Kirkus Reviews

A Texas boy grapples with his parents’ estrangement in McNeely’s debut novel.

Eleven-year-old Buddy lives with his mother in 1970s Houston at a time when proper, white middle-class living means that mothers don’t work, parents don’t divorce, and white children don’t befriend the Mexican children down the street. Buddy’s young life has missed all these supposed marks of propriety: His mother, Margot, works in a hospital laboratory; his absentee father, Jimmy, has blown back into town and wants a divorce; and Buddy spends much of his time with his Latino best friend, Alex, who’s working on a film about a ghost horse. Buddy’s torment slowly, steadily grows throughout this sensitive novel as his immature father and his bafflingly stubborn mother make him choose between them again and again. His cold grandparents, meanwhile, only exacerbate the bitter divide. He finally tries to find solace in a new friendship with a fellow student whose home life is similarly caustic. As he struggles to survive the failures of the adults around him, he careens down a path of unhappiness and destruction. McNeely beautifully portrays the confusion of a boy doing his best to deal with matters that are beyond his understanding but fully capable of doing him harm (“He wishes a sheet of fire would cut through the yard; he wishes [his mother] would disappear. But the questions still pulse, there, in the darkness: What will happen when his father comes back?”). The author effectively shows how evil is not born but made; as the grown-ups continue to pile their burdens on him, something hateful begins to bloom in Buddy that wasn’t there before. Overall, the novel will be a haunting read for anyone who’s experienced the childhood anguish of divorce and a powerful reminder to mothers and fathers of the unseen damage that their behavior can inflict on their children.

A dark, deeply stirring novel about the quiet tragedy of growing up in a broken family.

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