We Are the Brennans

Rating: ⭐⭐
Author: Tracey Lange
Genres: Fiction
Pub. Date: Aug. 2021 (read Sep. 2021)

I was so stoked for this one, but it turned out to be such a disappointment. It’s an easy read, with the flow between chapters being pretty smooth, but I wasn’t really a fan of the writing style. It was pretty simplistic, which is fine, but I feel like this has been marketed as literary fiction and I just didn’t see it.

We Are the Brennans tells the story of the Brennan family and their life in an Irish suburb of New York. I’m sure you guessed it from the cover, but the Brennans are Irish and as such, had a pretty conservative Irish-Catholic upbringing. Everything seemed to be going great until Sunday Brennan up and left 5 years ago and the family started falling on tough times. But now Sunday is back and the entire Brennan Family are forced to face the secrets of their past.

I live for family dramas, but this one just didn’t work for me. Aside from disliking the writing style, I thought the entire plot was predictable and pedestrian. I disliked almost all of the characters, which isn’t usually enough for me to dislike a novel, but I felt like everything in this book was overly dramatized because in reality, the author didn’t have that great a storyline. I feel like she had somewhere she wanted to take this story, but it was so poorly executed. It had a lot of the pitfalls of a debut novel in that Lange had a lot of ideas and no idea how to tie them all together in a meaningful way.

But mostly I think I just disagreed with her central themes. She had a lot of ideas about family and shame and I struggled to agree with any of them. I’ll get into the details in the spoiler section of the review, but by the end of the book I couldn’t help but acknowledge that me and Lange are just not on the same page. I feel like this Irish immigrant space is something that she knows really well, and maybe other Irish immigrants in NY might be able to relate more, but I also grew up on an island full of Irish immigrants and I felt that she really romanticized the Brennans in an unhealthy way. The book is all about family, but I thought every member in this family was toxic. She kind of tries to acknowledge this towards the end of the book (via Vivienne), but then she’s just like “sod it, they may be toxic, but they all love each other, so it’s fine”.

Anyways, it’s hard to really get into it without spoilers, but a lot of this book hinges on the reveal of a big secret about halfway through the book and this is where it all went downhill for me. I thought the secret was so problematic and that the author had so many blind spots about it that I just couldn’t move past it. So for me this book was a big miss. It’s still a somewhat entertaining read, but I wouldn’t recommend it – there are so many better family dramas out there – skip this one.
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Okay, now for the spoilers. There were two parts that killed this book for me – the “secret” reveal and the ending. Let’s start with the secret.

So the big secret is basically that Sunday got drunk one night when her family was in Ireland and the bartender tricked her into coming up to his room with him. He comes on to her, she leaves, and then he pushes her down the stairs and leaves while she bleeds from a miscarriage.

This scene is so traumatic for her that she leaves New York for 5 years because she can’t bear to tell her family. She is obviously traumatized, embarrassed, and ashamed by the incident. We had an interesting discussion about this secret at book club because we thought it was silly that she didn’t feel she could tell anyone about this. She didn’t do anything wrong and her family should really only feel sympathy for her. In the long list of things that could have gone wrong for her as a woman, we felt like maybe this wasn’t the worst case scenario, the trap of “it wasn’t really that bad”.

This is the one part of the book Lange gets right. Any situation that harms a woman physically or mentally is “that bad”. Society has a tendency to create an unfair hierarchy of trauma, which only results in silencing a lot of women. I read a whole anthology about this concept (Not That Bad by Roxane Gay) and I did really like that Lange never belittled the trauma that Sunday felt from this incident.

What I didn’t like was how it all played out. Because the real reason Sunday feels she can’t tell any of her family members is because she thinks they’ll literally go out and kill Billy, which turned out to be a pretty damn justified fear. So she doesn’t tell anyone out of the fear of how they will react. Sure, it plays into her catholic upbringing, but it drove me crazy that she underwent 5 years of self-imposed exile over how someone else might react to her pain. So she not only takes ownership of what happened to her, but she takes on the added responsibility of what her brothers might or might not do in their anger.

Now I know women do this all the time – take on the responsibility of other people’s actions, but I’m f*cking sick of it. Lange could have taken this whole ordeal and written something really meaningful and healing about it, but instead she takes a woman’s pain and uses it for drama. There are several instances of victim blaming where both Sunday and Kale (maybe Denny too?) think that she had too much to drink, indirectly blaming her for Billy’s actions. There’s some exploration of how the ordeal was traumatic for Sunday, but I don’t feel like Lange ever explores that in any depth. Sunday’s assault is simply used as a lazy way in which to create this time and space between her characters and to spurn on the actions of the rest of the book’s male characters. I detest when assault is used solely for drama and the motivations of other characters and try as I might, I just couldn’t look past it throughout the entire second half of the novel. Denny, Mickey, and Kale are all toxic characters and the fact that they “love” Sunday doesn’t excuse them all going out and being violent assholes about it. In fact, it’s so toxic, her fear of it drives her away from them for 5 years.

Which brings me to my second point – the ending. So Kale leaves Vivienne even though he knows the Brennans are all toxic and liars (but their “his” liars, AWWW), and everyone seems to finally be moving forward, acknowledging that as a family they can band together and support one another because that’s what families do. But then we find out Mickey actually murdered Billy (which was also super predictable), and they’re just like, “oh…. but it’s okay, we’ll get through it together like we always do”.

I’m sorry, but what kind of messed up theme is that. What a way to end your book, with a family condoning and shielding a murderer – yeah, that’s exactly the kind of message I want to take with me from this book! If this was a thriller, sure, but it’s not and it doesn’t fit. I feel like Lange just places the Brennans on this pedestal and because of her proximity to the subject matter, she can’t see what kind of bias she brings into this story. Love doesn’t excuse your actions. You show love by showing up for your family members and creating safe spaces for them. If the theme was about surviving these kind of toxic behaviours it would be great, but this book only condones them.

Anyways, there’s other things I didn’t like (namely the treatment of Vivienne), but I feel I’ve ranted enough. Obviously I didn’t like it and I like it even less now that I’ve taken the time to vocalize why I didn’t like it. I’m honestly blown away by how many high reviews this got on goodreads. I feel like I missed something, maybe I did, but I’m still done with this book. Good riddance.

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