Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian is a study of characters, a slow-paced heft of a novel. It takes place largely at Nan Seton's New Hampshire home, a place where she and her grown children and their children gather every summer. Here is the main cast:
Nan herself is a vigorous woman, scheduling daily activities for her family at the club where she is a member.
Her son, John, is a lawyer who recently took up hunting near his home in Vermont.
John's wife, Sara, is a therapist and new mom (again) to Patrick, who is five months.
Willow is John and Sara's daughter. She is ten, and tender.
Spencer is Nan's son-in-law, who also grew up spending his summers in New Hampshire. He now lives in New York City and works for FERAL, an animal rights organization.
He married Catherine, Nan's daughter, a school teacher in the city.
Their daughter is Charlotte, 12 going on 17.
The characters learn what it takes to make a functional family not so functional when one night Charlotte finds John's hunting rifle in the back of his car and shoots her dad in the shoulder, believing him to be the deer that destroyed their summer garden. We also learn that Catherine is not supportive of her husband's animal rights activity in that it causes him to care more for anonymous animals than for his own family. Willow wants badly to tell everyone what really happened the night of the accident. John really only went hunting once, and had the rifle in the car, loaded, because he couldn't get the bullet out and planned on dropping the gun off with a guy on his way back home from New Hampshire. Spencer believes his shoulder injury is punishment for the pre-animal rights summers he spent as a chef, preparing tray after tray of lobster for tourists. And Nan, the matriarch, wants everyone to get along again and stop sharing their feelings all the time so they can get back to hiking, biking, and swimming.
This book had a quiet suspense and an understated humor. It took me several solid chunks of time to get through, but the chapters are short enough that I could dip in here and there as well. Bohjalian used the words phosphorescent, duress, and telegenic enough times in the book for me to make a mental note of it. I don't know if that has anything to do with the quality of the story, but take that for what you will. He did his homework to create an authentic scenario, though I don't know any family who would act quite like the Setons/Seton-McCulloughs did. The ending of the book also seems to work out pretty well for everyone involved, and though the book hasn't been made into a movie it felt a little Lifetime-y at points. On the whole, I'd say give the 50-page test--if you aren't interested in this family drama by then, you probably won't ever be.