Emily Maxwell, the matriarch of the Maxwell clan, has decided to sell the family's summer cottage on Lake Chautauqua in western New York. Henry, her husband for more than 20 years, has been dead a year, and the novel details the final family gathering at their summer home. Within this environment, the past surrounds every family member but is most prevalent in Emily's children, Ken and Margaret. Both are grown up now and have families of their own but, during this final week on the lake, relive the regrets of their youth. These same mistakes echo in Ken and Margaret's relationships with their own children. As these problems pass from parent to child, they both separate the family members and bond them together. O'Nan's novel becomes filled with the light of the Maxwell family's life, essentially reminding us all of what we have with our own families, no matter how dysfunctional. This same light shows us how little the Bradys ever had to offer in the first place. Francis W. Decker
This time, the hype is true. "At Swim, Two Boys" by Jamie O'Neill (Scribner, $28) is a beautifully written, poetic novel. And what's most surprising is that "At Swim" tackles difficult subject matter with a sure hand, a deft narrative and a fanciful way with language.
The novel follows the lives of two teenagers in Dublin in the year preceding Easter 1916. Jim is a na‹ve lad, a scholar, a quiet boy with plans to be a teacher. Doyler is the adventurous one; a rough youth who is intelligent, but whose penniless background means that he works a midden cart to support him. Jim shines with potential. Doyler seethes with rebellion. They meet at a local beach and quickly form the sort of fast friendship that boys do. They make plans for the coming year: Doyler will teach Jim to swim, and in a year, on Easter Sunday, they'll swim to Muglins Rock far out in the bay. As their plan takes form, the two grow closer and, eventually, fall in love.
A third character simultaneously complicates the story and provides a center for the plot, as well as for the two boys' lives. Anthony MacMurrough is of the upper class, a pederast who has served prison time. Doyler meets him first and profits, literally, from the experience. As the year passes, however, both boys profit far more from MacMurrough on an emotional level.
In "At Swim," O'Neill has created a broad canvas and painted a picture of innocence undone and manhood attained against a sweeping background of Irish politics, religion and the tragedy of Easter Sunday 1916. With this bravura work, O'Neill assures himself a place in the history of distinguished Irish novelists. Don Dale