Book Review: The Given Day by Dennis Lehane

The Given Day
The Given Day by Dennis Lehane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn’t totally excited to read this book at first.

I opened it and right at the beginning there’s this whole Babe Ruth thing, and I thought, “Oh, crap. Is this going to be another Underworld (by Don DeLillo) and go into excruciating detail about baseball?”

While it shares elements with Underworld (baseball and J Edgar Hoover, among others), I wouldn’t describe this book as excruciating at all. The biggest beef I had with The Given Day was that there were so many scenes of very detailed violence that it often left me feeling sick to my stomach. If I read it again, I’d count up the number of times the reader hears a bone cracking. My guess is it would be more than 30.

I picked it up because I wanted to learn a little more about Boston’s history, and I did, at least about this small period of the city’s history. I’m still not totally clear about what a Boston Brahmin is, but I’ve got a general idea. I do, however, have a much clearer sense of the intense loyalty people have for the city. As a life-long nomad, I’ve never felt myself very attached to any particular location; it’s enjoyable to me to be inside characters who do have this attachment.

Aside from the violence, my other complaint with the novel was the somewhat contrived feeling it had at times. There was a point about 2/3 through where it seemed like everything was going to crap. People were making bad choices and were caught in untenable situations and being backed into corners. The future looked bleak, but all of a sudden, characters started making sound choices. They were suddenly compassionate and reasoned in their decisions. Bad things happened to them, but against all odds, they came out on top, sometimes in almost comic superhero fashion.

I like the points Lehane was making about family and race and the difficulty of doing the “right” thing when all of the parties involved have a different idea of what’s “right.” I’m glad it wasn’t a short book and that Lehane took at least a little bit of time to explore the large number of characters he included (it saved some from being entirely two-dimensional). I just found the tidy little package in which he tied everything at the end a little disappointing. It was an enjoyable read, but when I closed the back cover, I just kind of said, “Meh.”

And incidentally, I have absolutely no idea why my library put a “mystery” sticker on the spine of this novel.

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