Opening lines: “A lot can happen in a day, sometimes. Not every day, of course. Most have one event, and that’s if you’re lucky. Many have less, which seems especially true in our school, which is hard to get into and committed to serving the community but is also, as a rule, unthrilling. Maybe things pick up in eleventh grade, which is when Mr. Frechette, a teacher we like, says our brains have developed to the point where we can grasp irony, accept ambivalence, and acknowledge the death’s head that lurks at the edge of all human endeavor. His exact words; I put them in my phone. We’ll see, although I trust him.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website: Set among Manhattan’s high-powered liberal elite and told through an ensemble of endearing voices, These Things Happen is a not-quite-coming-of-age story about a modern family. Fifteen year old Wesley, a tenth grader, has moved from his mother and stepfather’s home to live with his father and his father’s male partner for a school term so that father and son might have a chance to bond again. But when Wesley finds himself unexpectedly at the center of an act of violence, everyone around him must reexamine themselves, their assumptions and attitudes.
Comments: A lot can happen in a day, although sometimes its full effects aren’t apparent till a few days later. If it’s a day when your best friend decides that his student-government victory speech is a fine opportunity to announce his homosexuality to the entire school, and then enlists you to ask the adults you’re living with–your gay father and his long-term partner–a couple of questions about their own experiences with “gayness,” it’s one of those days when a lot happens. And when that day is followed by one in which you learn that some of your school associates may not be entirely okay with your best friend’s announcement, even more happens, and you start to see the effects.
Longtime television writer Richard Kramer worked on several TV series noted for character depth and authentic voices (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, Once and Again), and those attributes also stand out in his debut novel, These Things Happen. The third-person narration shifts among a half-dozen closely connected characters, but the central ones are fifteen-year-old Wesley Bowman and George, the actor-turned-restauranteur who has been his father Kenny’s partner for a decade. Wesley has been living with his mother, Lola, and her older second husband, Ben, since his parents split up, but it’s been decided that he should spend a semester living with his father so the two can re-connect. Kenny is a prominent attorney and in-demand spokesperson within the gay community, and he’s just not around all that much for Wesley (or George, for that matter), so the arrangement isn’t quite going as anticipated. And when Wesley is caught up in a gay-bashing incident directed against his best friend, Theo, bigger questions are raised.
Although not all of his characters will engage the reader to the same degree, Kramer makes each member of his large cast stand out as an individual, and he draws an involving picture of the complexities of modern family life–particularly if that life is being lived in Manhattan, which is effectively also a character in the novel. New York-centricity tends to be one of my sweet spots in fiction, and it added to the story’s appeal for me. The third-person narration allows for exploration of each character’s inner life without immersing the reader in it the way alternating first-person voices might. As the family’s situation grows more fraught later in the novel, the style becomes more stream-of-consciousness. I’m not sure if that choice was made in order to make the reader feel the emotional currents more strongly, but if it was, it had the opposite effect on me–I found concentrating on those sections more difficult as a reader, and felt less involved with the story as it led up to its conclusion.
Despite that, I’d say Richard’s Kramer’s first venture into novel-writing succeeds, for the most part. Its greatest strengths are in areas that aren’t too surprising for a writer whose prior work has been on acclaimed television dramas: the dialogue shines, and the characters are affectingly, recognizably human. These Things Happen is being marketed as adult fiction with potential crossover to young-adult, largely for its coming-of-age GLBTQ themes. Its attributes suggest appeal to wide potential audience, and I hope it finds it.