The Great Wide Open by Douglas Kennedy

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The Great Wide Open by Douglas Kennedy

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Stephen Leach
Reviewed by Stephen Leach
Summary: An engaging and surprisingly accessible portrait of American family life taking place between the USA and troubles-era Ireland.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 592 Date: January 2019
Publisher: Hutchinson
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1786331694

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Douglas Kennedy's The Great Wide Open has been described as epic by just about everyone, and it often feels as though that was the intention. Though the novel often feels like a pastiche of the great American novel – epic in scope, preoccupied with matters of money and literature, fixated with New York – it often feels more like Kennedy is trying to reverse-engineer the concept altogether. Initially, the novel presents itself as an intimate study of family drama, in the latter half of the novel it smoothly turns to examining the turn of American society since the 70s, and the rapid rise of the hyper-capitalist neoliberal values that have dominated the west since the election of Ronald Reagan. Though it takes place over a twenty-year period between the 70s and the 90s, it notably always keeps one an eye on the present day (Trump, of course, makes an inevitable and slightly incongruous cameo) such that what happens links subtly into current affairs without ever explicitly referencing them.

The tension between family members is what mostly drives the plot of the novel, underscoring Kennedy's assertion that every family is a secret society: they're messy and complicated, and leave lasting marks on the people involved. Despite featuring a Jewish-Irish family, the novel mostly avoids religion, preferring to talk politics instead. For a book of nearly six hundred pages, The Great Wide Open feels so expansive and ambitious because it simply is; touching on the AIDs crisis, the sectarian conflict in Ireland, and the political turmoil and ensuing military dictatorship in Chile during the 70s.

I often feel a sense of trepidation when starting a book so large, but it's refreshing to pick up a novel that doesn't over-promise and justifies its weighty length. Books of this nature can often feel somewhat inaccessible, but that's not the case here. The novel seems to have ample time for every character in it: this is truly everyone's story, and I didn't feel as though any of the characters were poorly-served by it. The Great Wide Open will stay on my shelf with pleasure – this is definitely one I'll read again.

I love a novel that spans a wide timeframe, so we can see the characters truly change and grow. David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks is an example of one such book. Alternatively, Jonathan Coe's Number 11 is a more lighthearted, but no less thorough and introspective, state-of-the-nation novel, this time looking at Britain in the mid-2010s. You might also appreciate Deus Ex Machina by Charles Matthew Sauer and The Ludlow Ladies' Society by Ann O' Loughlin.

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