So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (Book Review) ~ BitterSweetLife

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

So Brave, Young, and Handsome by Leif Enger (Book Review)

Anytime you’re a Rookie of the Year, a Platinum debut artist, or a Best-Selling first-time author, your sophomore season is bound to be a doozie.

Leif Enger’s first published book, Peace Like a River, became a surprise best-seller with a headlong chase plot, strong but endearing characters, a modern-day western motif, and a surprise ending that was both haunting and satisfying. He proved himself as a master of language and a maker of legends and earned your trust as an author.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome (a phrase from a cowboy song), Leif Enger’s second book, is a solid novel with a meandering chase plot, weak but somewhat endearing characters, a modern-day western motif, and an ending that you see coming a mile away and hope you mistake. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable read, and Enger has lost none of the pure writer’s knack that shone through in his first book.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome struck me as a typical second novel in the sense that the characters are sketched with more whimsy and a lighter touch. The book is filled with fledgling desperados, beautiful women and ruthless lawmen, but their stories make them self-effacing. Instead of being carried along by the speed of their passage, you’re prodded to contemplate the foibles of their personalities—sometimes damning, sometimes redeemable. It’s as if Leif Enger backed off a little after scribbling, with fierce creative intensity, his first novel. And why not? Authors need rests too.

Nothing I’ve mentioned so far qualifies as a serious flaw, but I believe the book does have one, an absolutely critical plot point that occurs about halfway through. I read the scenario, wincing, No, that wouldn’t really happen, not with the characters he’s created, and when I compared notes later with Lindsay, her reaction was the same. The repercussions from this interaction control the rest of the novel—but the pivotal sequence of events is unbelievable, based on the way that Enger frames the characters up until that point. As a result, you read the rest of the novel with a feeling of suspended disbelief.

I’m being intentionally vague in my descriptions because, while So Brave, Young, and Handsome fails to measure up to its older brother, Peace Like a River, I still encourage you to read it. Enger is a superb writer with a colorful imagination, and even when he’s not at the top of his game, you experience vivid landscapes, adversarial cat-and-mouse games, adventurous journeys, and portrayals of law and grace that feel and smell like real life.

** Enger has the enviable predicament that only the best of authors encounter—writing to be better than himself. I award So Brave, Young, and Handsome two stars--Well worth your time. Especially if you've already read Peace Like a River and are ready for more. Oh yeah, this one is on the Master Book List.

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Donna said...

I loved "Peace Like A River". I can't imagine that author could ever come up with something that good again.

Jeanette said...

I read his second book first and just finished the first.

I am trying to figure out what plot twist you are referring to in his second book. Without giving anything away, does it involve the gentleman with his tea things set out, the jam and so forth and what happened to him?

Ariel said...

Hi Jeannette! Let's see...the plot twist I have in mind really affects the whole story arc of the book. The lynchpin is how the main protagonist (author) interacts with the salty old lawman. Down the road, I couldn't believe that he (protag) could be as passive and defeatist...the way he allows himself to be bullied leads, of course, to the book's main tragedy.

Does that make sense?

Anonymous said...

I'm really not into this Western stuff, but I loved Peace Like A River (and bought it for my brother too!). I've been thinking about getting So Brave, Young And Handsome - thanks for the review.


Josh Canning said...

Hey Ariel, agree with your synopsis. I just finished the book after loving Peace Like a River. I was disappointed for the same reason. It was difficult to like the protagonist when he seemed turned into such a wimp. You'd expect the main character to grow in that regard, but he shrinks to the point of making the reader lose interest. I kept reading with the hope that he would grow some guts. In the end I wondered, "What was the point of the journey then?"

Hale and Redstart are good characters, but it was difficult to care about the characters as a whole. Still a good writer, but disappointing overall. I hope his next novel has a little more of the first in it.

EYSchmitt said...

What exactly is the meaning of the title? Who is "so brave, young, and handsome" in this story? It puzzles me no end.....


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife