The story is beautifully constructed. We follow young Richard, then nicknamed Rocky, as a boy in southern Virginia in the late 1970s. He comes to understand the many forms a parent’s love can take, how women are complex and possibly always beyond comprehension, and how music is the Braille of life. His beloved half-brother, Paul, is there to teach him all the things big brothers learn first. And then Paul temporarily abandons Rocky in the woods, ultimately returns him home, and disappears. It’s a terrific set-up to learn that heroes are imperfect.
Rocky is an acute observer, even as he realizes his own cluelessness. Music binds him to Paul— the listening habit, the way words are offered by others as explanation of one’s own feelings. Neil Young is the second guide for Rocky’s education as well as delicious breadcrumbs for the reader. The book title from a cherished Young song, the ‘Old Man’ moniker given to Rocky’s father, and the ‘Cinnamon Girl’ are a few. I’m sure I’ve missed others.
He falls in love often, as young men do, and each extraordinarily different object of his affection brings more understanding, eventually preparing him for the one that matters most. At one point, he begins an affair with a much older neighbor, Patricia, daughter of the new owners of the nearby Twin Oaks Mansion. A Gothic style murder ensues and Paul, having now returned as mysteriously as he left, is suspected of it.
I hope the title does not stop men from picking it up as this is a book for a wide audience. We, as adults, tend to look back over our lives to understand how we turned out as we did. Tarkington has shown us one path that is sweet and rich, instantly identifiable, and full of heart.
Reviewed by Carol Malkin
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