The O'Briens

The O'Briens

3.7 10
by Peter Behrens

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An unforgettable saga of love, loss, and exhilarating change spanning half a century in the lives of a restless family, from the author of the acclaimed novel The Law of Dreams.
The O’Briens is a family story unlike any told before, a tale that pours straight from the heart of a splendid, tragic, ambitious clan. In Joe

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An unforgettable saga of love, loss, and exhilarating change spanning half a century in the lives of a restless family, from the author of the acclaimed novel The Law of Dreams.
The O’Briens is a family story unlike any told before, a tale that pours straight from the heart of a splendid, tragic, ambitious clan. In Joe O’Brien—grandson of a potato-famine emigrant, and a backwoods boy, railroad magnate, patriarch, brooding soul—Peter Behrens gives us a fiercely compelling man who exchanges isolation and poverty in the Canadian wilds for a share in the dazzling riches and consuming sorrows of the twentieth century.
When Joe meets Iseult Wilkins in Venice, California, the story of their courtship—told in Behrens’s gorgeous, honed style—becomes the first movement in a symphony of the generations. Husband and wife, brothers, sisters-in-law, children and grandchildren, the O’Briens engage unselfconsciously with their century, and we experience their times not as historical tableaux but as lives passionately lived. At the heart of this clan—at the heart of the novel—is mystery and madness grounded in the history of Irish sorrow. The O’Briens is the story of a man, a marriage, and a family, told with epic precision and wondrous imagination.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Afamily saga spans the 20th century, from Pontiac County, Quebec, to Venice Beach, Calif., and beyond, through two world wars and countless intimate tragedies, in Behrens’s powerful second novel (after The Law of Dreams). Joe O’Brien, the eldest of five children, takes on the role of patriarch at age 13 when his father is killed in the Boer War and his family struggles to make a life in harsh northern Quebec. Joe’s business savvy, the power he feels in his bloodline, a strong work ethic, and a mentor in a well-traveled local priest help Joe build a lumber business by the time he’s 15. But difficulties remain: their new stepfather, who married their mother six months after their father’s death, molests Joe’s little sisters and hardens all the O’Briens—to his own detriment. This is a family possessed of a “strange, rough beauty,” as the priest describes them, and it’s this dichotomy that keeps them struggling internally long after they leave Pontiac County. Joe wins a construction contract for a railroad project that takes him to the Selkirk mountains of British Columbia and then to Venice, Calif., where, en route to Mexico, he visits his brother, Grattan, and meets Iseult Wilkins, who has just taken the first risk of her life by moving into her own apartment near the Beach. Iseult is soon on friendly terms with not only Grattan and Joe but also their gruff sister Elise, who sells the young woman a camera. By choosing Joe, Iseult welcomes a riskier, messy existence, and what follows, as their children age and the couple grows apart, is just that. Moments of grace and romance are rocked by cruel words and violence in this epic, a piece of rough beauty itself. Agent: Sarah Burnes, the Gernert Company. (Mar.)
Library Journal
In a family saga that begins in 1887, we follow Joe O'Brien through a harsh childhood in the Canadian bush, then into the wider world where three siblings enter the religious life, another dabbles in real estate, and Joe builds railroads. On a business trip to Venice, CA, he meets and marries Iseult and brings her back to Canada to live. Over their years together, Joe becomes the wealthy owner of a construction company, occasionally escaping to New York for alcoholic benders, while Iseult dedicates herself to their three children, her photography, and helping the less fortunate. Through births and deaths, love and wars, they struggle to make sense of themselves and their marriage. VERDICT While Behrens's (The Law of Dreams) characters are engaging and the history of the various cities, budding industries, and wars expertly handled, the most interesting parts of the story are summarily explained and less important scenes are given more ink. Still, Behrens's writing is strong. For readers interested in Canadian history and the early 20th century. [See Prepub Alert, 9/11/11.]—Joy Humphrey, Pepperdine Univ. Law Lib., Malibu, CA
Kirkus Reviews
Spanning 60 years, this chronicle of an Irish-Canadian family is the second novel from the Canadian Behrens (The Law of Dreams, 2006). It's 1900, and the five O'Brien siblings are struggling to survive in barren rural Quebec. Their father has died fighting overseas; their sickly mother has married again, a wastrel. Everything depends on 13-year-old Joe, the oldest. When he learns their stepfather has been molesting his two sisters, he passes an early manhood test by stomping him half to death, then becomes a breadwinner (small logging jobs). At 17, his mother dies, and, needing room to grow, he heads West with brother Grattan, having parked the three youngest with nuns and Jesuits. Waiting for him there, though she doesn't know it yet, is lovely Iseult, another refugee from the East, another orphan. She has bought herself a bungalow in Venice, Calif.; Grattan was the realtor. By now Joe is 25 and building a railroad in the Canadian Rockies. After a whirlwind courtship, they marry, the perfect couple, tempered by hardship yet ready for more risk. So far, so good; there are glimpses of the elemental in human nature. But then Behrens stops digging, becoming an observer of a marriage with the usual personal and historical markers. Babies: they lose one, keep three. Business booms, more construction projects after the railroad. Returning East, to Montreal. World War I. Grattan, a fighter pilot and decorated hero. Prohibition. Grattan bootlegging. Marital crisis; Iseult bolts. Reconciliation. World War II. Letters from the front. A son dies; a son-in-law survives. The jerky forward motion begs some profound questions, left unanswered. Behrens is an effective storyteller, but his idiosyncratic vision is not yet fully formed.
James McElroy
As befits a saga so ambitious in design, there is an able mixture of agony and ecstasy throughout. Time and time again, Behrens proves himself a first-rate seanchaí, the Irish term for a storyteller, by bringing the O'Brien clan to life on the page. En route, he fashions a topographically capacious narrative that relishes the scents of Santa Barbara, the pastoral beauty of the Ojai Valley and the tidal mantras of coastal Maine.
—The Washington Post
John Vernon
…impressive…[Behrens's] narration…says no more than it needs to. Its exactitude sometimes embodies a lyricism that's never dreamy, always useful and precise…The O'Briens is a major accomplishment.
—The New York Times Book Review
From the Publisher
“Behrens proves himself a first-rate storyteller. . . . As befits a saga so ambitious in design, there is an able mixture of agony and ecstasy throughout.” —The Washington Post

"Impressive . . . World War II hovers in this novel’s path like flak and rips the lives of the novel’s characters to shreds. The last hundred pages are a powerful evocation of that war’s effect . . . A major accomplishment.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A fascinating depiction of how Irish sorrow ripples through time.” —Bookpage
“Epic in its scope . . . lifetimes unfold in its pages. That the lives hold our attention so closely is a tribute to Behrens’s beautiful writing, and a reminder of just how vital, brutal, and pervasive love is.” —Huffington Post

“Brimming with character and incident, even more ambitious in scope than its prizewinning predecessor, The Law of Dreams. . . . Behrens celebrates the warmth of human attachments without pretending they can ever entirely dispel the existential chill of mortality and loneliness.” —The Daily Beast

“Gritty and nimble. . . . The O’Briens has the surprising, sometimes-random quality of real life rather than the plotted-ness of a conventional novel.” —The Columbus Dispatch

“A deftly painted portrait of a marriage.” —The Seattle Times

“Peter Behrens’s family saga The O’Briens spans the first half of the Canadian twentieth century, finding a parallel epic in an unforgettable narrative of marriage.” —

“This is a saga that warrants your attention. This is a story whose quiet brilliance can’t be ignored. It’s an intimate epic, if that makes sense—a portrait of an entire world through the lens of a single bloodline. All the joy and passion, all the anger and fear, all the love and loss involved in simply living and being—that’s what Peter Behrens has captured with The O’Briens.” —The Maine Edge

“Impressive in its scope and ambitious in its goals. Some of [the] descriptions are flat-out jaw-dropping . . . In giving his family a past few of them knew existed, Behrens has made The O’Briens unforgettably alive.” —The Globe and Mail

“Having read both Buddenbrooks and The O’Briens this summer, I can affirm they are definitely in the same league—great, juicy tales that will make you take a second look at annoying relatives. They are, after all, part of the big picture, otherwise known as history and destiny.” —The Gazette (Montreal)

“Illuminating . . . An epic along the lines of Middlesex in the way it follows a family through time and examines the results of their actions . . . A brooding novel, engrossing in its scope and detail, The O’Briens keeps sight of the family’s personal stories amid the larger history of much of the twentieth century.” —Booklist

Powerful . . . Moments of grace and romance are rocked by cruel words and violence in this epic, a piece of rough beauty itself.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.38(w) x 9.88(h) x 1.28(d)

Read an Excerpt

The old priest waltzed with each of the O’Brien children while his pretty housekeeper, Mme Painchaud, operated the Victrola. She was a widow whose husband had been killed at the sawmill. Sliding the disc from its paper sleeve, she carefully placed it on the turntable and started turning the crank. As the needle settled onto the disc, a Strauss waltz began bleating from the machine’s horn, which resembled, Joe O’Brien thought, some gigantic dark flower that bees would enter to sip nectar and rub fertile dust from their legs.
This was in Pontiac County, Quebec, in the early 1900s. The Pontiac. Most of the people up there were farmers, though it really was a fur country, a timber country, and perhaps never should have been farmed. People from the longhouse nations had skimmed through in birchbark canoes, taking game, taking beaver, never so much as scratching the meagre soil. Lumbermen had come for the white pine and moved on as soon as they had taken the choicest timber. The early settlers were Famine Irish, and French Canadians moving up from overcrowded parishes along the St. Lawrence: people hungry for land, with nowhere else to go. The children dancing with the old priest were two sisters and three brothers, of whom Joe O’Brien was the oldest. There were stories that their grandfather had been a horse trader in New Mexico and a buffalo hunter in Rupert’s Land before taking up a farm in Sheen Township and piloting log rafts on the Ottawa. Every few years he left his wife and children and went venturing, sometimes as far as California, once back to Ireland. One spring he did not return, and he was never seen again. One story said he had drowned at Cape Horn, another that he’d been robbed and murdered in Texas.
There was a restless instinct in the family, an appetite for geography and change. On St. Patrick’s Day 1900, Joe’s father, Michael O’Brien, left his wife and children and joined a regiment of cavalry being raised at Montreal to fight the Boers.
Joe O’Brien had inherited from his father the Black Irish colouring: pale skin, blue eyes, and jet black hair. The others—Grattan and Tom, Hope and Kate—were mostly fair (Hope was a redhead), with pale blue eyes and skin that was pink in winter, tawny in summer. They all had good teeth and long legs and rarely were ill. Their mother, Ellenora, had lived all her life in the clearings and knew the herbs growing wild, which mushrooms were safe to eat and which weren’t, and by which streams the choicest fiddleheads could be found. She made sea pie, using every kind of wild meat. If a child took sick she brewed maroon tea with treebark and dried gooseberries. She made poultices from leaves, herbs, and scraps of cloth, and if someone had a fever she burned dried grass and brushed smoke over their heads, muttering spells using Algonquin and Irish words that no one, not even herself, really understood.
In the old priest’s house the children were learning table manners and geometry as well as the waltz. And absorbing a way of seeing the world as a mystery—layered, rich. The old priest, Father Jeremiah Lillis, SJ, was a New York Irishman, short, barrel-chested, and nearly seventy when he came into the Pontiac. The remote parish was his first pastoral appointment. Before banishment to Canada he had been a scholar, a teacher, a dreamer. He had been sent into exile after it came to the attention of his superiors that certain funds belonging to the New York house were missing. In fact the old man had given away the order’s money, as well as his own, to various men and women whom he loved. For these sins, and a few others, he had been dispatched to the Pontiac.
The stout little priest shaved infrequently, so the rasp of his cheek was always rough and sharp, and his breath smelled of cigars and sweet wine. Leading his partner, he would hum the melody, his shoes bussing the Tabriz carpet, building small static charges that sparkled at his fingertips.
On the train north, leafing through the Relations of Brébeuf and the other Jesuit martyrs, he had read of the seventeenth-century black robes sent as missionaries into the same country only to have their hearts eaten by Indians. By the time the train halted at the Canadian border he was in tears, and very tempted to disembark, but he had nowhere else to go.  He had his trunks and crates and what remained of his collections of oil paintings and china, his table silver and beloved Persian carpets, but the Monsignor had sent him off without enough cash in his purse even for a return ticket to New York. So he remained aboard the train and came eventually to his remote and lonely parish, St. Jerome the Hermit, at Sheen, where he met Joe O’Brien during that first, awful northern summer of mosquitoes and forest fires, of air limned with smoke and smutted with cinders.
The black-haired boy had come by the rectory, selling firewood. “You’ll want nine cords, Father. What I have is mostly beech, with some maple and birch and some pine. No spruce, guaranteed. Four dollars a cord, bucked into two-foot lengths, split, delivered, and stacked. You’ll not get a better price.”
Later the priest would decide that the young O’Briens, and even their haggard mother, had a strange, rough beauty. What was it about young Joe especially? The blackness, the pallor? The clear blue eyes? Was it the boy’s gift for silence? On his own part, it wasn’t lust. He had many times burned with lust, and he was done with it. At least, he would never again confuse it with love.
The priest was unpacking and shelving his books in the room he had decided to use for his study when Joe returned with a wagon and the first two cords. He began toting load after load of firewood up the rocky little path and into the woodshed, using a canvas sling and a tumpline around his forehead. Father Lillis had thought himself the loneliest person in the world, but watching Joe at work, he decided that the black-haired boy—in his silence, in the ferocious way he drove himself—might be even lonelier.
On the second day Joe got his two younger brothers at work on the stacking, but he did most of the carrying himself, the tumpline taut on his brow, neck muscles supporting the weight, body bent and braced. As if he were struggling down Broadway, the old priest thought, in the maw of a wicked wind. He brought out a jug of lemonade and insisted that Joe pause long enough to take a glass.
“Why so fast, lad? Now, what’s the rush? You’re killing yourself.”
“It’s easier to run than walk, Father.”
The old priest believed in the accessibility of the spirit world, though the dogma of his own religion was against it. In Paris, in New York, and once in Worcester, Massachusetts, he had visited the sage-scented, candlelit parlours of table-rapping mediums. It was wicked and he risked burning in hell for his apostasy, but for much of his life he had been attending séances, wearing a cheap business suit as a disguise.
Perhaps the old priest was a fool for love. Or perhaps, as he hoped, exile and loss had clarified his vision. In any case, there it was: a blackhaired boy; brackish, smoky air with shafts of nearly purple light falling between the shadows of big pines; and an old, disgraced priest feeling all of a sudden powerfully, mystically, spiritually needed. He gave himself permission to become the boy’s father in spirit. Whether Joe ever reciprocated, ever felt himself to be his son, was never clear to the old priest, who tried telling himself that it didn’t matter.

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Meet the Author

Peter Behrens is the author of The Law of Dreams (which received Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and was published around the world to wide acclaim) and Night Driving, a collection of short stories. His stories and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic and Tin House. Honors he has received include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program.

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The O'Briens 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I enjoy stories steep in family values and where family matters above everything else as the family struggles to survive in the turmoil of the world it finds itself it. The O'Briens is the first Peter Behrens book I read and it fulfills the love and bond found in strong families caught in a whirlpool of life. With rich characters centered on Joe, this book brings with it a depth and insight I found educative. It reminded me of Hans in Disciples of Fortune and the stories in the Ballantyne novels. The story is also written with a savviness that I find fascinating. The plot is well developed and the writing is uniformly consistent. In short, I enjoyed the page-turner.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While I finished the book, as I got towards the end I was still waiting for something to happen. Nothing really did. It is a story about a family, or part of a family if you don't count the two sisters who were put in a convent, like it or not. At first, one expects great things to happen, or at least, interesting things. Aside from a few false starts which appear to go somewhere, they don't.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
reader75LL More than 1 year ago
Good family saga. Overall an interesting story.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is absolutely no character development in this story...and I use the word story lightly....The story skips eras, there is no one to like in this book.
proofreadersp More than 1 year ago
I was disappointed