“The Children’s Crusade” (Scribner), by Ann Packer
Ann Packer’s new novel tells the story of a family set against the stunning landscape of pre-Silicon Valley Northern California.
Pediatrician Bill falls in love first with a plot of land and second with artist Penny and together they raise four children. “The Children’s Crusade,” which seamlessly navigates between present and past as well as points of view, is a beautifully written ode to a time and place.
“The road leveled off, and a path beckoned him to leave the car and make his way to a clearing where a magnificent oak tree stood guard,” Packer writes about Bill’s discovery of his future home. “The oak was the most splendid tree he’d ever seen, its gnarled branches snaking every which way.”
The novel centers on the complicated story of a marriage and its children — each raised by seemingly different sets of parents who, over decades, both evolve “every which way” as individuals while they move together and grow apart as a couple.
But the six main characters feel hastily drawn, reduced almost to caricatures.
The emotionally absent mother is particularly frustrating as the source of her discontent is never fully understood and readers are left with a one-dimensional portrait of a cold, uncaring and selfish woman who may not have wanted children in the first place. The salt-of-the-earth father feels too solid, too consistent, too unflappable. The family’s rounded out by the reliable eldest son, the too-sensitive middle son, the straight-shooter daughter and the always-troubled youngest boy.
Packer has said it took her more than a decade to write “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier,” her near-perfect first novel. But her third feels rushed. And at 400 pages, perhaps it is simply too short a novel for Packer to gracefully unfold the sweeping story she wanted to tell.