We hope you enjoy this book review by Carol Thomas.

Elizabeth Kelly’s first fictional work,Apologize, Apologize! is a “coming-of-age” novel, a story depicting a central character who struggles to understand himself and his world as he grows to adulthood. Dickens’ Great Expectations is a classic example of this genre; so, too, more recently is Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees.

Collie Flanagan is the character experiencing this struggle in Apologize, Apologize! Collie was named by his dog-loving socialist mother, Anais, while she was under the influence of Albert Terhune’s Lad: A Dog. Collie’s younger brother, Bingo, was similarly afflicted; his name was originally that of Anais’s favorite Irish setter.

Rounding out the wealthy and eccentric Flanagan family is Collie’s father, uncle, and grandfather. His father, Charles Flanagan, pursues wine and women. His uncle, Tom Flanagan, raises pigeons. His grandfather, Peregrine Lowell, runs a publishing empire that is the source of the Flanagans’ wealth.

The “fantastic Flanagans” are an emotional lot. Anais despises her father, Peregrine. She also hates her smart, serious son Collie, but loves the charmingly irresponsible Bingo. Peregrine favors Collie, but has little use for Bingo. Uncle Tom detests Anais, and is often found battling it out with his brother, Charles.

These interrelationships are revealed primarily in the first third of the novel through a random series of anecdotes about various events in the lives of the Flanagans. Consequently, the novel initially suffers from a lack of focus, leaving the reader unsure of the point of all these revelations.

That focus is not established until Chapter 14, which depicts the death of Bingo in a caving accident. With Collie and Bingo on that expedition are two friends, both of whom fatally risk their own lives by jumping into an underground stream to save Bingo. Collie himself does not join in the rescue attempt because he knows it will be futile. The novel then centers on Collie’s efforts to accept the consequences of his choice. Was he, the “practical” Flanagan, making the only possible decision, or was he a coward for refusing to risk his own life in the face of certain death?

Fearing that he was indeed a coward, Collie begins a series of attempts to “apologize” for his decision. He receives a qualified absolution from his father and grandfather. Even Bingo himself, who comes vividly to life again in Collie’s troubled mind, tries to console him, saying, “It’s okay. I forgive you, Collie.”

But Collie is not consoled. Deciding that for him “there was no redemption in forgiveness,” he engages instead in a test of his courage. Testing one’s courage, which Collie equates with “manhood,” is central to the tradition of the coming-of-age novel. Kelly, however, parodies the conventions of this novelistic form even while following it when she makes Collie’s drunken father its spokesman. Pop claims, “I know a little something about manhood, and it’s not an automatic affair. There are strict time-honored criteria which you ignore at your peril. To become a man you must undertake a
quest. . . Simply put, to become a man you must go off into the woods and take your own measure.”

Collie’s trip into the woods takes the form of joining a 1983 Catholic aid expedition to El Salvador during the height of a civil war. Captured first by government militia forces and then by rebels, Collie escapes only with the help of strangers who willingly risk their lives for his. Collie contrasts their actions with his own inaction when he failed to jump into the water to save Bingo and concludes that, unlike him, “they all jumped and would jump again and again. . . I went to El Salvador to excavate a little personal courage. Courage exists – even if it doesn’t exist in me.”

Apologize, Apologize! explores a serious subject, frequently in a comic manner. Though Kelly handles both comedy and drama well separately, her attempts at combining the two at times results in confusion in the tone of this novel. It is perhaps unrealistic to expect such diverse elements to be effectively combined in an author’s first work. Apologize, Apologize! remains a promising debut novel, an engaging addition to the coming-of-age genre.



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