Town Father, Or, Where Graceful Girls Abound
by Kevin Brennan
A Different Kind of Book Review
Maggie assayed the kitchen table, using her index finger to count the settings. There were only the four of them tonight, but still she wanted to count and be sure she hadn’t overlooked anything. It was her night to “host” the book club she and her cousins had formed. The core of the club included herself and her two cousins, Melissa and Mary. Lately, Randy, Mary’s boyfriend, had been joining them.
Well, he’d been joining them because he was already there, already spending weekends at Mary’s house. Maggie smiled. She was looking forward to hearing Randy’s take on Town Father, Or, Where Graceful Girls Abound, the latest novel by Kevin Brennan. She had thought of him a lot while reading the novel, imagining him as Henry. Strangely, though, she didn’t imagine Mary as Avis, Henry’s love, although she certainly wouldn’t say that during their meeting.
The tea kettle interrupted her meditation with its high-pitched squeal and, as if on cue, Melissa pulled up in the driveway and Mary and Randy came bounding down the stairs together. She cast a side-long glance at Mary as Melissa entered the house and gave them all chilly hugs.
“I feel like my fingers might just break off like icicles, they’re so cold.” Melissa reached for her cup after Maggie poured in the hot tea, using it to warm her hands. “You need to knit me some new mittens, Maggie.”
Maggie smirked. “Maybe for your birthday.”
“That’s in July! I need them now!”
Ignoring Melissa’s feigned histrionics, Mary placed the subject of their discussion in the middle of the table. To read Town Father in time for the meeting, they took advantage of a recent sale and downloaded the Kindle versions. But Maggie, ever the purist, had to have a bound paper copy. Well worth the cost for that cover alone, she thought as she gazed at the colorful illustration. She picked it up.
“Well, shall we begin? Since this was my choice, I’ll start. I really enjoyed this novel. At times it felt like such a fun romp, you know? It’s historical fiction, around the 1880s forward, and I really felt like I was reading a book from that time. Sort of the same way I feel when I read Austen. Brennan really captures the language, the sentiments of that time. What made it even more fascinating is it’s a utopian novel, about an idealized community of only women. I know utopian experiments weren’t unheard of then, but still, they were usually based on a style of living, like agrarianism, not a separation of the sexes. I thought the community of Hestia was idyllic. Can you imagine living somewhere where everyone contributes according to their skill and you have none of the competition that sets people against each other?”
Mary stirred her tea. She could easily imagine Maggie in such a community, knitting up clothing for the citizens and getting food and shelter and acceptance in return. She glanced over at Randy. For her part, she could only consider such a thing if Randy were her Henry and she were his Avis. Otherwise, not a chance.
“I enjoyed it, too.” Randy’s voice cracked slightly, which it usually did when he was the center of the three cousins’ attention. Mary tried to keep her smile to herself. Indeed, he was like Henry, the man who becomes the Town Father, who provides a truly organic service to the community of 300 women, making sure that their community will grow. Like Henry, Randy has a moral backbone that won’t break and yet he’s amenable to new ideas. At first, Henry was appalled by his “duties” as Town Father, but he quickly (maybe too quickly, she thought) came around to see himself and his “contributions” as part of a greater ideal.
“You know,” Mary started, wanting to give Randy a chance to gather his thoughts since she knew he was a little bit … shy. “You know, I liked it too, although I would have liked Henry to have been stronger, especially when the circus came to town. I mean, he was there with these women through so much, definitely sensitive to the suspicions of the people near to them, but when that circus comes, he practically runs off with his tail between his legs after the first run-in with the ringleader Hazlitt.”
“But, I think that’s totally in keeping with his character,” Randy said. “He’s a very introspective man and also inclined to blame himself when things go wrong. Remember, he had had his heart broken before.”
Mary blushed as Randy continued, his eyes first directly on her. But as he talked, he looked around, making eye contact with Melissa and Maggie, both of whom seemed to be hanging on his every word.
“I saw a lot of myself in Henry, to be honest. I’d had my heart broken and there was a time when I thought I should just leave, go on some adventure, go somewhere and start over.” He glanced over at Mary and smiled. “Of course, I’m glad now that I didn’t, but, for Henry, it’s exactly what he needed to do. And he’s a man of honor throughout. But he’s naïve, too, not very worldly. It’s almost like he has to leave Hestia to fully realize the importance of Hestia’s mission and to realize how much the community needs him and he needs them.”
Melissa leaned forward, her fingers now comfortably thawed enough for her to tear apart an iced vanilla scone. “I loved the comedy of the novel, too. It was light, not heavy-handed at all, but it was there. Henry was perfect for that. How do you write a novel like this, for today’s audience, without a diffusion of humor, with Henry as the vehicle? I mean, wouldn’t a community like Hestia be like every man’s fantasy? But in other hands, such a novel would deteriorate into something like 50 Shades of Sepia. You need a gullible, good-hearted, and moral gentleman like Henry to keep it from doing that.”
“True.” Randy reached for a slice of banana bread as he spoke. “But he, the author, Brennan, does show what the “average” man would think about Hestia, how debased the women are in the eyes of someone who doesn’t understand. Remember when Henry’s own son returns? That was a heartrending part.”
“Oh, yes, that was genius!” Maggie almost spilled the tea she was pouring into Melissa’s cup. “I was really on the edge of my chair with that section of the novel. And, you’re right, it was a sad part,because you really felt the integrity of Hestia was being threatened, not just by the son who refused to believe in it, but by the fact that it happened at all. It was only because they exiled Paige, one of their own. Well, and that occurred because of the circus … .”
“You can’t keep the world out entirely. And you can’t control what goes on outside in that world.” Randy put his cup down. “You know, the ending surprised me. It was a soft landing, if you know what I mean. The community had had enough drama and at the end, it was time for Henry and Avis to take stock. And it’s interesting because while Henry was definitely in lockstep with the program once he got over the shock, all the time you could feel that he really just wanted to be with one woman. And because of that, well … .” Randy felt Mary’s knee rub against his and he let his voice fade.
“Well.” Maggie sat up straight and Melissa stifled a laugh. Her cousin took her role at these meetings so seriously, she thought. “Well,” Maggie started again. “Shall we vote? I give Town Father 5 stars for originality, humor, and that beautiful cover!”
They all laughed and then, in almost perfect unison, Melissa, Mary and Randy said “Five stars!” and clinked their teacups together.
As the cousins proceeded to dig further into the scones and banana bread that Maggie had baked, Randy sat back and gazed at them. In a way he felt like he might be in his own little Hestia, but he would keep that to himself.
Well, dear friends, if you’ve read this far, I hope my little review has convinced you that you must have a copy of Town Father for yourself.
(This review has appeared elsewhere.)