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The Great Wide Open by Douglas Kennedy

Writing.ie | Book Reviews | General Fiction

By Swirl and Thread

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‘All families are secret societies. Realms of intrigue and internal warfare, governed by their own rules…..’

Sometimes a book arrives that initially intrigues, immediately immerses and then just blows your mind. This epic piece of work from Douglas Kennedy was one such book.

The Great Wide Open is a powerful family drama, taking the reader on a journey from Connecticut to Dublin and New York. Just published with Hutchinson (Penguin Random House ), it is a book I got completely lost in and quite frankly was bereft when I finished it. I’ll miss Alice Burns and her family…

From the opening lines of Part One, I was hooked…

‘Nostalgia is the domain of conservatives. All that talk about the good old days when life was simpler. moral and ethical values clearer, and people knew the rules – it’s the lingua franca of anyone who is ill at ease with the shifting mores of now’

Right there I knew I was going to set aside the time and invest in this book, written by an author, whose work I had heard of but had never picked up before. The Great Wide Open asks questions about our families, about our childhood, about the sadness, if any, we may carry with us on our daily journey through life. The Great Wide Open is about one family in particular, The Burns Family. A Catholic father, an ex-vet with a very big chip on his shoulder, a Jewish mother who feels trapped in the burbs after growing up on the streets of New York and three siblings, Peter, Adam and Alice, all fighting the daily negativity and sadness in their lives yet seemingly unable to fix it.

‘Us. The Burns. Two parents born in a time of 1920s abundance that quickly collapsed into hardship and national despondency. Three children, laterally arriving amidst all that mid-century peace and plenty. A quintet of Americans from the upper reaches of the middle class. And a testament – in our disparate, tortured ways – to the mess we make of life’

We are transported back to the early 1970s. Alice Burns is fifteen-years-old and struggling through those awkward teenage years. Alice and her close circle of friends are considered different, outsiders, making them the target for the cool kids, the bullying brigade. Alice likes to spend time alone in her room listening to her music and blocking out her parents arguments and the general grind of life going on around her. Alice suffers her first major traumatic event in these teenage years, eventually leading to her decision to move away to a small private college, a place where her unique qualities are nurtured a little more and where she can flourish, away from the unpleasantness of her home life. Alice settles in well initially. Her mother is upset that she has moved and now that her father frequently travels overseas, Alice’s mother becomes a lost soul who takes her own frustrations, of a life less lived, out on her children.

Alice creates a new home for herself and surprises herself by enjoying her early college years. Her father, at this stage is in Chili, with what appears to be very loose connections to the Pinochet regime. Her conversations with him are sparse and more often than not filled with anger and regrets. Her brothers are off making their own way in life but there is an obvious fracture in the sibling dynamic.

Alice’s trajectory through life is quite heart-breaking. As her college years shift to Trinity College Dublin, Alice negotiates this new city, her new home with great dignity and courage, taking every challenge in her stride. I loved reading this part of the book, the familiarity of the street names, the locations she visits, the iconic Bewley’s cafe for the sticky bun, her flat on Pearse Street. Douglas Kennedy has clearly researched this time in Irish history when The Troubles were on our doorstep and when some cruel fate was inflicted on many because of being in the wrong place at the wrong time…. It’s during this period that I really felt I knew Alice, that she was my college buddy, my drinking buddy, my confidante.

Alice leaves her home in Dublin with a trail of memories behind her, some good and some not so good at all. She becomes almost a recluse on her return to the US seeking out a teaching position in a school away from the madding crowd. Her family are in the throes of one crisis after another and her parent’s marriage is on the rocks.

As time passes Alice does move to New York. The world has changed, as has society. Wall Street is booming. Cocaine is on tap and Ronald Reagan is in power. But for Alice, her heartache is always present. The shadow of her past traumas and the underlying ever-present sadness prevails and she carries these feelings with her no matter which city she lives in. In New York Alice catches up with old friends and makes connections with new ones. The world is witnessing the arrival of an immunodeficiency infection that is sweeping through cities leaving a trail of death in it’s wake. There is a palpable fear. How many must die before the medical world can get a handle on the enormity of this ravaging disease.

The Burns family is a fractured one, a family that has suffered great losses and terrible tragedy. There were times reading this book that I got so caught up in their story, it became real. The parents, the three siblings were real people and this was their real life. It is an absolute tribute to Douglas Kennedy that he can do this to his readers. His writing is superb, the story so very emotive. I was not ready to leave this family behind.

The Great Wide Open is truly a magnificent read, completely compelling and powerful. It is historic in it’s narrative as we are reminded of an era where greed and avarice were both respected and admired, when the dollar was top dog and when the political map was changing.

Alice Burns witnesses her world imploding, her life changing beyond recognition, where her family is engulfed in sadness and heartbreak, almost becoming their norm.

The Great Wide Open is ultimately a coming-of-age story, a voyage of self-discovery and of finding out how one deals with the unhappiness in one’s life. Do we accept it or do we try to change it…

In Alice’s words – ‘We are not just the sum total of everything that has happened to us, but also a testament to the way we have interpreted all that has crossed our path. The music of chance intersecting with the maddening complexities of choice – and how, in the wake of bad judgement and self-sabotage, we so often rewrite the scenario to create one that we can live with.’

(c) Swirl and Thread

Order your copy online here.

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