Brian Falk has been away from his hometown for eleven years. In that time, he has traveled, held a few different jobs, including stints as a writer, and even enjoyed the publication of his first, modestly successful book. But now, nearing his thirtieth birthday, Brian has decided to return to his summer resort hometown to concentrate on writing his second book . . . and, finally, come to grips with his past.
Dabney Dryden, from one of the wealthy, privileged families who came to Charleton, Michigan to spend the summers in their lavish homes there on the shore of Lake Michigan. He and Brian became best friends before they met Jacqueline Morgan, the mesmerizing granddaughter of a local doctor and his wife. The three of them spent lazy summer days together until Labor Day arrived, and Dab and Jackie returned to their off-season homes.
Brian was always aware that he was different from the town’s part-time residents. He was a local — the son, grandson, and great-grandson of men who built and maintained fine boats for their wealthy clientele. Brian’s father anticipated and expected that Brian would join him in running the family business. Brian’s decision to go away to college and then strike out into the world on his own strained his relationship with his father.
The events that transpired that last summer, just before Brian left for college, left him determined to have “nothing more to do with the sordid affairs of the human heart.” After all, aside from his family, the only other two people Brian had really loved up to that point in his life were Dab and Jackie. Now, Brian’s return to Lake Charleton is not only stirring old memories and feelings. It is causing Brian to assess why he has allowed the things that happened so many years ago continue to haunt him and impact his choices.
Eventually, Brian convinces his father to let him work as his assistance in the shop. His father assigns him the most menial, dirty jobs as a way of testing him. But one day he dispatches Brian to bring a beautiful sailboat to the shop that is going to be restored and retrofitted for its owner. The boat was originally built by Brian’s grandfather for one of his good friends — Dr. Morgan, Jackie’s grandfather. As the summer wears on and Brian works at restoring the vessel for the elderly and ailing Dr. Morgan, his own spirit, along with his relationship with his father, appears to finally show signs of restoration, as well.
What emotions will Brian’s inevitable reunions with Dabney and Jackie stir up in Brian? Will he be able to finally find peace? Or will his unresolved emotions ruin his chance for happiness with Alissa, the younger sister of one of his childhood friends, whom he has begun seeing. Time spent with Alissa feels relaxed, easy, and right. But will Brian and Alissa be able to forge a healthy, nurturing relationship?
Thomas Wolfe said “you can’t go home again.” For Brian Falk, going home again is possible, but at what cost? Although little has outwardly changed in what he describes as “a residual bourgeoisie resort village comprised of stately Victorian summer homes lining the more pristine hills and shore-lined lots surrounding a brick downtown district and modest houses, and those surrounding a small harbor,” Brian finds that it takes some time for his boyhood home to actually feel like his home again.
If you want to write about home, go out into the world. If you want to write about the world, go home. You need the juxtaposition of looking at your subject from the perspective of its antithesis I think.
~ Author Ryan C. O’Reilly
Brian arrives from Boston by train in the spring, before the part-time residents arrive and just as the world is awakening from the dark days of winter. After a short stay with his parents, Brian rents an apartment near the heart of downtown and yearns to begin writing his next novel, but the words don’t come. Instead, he goes out for drinks with old friends from school, is initially rebuffed by his father when he attempts to assist him in the shop, and is at loose ends. But he gradually begins to settle in again. He begins writing articles for the local newspaper — coverage of fairs and regattas, mostly — and finds himself attracted to Alissa, the property manager from whom he rents his apartment. But Alissa has her own issues. Trusting is no easier for her than it is for Brian, even though they find that their relationship has an ease to it that neither of them have previously experienced.
O’Reilly gradually offers glimpses into Brian’s past, injecting a scene here, some long-ago dialogue there. But he deftly takes his time unveiling the details about Brian’s youthful interactions with Dab and Jackie that stunted his emotional maturity and have held him back from forming deep, meaningful relationships with people he has encountered in the interim.
Dabney is a typical spoiled brat, indulged his entire life and plagued by a sense of entitlement. He knows better, but he cannot seem to control his destructive behavior, hosting local hangers-on at his parents’ summer home which has now become the site of wild parties and focus of even wilder tales told around town. As boys, Brian and Dab had an extremely close friendship and loved each other deeply, but it obviously confused Dab and his actions caused the relationships to implode. There is a strong sense that Dab would have been a better person if he had been able to remain close to Brian. But, at least from Brian’s perspective, that was impossible under the circumstances. It’s one aspect of the story to which O’Reilly could have devoted more attention and still held his reader’s interest. After all, male friendships are as complicated and intriguing as women’s platonic relationships with each other, and fully explored far less often in works of fiction.
Jackie has not changed from the day that Brian and Dab met her — leopards never lose their spots, of course — and clearly believes that she still has the same hold on Brian. Her life with Dab lacks both a solid foundation and a future, and O’Reilly cleverly teases his readers, forcing them to read on to see if Brian has actually grown more than even he at first realizes — and enough to finally see Jackie as the manipulative narcissist she really is, rather than as the charming and lovable girl he once thought she was.
Fictional Brian has an opportunity that is granted to few of us in our lives: He is able to return to his childhood home, and confront the people who figured so prominently in his youth, getting a first-hand look at how their lives turned out as he examines the state of his own. O’Reilly skillfully times Brian’s revelations so that they feel organic and are believable. O’Reilly allows Brian to place himself in situations that the reader knows are volatile and emotionally reckless, and, accordingly, entirely realistic. Yet each takes Brian one step closer to the truth. Brian also gets the chance to discuss a conversation that took place many years before and learns that he misunderstood its meaning. As a result, he has harbored a misconception that has greatly influenced his beliefs and decisions. Is it too late for Brian to change course?
O’Reilly’s prose is lushly descriptive and insightful. The book’s pace is appropriately gentle and unhurried, almost like the soft waves of the lake upon which Brian triumphantly sails Dr. Morgan’s boat after lovingly working with his father to restore it to its original beauty. As Brian’s father tells him that he wants Brian to take the boat out alone to determine if it is sea-worthy, he reveals to Brian that his father sent him on the same journey many years ago. But there is one glaring difference: While Brian’s father was a mere eleven years old then, Brian is now nearing his thirtieth birthday. Brian’s father, generally a man of few words, is a deeply stirring character. He is a man who wants to help the son he loves completely, despite his own disappointment at his decision not to join him in and eventually take over the family business, become a man. In his estimation, it is definitely time for Brian to deal with his past and move on. He explains his philosophy to Brian:
You know, time is all you need, Brian. Maturity helps us sort out most of these questions. A man doesn’t run away from things that confuse him. He stays put and deals with ’em. If you run away once, you’ll do it again and again. One day, there’ll be no place left to run and you’ll be faced with a god-awful truth — that you’ve pissed away half your life. If don’t want that for you, son. Think about staying here for a while and see how it goes.
Ultimately, the story of Brian’s return home and confrontation with his past is one to which readers will find themselves relating, and, perhaps, wishing they could experience themselves. After all, most people have experienced a relationship with a person like Jackie in their lives — a first love who holds a strong place in their memories and they recall from time to time, perhaps even occasionally pondering “what if . . .” the relationship had worked out. Through O’Reilly’s telling of Brian’s story, however, O’Reilly conveys his belief that the “attachments we make to those people who we first love romantically are like computer viruses. We loved the feeling, not necessarily the person.” Whether or not Brian reaches that conclusion, I cannot reveal. But To Nourish and Consume is an enjoyable book that will leave readers thinking about home and the one that got away long after reading the last page. I look forward to reading more from the very talented and thought-provoking Mr. O’Reilly.