic. A triumph."

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2007

    excellent book

    I highly recommend this book. I could not stop reading. Although the story focuses on an ordinary family, the author shows us how unexpected events can turn everyone's life upside down.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2006

    Another Wonderful Book by Chris Bohjalian

    I have read everything he has written and enjoyed them all so much but this one changed me.. If you read this book and don't come across with a more gentle way about you, I think you may have missed the true meaning.. As the group 10CC once said, 'The Things We Do For Love'

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 9, 2013

    Fun read

    This is a very good story which could have been much better written. A good editor could have made it much better. As it is written, it is a fun read which will drive most English teachers crazy.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 25, 2012

    Not worth it

    This book was difficult to finish. I kept hoping it would redeem itself, but it did not. Given that you know what happens right from the beginning, it took way too long (180+ pages) to get to the main event. The only plot that kept the book going was some preteen drama about getting wasted. The plot was unidimensional and not worthy of the almost 500 pages it took to get to the end of it. The dialogue was lacking and, for the preteen characters, utterly unbelievable. Maybe if this book was under $5 and you were low on cash...but otherwise, pass.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Annoying Characters and Too Political

    I didn't hate this book. I actually finished it in a couple of days. The plot was enough to keep me going. However, I found most of the characters to be completely annoying or unbelievable. The only likable character, l0 year old Willow, has the maturity and forethought of someone decades older. It was impossible to believe that a child would behave and react the way Willow does. The rest of the characters were simply annoying. Their reactions to their tribulations are childish. I also got sick of the constant talk of animal activism fairly quickly. As an animal lover myself, I didn't think this would bother me. It feels as though the author intends to make the reader feel guilty for any use of animal products. This book was an easy read, but I wouldn't recommend it.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 4, 2007

    Debating whether to finish...

    I'm halfway through this book and I'm stuck. Usually, I'll read anything, and I never drop a book without reading the whole story (I can only think of 1 book I've started and not finished). I feel like this novel is slow and without intensity. I'm not curious about what might happen next, and I'm contemplating moving on. Thoughts?

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 19, 2006

    Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian, a study in humanity.

    This book centers on a fairly ordinary New England family and how they deal with each other in the aftermath of the accidental shooting of a father by his teenage daughter. A conspiracy of circumstances that could be interrupted by nearly every member of the family ends up placing a loaded deer rifle in the hands of an intoxicated teen. Guilt and recriminations are spread all around but focus mostly on the brother-in-law who procrastinated getting a stuck shell removed from the rifle chamber and to a lesser degree on the daughter who pulled the trigger. The shooting is described in detail in the prologue and without that, I would not have made it past the second chapter. I was asking myself throughout the book what is the point? It is for the most part a story about ordinary people leading ordinary lives something most of us don¿t need to read a book about in order to experience. There are no great revelations, no clash of titans, no great lessons on good vs. evil. This is simply a book about how we treat each other as human beings and how those around us hide their true perceptions of us and accommodate opposing wills in order to avoid conflict. I have been reading lately from many genres outside of Science Fiction where I write (as you will note if you scan my reviews.) It has opened my eyes to the world of readers that is out there and I know now that there are light-years between my audience and that of Chris Bohjalian. As he said at a recent conference, if I can sell a book ¿ anyone can ¿ never give up. After reading this novel, I find myself in complete agreement with him. Still, this book did cause me to ask myself the following. Is it the flashy technology and the huge explosions that make a great Science Fiction story, or the young man discovering that the father he never knew is in truth the master of evil? For me it is both and I must conclude that readers who are looking for some flash and bang will find this book to be only half of what it should be. If you¿re content simply with human drama, give this book a try ¿ otherwise I don¿t recommend it.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2005

    Captivating beginning and middle, less intense finish

    I enjoyed the story and thought the beginning and middle of the book were captivating. The family dynamics were very real. Spencer's character models several people in all of our lives - after a tragedy anyone has the propensity to transform their priorities. The relationship between Spencer and his brother-in-law is interesting - while people that have very different belief systems can be close and agree to disagree, the differences must be shared and accepted, not hidden. The novel lost a little of it's intensity in the length and dialogue of the families 'figuring each other out'. When the girls initially started lying about what really happened that night, it seemed serious. I am not sure how but that seriousness lost its gusto and yet the book still relied so much on the discovery of the lie.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 14, 2005

    A funny, beautiful family saga

    Our reading group read this one and we really had a great (and long!) discussion. We always talk a lot about our own families at Reading Group Night, but this book made us all examine how we are raising our children. Also, I don't think it was boring at all. It's serious at times, but never boring.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2005

    Very Disappointed

    The description of this book sounded interesting, but what a disappointment. It was very, very slow and boring. I was not able to get into it at all. None of the characters was likeable. And I was angry that Charlotte was, in my opinion, not being held responsible for what she had done to her father. And the uncle was being blamed more than she was. I found myself waiting for a big trial or something to make the story more interesting and was let down. I got this book from the library so the only consolation was that I did not have to pay for it. It's a shame because I really did enjoy 'Midwives'.....oh well.

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    Posted September 26, 2010

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    Posted March 12, 2009

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