Wednesday, May 25, 2011

School for the Blind; Dennis McFarland

Author: Dennis McFarland
Publication Year: 1994
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Edition: hardcover
Source: My Stacks
Date Completed: 5/17/2011 
Setting: Florida
Rating: 4/5
Recommend: yes

I'm reading a bit less, and my reviews seem to be getting a bit backlogged, but I always make it a point to review (even briefly) every book I read. Two weeks ago, I chose Dennis McFarland's, School for the Blind as my First Chapter, First Paragraph Tuesday Into , so in case you were curious what I thought about the rest of the book, here goes.

"HIS LIFE'S WORK and ambition fulfilled. Francis Brimm believed the only metamorphosis left him was a slow, affable decline toward death, and so at the age of seventy-three he returned to the town of his youth to retire.  He had been a news photographer--a witness, a messenger amid the world's fire and ashes--and he figured he had earned not only the right to let the world go, but also the poise to let it go with authority. He would read, write, sleep, visit the beach, fish, garden a bit, whatever he pleased--the pastimes, he imagined, of solitary old people of some accomplishment. The medley of images he assembled for this retirement included a cottage with a porch on which he might sit and muse over the prospects of the very next hour, but soon after he had settled into just such a place, he found himself absorbed in entirely different, unexpected ways."

Francis Brimm is a retired photojournalist who has traveled the world. With no wife and no children, he decides to return to his childhood hometown to live out the rest of his years. His sister Muriel, also elderly (5 years older), still lives in their childhood home. An intelligent woman, she is a retired librarian, who had worked at the local "school for the blind". As a retiree, she keeps busy with a life of routines. Soon, although not intentionally, her brother's return to the home of their youth, forces both siblings to deal with issues which have long "blinded" them.

For example, soon after Francis' arrival, his eyes begin playing tricks on him. It was not a one time happening. The image on the ceiling was of a young girl from Normandy from some fifty years earlier surface.  Muriel's response to all this:

"Muriel felt certain the apparition he claimed to see on his bedroom ceiling was only a recurring dream, but if it turned out to be a sort of psychic or supernatural event, she wouldn't be surprised. "

Muriel, soon begins to recall events of the summer in 1928. Their father, a doctor, was an mean drunk; their mother was cold and distant.

In addition to the story of a these siblings trying to make sense of their past, there are subplots which include a murder mystery involving two teens that had gone missing from the "school for the blind" where Muriel had worked. A third person, a pregnant, unmarried housekeeper joins the household and strengthens the feeling of family at a time when the siblings need  kindness the most. 

Without giving away too much about how this story unfolds, I'll just say that it was an ambitious novel, that covered a lot. Initially, I had thought adding a murder mystery to a story about growing old, and making peace with one's imperfect past just wouldn't be a combination that would work, but the author surprised me. McFarland knew just when to add a bit of humor, a tad of sadness, and a level of suspense to make it work.  Although, the novel wasn't perfect, it was enjoyable. The author did a great job of slowly revealing the events of the siblings pasts. I will be anxious to try another book by this author in the future.

21 comments:

  1. This sounds pretty good. I'll have to add it to my list for the next time I'm needing some good escapism.

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  2. I have passed this one up so many times at the library sale. I may need to pick it up next month, if I can find it again.

    Great review!

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  3. I love books about siblings and the fact that this one even has a murder mystery in it makes it even more intriguing.

    Thanks for the review!

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  4. Hi Diane,

    This is another new author, but it sounds like a fascinating and absorbing read and definitely one to look out for.

    I seem to have had a spell of reading books where past lives have been discovered and explored, some better written than others, and I like the notion of adding the murder/mystery aspect into the mix.

    The cover on your hardcover version is great as well, but if you get chance, check out the cover on the paperback version. You would never guess from that cover anything of what the story was about, it's totally misleading and not very relevant.

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/School-Blind-Dennis-McFarland/dp/0804113505/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1306383975&sr=8-4

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  5. Lovely review. I haven't seen this one published in the UK yet. I shall keep an eye out.

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  6. Great review - I like books dealing with alienation and escapism! I am sold!

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  7. Greta post! I will add this one to my list as it seems like one I will enjoy reading. Thank you1

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  8. Though it sounds a bit melancholy, it also sounds intriguing, and like a book that I might need to check out. I like that there is more than the element of mystery to this book and I actually enjoy books that are a tad ambitious. Great review on this one!

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  9. I must say, that one does sound quite good!

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  10. I haven't heard of this one, but it sounds like a wonderful literary novel. I would have balked at too many elements in the story, but I'm glad that it worked!

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  11. I love stories about families who reconnect and have to work through a lifetime worth of issues. I'm not so sure I would enjoy all the subplots though. Sounds like it might get a little confusing. However, the book does sound interesting, so I just might have to give it a shot.

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  12. That does sound ambitious so I'm glad it worked. It is always fun to get a nice surprise like that.

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  13. From your plot description I was also thinking it was a combination that didn't sound like it would work. I'm glad it was better than you thought.

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  14. Wonderful review. I'm getting quite a list of good reads, thanks to you :) Have a great weekend!

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  15. I love it when bloggers uncover gems from the past. This one is new to me and perhaps old to others, but your review has me digging through the stacks to find a copy and read it.

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  16. I'm drawn to this one after your review. I think it would be one that I would enjoy.

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  17. This appeals to me. At my age, I'm drawn to stories about coping with retirement and aging, but adding a mystery to the mix makes it perfect.

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  18. While reading your post, I made a mental connection to Jose Saramego's novel Blindness. It was a fascinating, fascinating look at the condition, and more importantly, at society. You might want to read it sometime, but then again, you might want to stay away from such heavy topics for awhile.

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  19. This author must be quite talented to interweave such seemingly disparate storylines; Muriel seems like she would be a very interesting character :)

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  20. Does sound like there's a lot going on in this novel; "ambitious" can sometimes be good, sometimes bad. Sounds like McFarland managed to make it work.

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  21. Great review. You've hooked me far better than a book jacket ever could. Sounds like a fascinating story.

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