Send Me by Patrick Ryan is the story of a family under duress. The matriarch, Teresa Kerrigan is in over her head. Her first husband leaves her with two children, a son Matt and a daughter Karen. Her second husband eventually walks out on her as well, leaving two children of his own, Joe and Frankie. The deck is stacked against Teresa as her four children spin away from her trying to find lives of their own, unable to escape the baggage of their shared past.
One thing that makes Send Me a stand out first novel and that helps save it from sinking into outright despair is that each chapter is written basically as a stand alone story. This makes it possible for novel’s focus to shift from one character to another and back and forth in time creating a portrait of an American family falling apart, instead of a linear narrative of a family’s collapse. Each non-chronological chapter creates a study of one character, or of the family at one point in time. One chapter tells us how things are now; the next may tell us what things were like before or long after the previous one. They all work together to create a kind of narrative tension that keeps the reader involved in the on-going story. While what happens next is not necessarily what happens next, I still wanted to know what would happen next.
In one chapter, the family heads inland away from their coastal Florida home to avoid a hurricane. Teresa and her second husband, Roy, take all four children to a run down motel where they share a single room for the night. Roy has recently lost his job with NASA and cannot afford better accommodations. There is no magical coming together under pressure in this chapter. It’s soon clear to the reader that Roy is thinking about leaving his family and that his family won’t miss him much once he’s gone. Roy is trying; he makes every effort to be a father to his step children and to his own; he did not want to run from the hurricane in the first place but did so to please Teresa. The reader realizes that Teresa has not found what she wanted in Roy, that she may not even know what it is she wants in a husband. The children are all in the midst of one dreadful phase or another. Things go from bad to worse throughout the night until only daughter Karen walks in on her brother Matt who has gone into the shared bathroom to be alone and was in no condition to be walked in on.
The next morning, Roy sneaks out and drives back home alone while his family sleeps. I expected him to drive away and never return. That is what would probably happen in a more linear narrative. While Roy went to a house several blocks from his family’s home where Leona, the woman whom he’s having an affair with, lives to make sure she is okay, he did return to the hotel. This is another thing that makes Send Me work so well–we do not see the big blow-out scenes that take place in the family, the day Roy finally leaves for instance. Instead, we see one memorable day that shows us the complex family dynamic so well that we understand why Roy will eventually leave and what this will inevitably do to Teresa and her children. If we read a scene describing the day Roy left we couldn’t help but take sides with either Roy or Teresa. By jumping forwards and backwards in time and by shifting the focus of the novel Mr. Ryan makes it possible for the reader to remain sympathetic with all of the novel’s characters.
Roy’s chapters are told in the third person, but Joe, the third child in the family, is the first person narrator of his. Joe is probably the family member most likely to succeed, to find happiness in life, but this is not at all clear in his chapter. Joe is close to his younger brother Frankie who is gay like Joe is, though their relationship is often love-hate. Frankie came out of the closet first, in spite of being younger, and came out big. Joe feels that Frankie has used all of the family’s good will for coming out and made such a big splash of himself, become so flamboyant, that his own coming out would be viewed with suspicion if not just dismissed as copying Frankie. (In the end Joe is right about this.) In his chapter Joe goes to visit Frankie at college where Frankie is living the high life, staying off campus and selling drugs to support a lifestyle devoted much more to parties than to study. He is very popular and sleeps with a series of boyfriends and hook-ups. Joe sees him as so successfully gay that he cannot compete. He lives in the dorm, has no real friends, cannot bring himself to approach the one boy he is interested in. Joe will take much longer than Frankie did to come to terms with himself and to come out. He must also come to terms with a younger brother who will always be much more fabulous than he is.
Reading Send Me is much like looking at a gem stone–in order to see the entire picture we must look at one facet at a time. These facets, taken together, form the gem. The writing in each chapter is terrific, but it’s the characters and Mr. Ryan’s depth of understanding that make Send Me a memorable book.
I first ran this review in 2008 on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B. I’m currently migrating my old reviews over to this new site and still waiting for a second adult novel from Mr. Ryan.
In 2008 I became something of a Patrick Ryan fanboy. I read Send Me twice, almost twice in a row, read and loved his young adult novel Saints of Augustine, read that one twice, too. I even sent a slightly gushing email requesting an interview. Mr. Ryan granted my request and submitted to one of my exhaustive lists of questions. (I plan on publishing the interview tomorrow.) He even sent me a copy of his next YA novel. We’ve never met in person, but we did become “Facebook friends.” All-in-all, one of the best author interactions I’ve had as a book blogger.
If you’re one of the many people who have never read Send Me, please consider it. It’s a marvelous book.