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Characters actually seem like people

Debut creates such a buzz, it's published in two forms at once
by: Courtesy of Doubleday, Shari Goldhagen’s first novel lives up to the advance buzz.

The trick to creating believable characters is in straddling the fine line between reality and compelling fiction.

How often have we stumbled upon a novel where the protagonist is interesting but unconvincing as a member of the human race? Or so repugnant that we stop caring what happens?

Shari Goldhagen's debut, 'Family and Other Accidents,' is both a blessing and a relief - a delightful medley of rich, complex characters and a plot in which you can lose yourself. It is the story of two brothers who, despite their differences and obvious failings, manage to convey what it means to be a family.

Jack and Connor Reed live in the suburbs of Cleveland. Thanks to the early demise of their lackluster, self-absorbed parents, Jack, the older by 10 years, is guardian to his 17-year-old brother. Whatever plans he had for his future have been scrapped, and now he works as a lawyer in the firm where his father made partner. Connor is only too aware of this sacrifice but, as in most families, it's not a subject that bears discussion.

As the story gets under way, Jack, a serial womanizer, begins a relationship with Mona, a redheaded newspaper reporter whose own family resembles the 'Leave It to Beaver' clan. Connor is torn between his hormones and the knowledge that he's probably not in love with his girlfriend, who's formulating a systematic plan to lose her virginity to him.

Goldhagen's novel is separated into chapters, each one capable of standing alone. Unlike some books where this gives off a sense of disorganization, the story flows with a dreamlike quality.

The author manages to cover past events seamlessly, as when Mona reflects on her relationship with Jack at a neighbor's wedding reception: 'When Mona started dating Jack, she'd been vision-blurring jealous of the time and effort Jack put into his orphaned brother. … Secretly, Mona had been thrilled when Connor packed his Nissan Sentra and headed off to school in Boulder instead of Case Western where Jack had wanted him to go.'

Through the years the brothers and their respective wives and girlfriends flounder through infidelity, pregnancy and illness. Jack is a focused workaholic who rarely emotes and is an enigma to the people who love him. On the surface Connor is the more relaxed, emotional brother, but his easygoing demeanor belies a backlog of guilt and confusion.

Goldhagen focuses much of her attention on the viewpoints of Jack and Connor. When she moves her narrative to the perspective of the female characters, she's not quite as convincing. Perhaps this is because her portrayal of the Reed brothers is so pitch-perfect that the reader has a hard time focusing on anyone else.

All the while the story moves forward as years become decades and relationships pull apart, only to be yanked back together.

Before its publication, this book received notice from Booklist and Publishers Weekly as a debut to watch. Surprisingly, it was published simultaneously as a hardcover and a trade paperback.

According to Todd Doughty, Goldhagen's publicist at Doubleday, this isn't a common practice but 'we felt that we could reach both sectors of the book-buying market if it was available in both formats. And it turns out that the chain stores such as Target, Borders and Barnes and Noble were excited about the prospect of selling the book in trade paperback.'

Whatever the format, one hopes that Goldhagen's book receives the readership and attention it deserves. Her first novel is a dynamic example of how readers can root for an individual even as they shake their heads over his or her behavior. It is an accomplished look at how the members of even the most dysfunctional of families rally together despite the differences and flaws that separate them.

Reading in Portland this week

Shelley Jackson's writing has been compared to that of Chuck Palahniuk. Her first novel, 'Half Life,' features conjoined twins, one of whom has been comatose for 15 years. Jackson reads from her novel at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

It sounds like a work of nonfiction, but 'America's Report Card' by John McNally is a satirical look at government and media. In a world besieged by surveillance programs and the Patriot Act, two unlikely people are drawn together. McNally reads from his novel at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Twenty-third Avenue Books (1015 N.W. 23rd Ave., 503-224-5097).

She has scripted comics for 'The Powerpuff Girls' and 'The Simpsons,' and now Abby Denson draws inspiration from melodramatic Japanese manga comics about boys who like boys. 'Tough Love' features Brian, a shy high school student in love with a male classmate. Denson will appear at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Powell's on Hawthorne (3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-228-4651).

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