The Lion Trees by Owen Thomas
Available from OTF Literary
This novel has garnered an eye-popping number of awards. I appreciate knowing up front when a book has won at least one award or been shortlisted for an honor but that generally doesn’t impact my impression. It might, in fact, lead me to anticipate a better-than-average reading experience, which sets me up for disappointment if the work doesn’t meet my personal standards.
The Lion Trees did not disappoint. The awards this novel (or diptych of two novels, depending on which production version you’re reading) has pulled in are all well deserved. The story follows a family of four: the aging parents and two adult children, as they muddle through some astonishing changes in their lives. They are, like most of us, ensnared by the tendrils of past hurts, wounds, harms and mistakes. They do their best to help themselves without hurting others too much.
Or at least, most of them try not to harm others. The father is the big exception here. The depth and breadth of his arrogance and selfishness keeps him from seeing even the smallest part of how arrogant and selfish he truly is. Even when his wife leaves him to live in a lesbian commune, he still doesn’t really see how entrenched he is in his own horrible ways.
But of course glimmers arise. He eventually, through a lot of suffering that is at times poignant and at other times funny, manages to start down the path of change. The remainder of his family—a son, a daughter and that AWOL wife—meanwhile manage to implement rather large changes. Not without their own suffering of course but they come out stronger, better people. As one might hope.
This is a long novel, clocking in at some 550,000 words. It is split into two parts mostly I assume for print purposes, because the physical book cannot easily be created or distributed as a single unit. This does lead to some issues with the transition from the first to the second “book.” At the end of the first part, I turned the page and knew that it doesn’t work well as two separate books. I was fortunate to have read it in electronic version and therefore did not feel the pain of having to go hunt down and then wait for delivery of a second print book.
That being said, the end of the first part is only one clear example of this author’s abilities. I literally read the last few paragraphs at the end of part one with a growing emotional response to the characters’ situations and, somewhere in the back of my head where the critical judge sits always hovering above the reading process, thinking that if the author ended it on that page, he was a genius. I turned the page and saw yes, there’s an end, and so yes, this author is significantly talented.
There are a few flaws in this work. Although the book is presented conceptually as if all the family members are equally important, two of the characters fall into a secondary role. These are the daughter and the wife. The wife receives noticeably less attention than the other three, as well. Taken together, it made me wonder if the author isn’t as familiar with female characters and had some trouble drawing them as fully as men in this narrative.
In some ways, even the men the daughter interacts with have equal roles as her, which strengthens the idea that the author has some trouble drawing women on their own (i.e., without the foil or support of male characters). The wife’s scenes in the all-female commune also don’t resonate with strongly drawn secondary characters in her plotline, so that seems to also point to the need for the author to work a bit on female presentation.
The story also drags a bit in book two. I strongly felt the second part could have been trimmed as much as 150 pages and still held the same emotional resonance and achieved the same plot elements. This might also have solved some of the two-book issue for the print version.
These two issues don’t detract much at all from the superb experience and exceptional writing readers will find in The Lion Trees. Pick up these books, and you’ll surely want more from this author.
I received a copy of this through a Goodreads giveaway.