Sunday, April 6, 2008

Spreading Fires by John Knowles

I picked this up at a used bookstore, having no clue what it was about. I read A Separate Peace last year, and really liked it, so I thought I would give Knowles another go. As with A Separate Peace, the dialogue and the character development are nearly impeccable. Knowles has a uncanny ability to describe the inner thoughts of his characters, laying bare their motives and personal demons. As a result his characters ring true to life. They are flawed and not always likable, and therefore all the more human and relatable.

The story is really quite simple. Brendan Lucas, a young American Foreign Service officer, takes a house in the South of France for the summer. Neville came with the house. A cook, butler, and basically a catch-all servant, Neville seems to feel a sense of ownership -- at times bordering on covetousness -- when it comes to the house. Brendan has visitors for the summer. His sister, his friend -- to whom his sister is engaged -- his mother, and his future sister-in-law are all at the house together. Everyone begins to notice that Neville's behavior is getting weirder and weirder, but they are not for sure what to do about it. But while Neville is undoubtedly a little off, he is keenly aware of the deep-seated, dark personal secrets of those he is serving. Everything comes to a climactic end as the summer comes to a close.

There is a palpable sense of tension throughout this entire novel, and Knowles does a good job of maintaining this suspense right up until the end of the story.

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