Setting Free the Kites
Alex George
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Buy *Setting Free the Kites* by Alex Georgeonline

Setting Free the Kites
Alex George
Simon and Schuster
336 pages
February 2017
rated 4 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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Set in Maine, this gentle novel of wonderful characterizations focuses on the family dramas of Robert Carter. In the long, humid summer of 1976, Robert is blindsided by a series of events both happy and tragic. Originally from Texas, Nathan Tilly--never one for the subtle approach--becomes Robertís savior at Haverfordís local middle school, arriving just in time to stop Hollis Calhoun's endless bullying. Robert is quickly enamored of Nathan, the two quickly becoming close friends. Nathan also idolizes his father, Leonard Tilly, fascinated by the easy sense of adventure that he carries around with him like a badge of honor.

Robert largely enjoys a comfortable, middle-class suburban life with his parents, Sam and Mary, although both feel as though theyíve been denied happiness. At birth, Robertís older brother, Liam, was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, a slow wasting disease which has no cure. The tragedy of Liamís condition is just one of many disasters that touches Georgeís characters. Another calamity early on leads Nathanís mother to spend her days secluded in her study, rhythmically clattering on her typewriter. Robert, meanwhile, watches entranced as Mr. Tillyís kites dance above his head, the objects a powerful a symbol for this sense of freewheeling freedom that progressively infects so much of Nathanís life.

ďThe kite was just an excuse to be on the road. You know,Ē says Nathan as he settles into Haverford, a town that is unexpectedly faced with a series of unrelenting cold fronts. Nathan eventually comes to stay, the two boys becoming as ďthick as thieves.Ē During the frenetic chaos of the summer months they work at Fun-A-Lot, the family owned amusement park where attendees can step back in time to the days of the Arthurian Legends. An essential part of the Haverford tourist trade, the park is a yearly torment for Sam, who dreads rainy days as much as he fears Liamís slow and steady deterioration. Both Emily and Sam know that ďa world of grief is to come.Ē George beautifully portrays this delicate balance in Sam and Emilyís marriage, reflected in Emilyís reluctance to confront the truth about Liamís illness and Samís steadfast insistence that they must play the hand theyíve been dealt.

Beyond Fun-A-Lotís sun-faded paint, Robert remains in thrall to Nathanís charisma, regularly judging the quality of his own careful life against his friend's carefree attitude. Nathan dresses as the parkís mascot, a huge dragon, then lurches from one part of the park to the other, watching the drama from afar. Knowing what it means to survive, Nathan watches for his chance to find his own brand of freedom. Emily, meanwhile, prays for a miracle that Liam will get better. Liam proves to be a stupendously obstinate individual. At school, he throws himself into everything he can. At home, he furiously embraces his beloved punk rock music. Later, this music that offers Robert a way back to his brother: ďI was greedy for every unpolished note. Each raw crash of the cymbals and messy guitar chord.Ē

The novel tracks the complicated dynamics of friendship in a world where love and pain are viewed as two sides of the same coin. Although Liamís illness causes the end of innocence for the Carter family, Robert realizes that, with Nathan by his side, he can face a braver, less tragic world. George beautifully charts the arc of Liamís deterioration and the sweep of Robertís memories. In a bond that culminates one terrible night on the rooftop of Haverfordís Paper Mill, the shifting, silent, derelict structure becomes a heartbreaking symbol for all that is lost in Robertís life.

On this inimitably American tale, a conventional life turns insufferably tragic while an eccentric young man is trapped for far too long petrified limbo. Throughout the course of the story, Robert discovers that perhaps for Nathan, it is worth risking a little heartbreak. The beauty of the novel is not only in its unpredictability but in the way George allows the reader to travel to that end. The Carter family and Nathan deserve the reader's empathy, but so do the wonderfully three-dimensional secondary characters, particularly Lewis, a kindly World War veteran who has spent much so of his life terrorized by his memories. Lewis has never told a soul until he confides to Robert and Nathan.

The novel balances the importance of family with Robertís teenage angst and the strain of Sam and Emilyís separation, as well as Nathanís desperate need to find adventure. As Robertís memories quietly unspool, gradually slipping through his hands like his fatherís beloved kites, Nathan decides, quite literally to fly. George makes his point, expressing his view of 1970s small-town life with a fine sense of alacrity that eagerly draws the reader in until the very last page is turned.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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