The Fragile World: A Novel by Paula Treick DeBoard (Mira, $14.99, 415 pages)
The Kaufmans have always considered themselves to be a normal, happy family. Curtis is a physics teacher at a local high school. His wife, Kathleen, restores furniture for upscale boutiques. Daniel is away at college on a prestigious music scholarship, and twelve-year-old Olivia is a happy-go-lucky kid whose biggest concern is passing her next math test. And then comes the middle-of-the-night phone call that changes everything. Daniel has been killed in what the police are calling a “freak” accident, and the remaining Kaufmans are left to flounder in their grief.
The anguish of Daniel’s death is isolating, and it’s not long before this once-perfect family finds itself falling apart. As time passes and the wound refuses to heal, Curtis becomes obsessed with the idea of revenge, a growing mania that leads him to pack up his life and his anxious teenage daughter and set out on a collision course to right a wrong.
Like the film Ordinary People, The Fragile World is a story about imperfect people, beset by tragedy, doing their best to get by. It’s a story narrated by both Curtis and Olivia. Not many writers would base the events of a novel in Sacramento, California or Oberlin, Ohio but DeBoard uses both locations. It’s a risk, and it works. It enables her to realistically paint the Kaufmans as a humble family – a family whose breadwinner drives an over-used Ford Explorer with a bad transmission. There’s nothing glamorous to see here, people.
The story is about a father and daughter road trip, from Sacramento to Omaha. Olivia thinks that the purpose of the trip is to reunite her with her mother, Kathleen, who could not live with Curtis’s unending mourning of Daniel’s death. But Curtis plans to deposit Olivia with her mother while he travels to Oberlin to confront the person he believes was responsible for his son’s death.
Initially, the reader has the impression that he or she knows how this tale will play out. Don’t bet on it. DeBoard throws in some unexpected events – such as having Curtis show up at his hated father’s death bed in the Chicago area – before the denouement in tiny Oberlin. Curtis finds the man he’s looking for and he’s got a gun in his hand. Knowing this does not provide a spoiler because DeBoard tips the chessboard over. The book is worth reading to discover how DeBoard wraps things up.
The Fragile World is also worth reading because it perfectly examines the imperfections of family life. There’s a father who hates his own father so much that he’s never communicated with him during his adult life. There’s a daughter who blames herself for not being what her brother was. There’s a wife and mother who cannot accept or understand why her husband and daughter are unable to simply move on with their lives after a tragedy. These are ordinary people who are hurting, people who feel pain. They inhabit a fragile world, one with which many readers will identify.
A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Emotionally powerful… This bold and moving story is absolutely unforgettable.” New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf