In the Land of the Living

Thanks to TLC Book Tours, we're pleased to present a review for In the Land of the Living, a new coming of age novel by Austin Ratner. Make sure to check out the rest of the tour stops to see other reviews!

By Austin Ratner
Published on March 12th 2013
Published by Reagan Arthur Books
Source: ARC for blog tour
A dazzling story of fathers, sons, and brothers - bound by love, divided by history.

The Auberons are a lovably neurotic, infernally intelligent family who love and hate each other-and themselves-- in equal measure. Driven both by grief at his young mother's death and war with his distant, abusive immigrant father, patriarch Isidore almost attains the life of his dreams: he works his way through Harvard and then medical school; he marries a beautiful and even-keeled girl; in his father-in-law, he finds the father he always wanted; and he becomes a father himself. He has talent, but he also has rage, and happiness is not meant to be his for very long. Isidore's sons, Leo and Mack, haunted by the mythic, epic proportions of their father's heroics and the tragic events that marked their early lives, have alternately relied upon and disappointed one another since the day Mack was born. For Leo, who is angry at the world but angrier at himself, the burden of the past shapes his future: sexual awakening, first love, and restless attempts live up to his father's ideals. Just when Leo reaches a crossroads between potential self-destruction and new freedom, Mack invites him on a road trip from Los Angeles to Cleveland. As the brothers make their way east, and towards understanding, their battles and reconciliations illuminate the power of family to both destroy and empower-and the price and rewards of independence. Part family saga, part coming-of-age story, In the Land of the Living is a kinetic, fresh, bawdy yet earnest shot to the heart of a novel about coping with death, and figuring out how and why to live.
Let's get some of this out of the way first:  I don't want to say that I didn't like this book.  But I can't say that I enjoyed it all that much, either.  Ultimately, I think I just didn't get it -- the style of writing was just not to my tastes.  I liked the essence of the story but the execution didn't always work for me.  The writing style seems like it was being overly intellectual just to show off how smartly written it is.  I've never read anything else by this author, so I can't tell if this is his general style, or just a tone taken on for this story.  It was a hard slog through the book sometimes, and I'll admit that I did a lot of skimming, as the story veers off into seemingly unimportant anecdotes and tangents fairly frequently.  Characters appear for a while and then drop off the page -- they're around just for as long as they're important, and no longer.  There's not much of a  traditional plot; the book is more devoted to a character study of Isidore, and later Leo Auberon, and we are treated to often incomplete snippets of life for these men.

My own qualms with the writing style aside, I liked the overall idea of the story.  Isidore is an angry young man, spurred on by a distant, abusive father and a fairly dysfunctional upbringing.  He works hard to rise above his beginnings, graduating from Harvard and becoming a medical doctor.  His eldest son, Leo, is precocious from an early age and very sensitive.  Isidore dies when Leo is three, and from then on, Leo is constantly in his father's shadow, and wants nothing more than to grow up to emulate his father and continue his legacy, only Leo is prone to depression, is socially awkward and incredibly volatile. He does well in school but never connects with others, which becomes even more of a challenge during his college years.  I found myself rooting for Isidore despite his shortcomings, but with Leo, all I wanted to do was get him some help to get his life in order.

In the Land of the Living is a coming of age story, chronicling the two Auberon boys from childhood through adulthood, and seeing how they cope with their difficulties.  Isidore eventually rises to the challenge; Leo often seems to crumble under the pressure, alienating friends, family, and especially his brother Max.  The last third of the book focuses on the tentative reconciliation between the brothers, as Isidore is drafted to help Max with a cross-country move.  They have a lot of differences and their drive doesn't solve all of their problems, but you do see maybe some glimmer of hope that they'll be able to reconcile.

Overall, the book was a difficult read but the themes -- growing up, family, death, expectations, failure, pressure -- were very familiar to me, which made reading worthwhile.  

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