Monday, June 23, 2014

Heather Reviews: The Radleys by Matt Haig (mild spoiler warning)

Sorry about spoilers, especially if you haven't heard of this book before and it interests you, but there's a lot to talk about that I really can't talk about without mentioning some mild spoilers.  

Title:  The Radleys
Author:  Matt Haig
Released:  2010
Publisher:  Free Press
Just about everyone knows a family like the Radleys. Many of us grew up next door to one. They are a modern family, averagely content, averagely dysfunctional, living in a staid and quiet suburban English town. Peter is an overworked doctor whose wife, Helen, has become increasingly remote and uncommunicative. Rowan, their teenage son, is being bullied at school, and their anemic daughter, Clara, has recently become a vegan. They are typical, that is, save for one devastating exception: Peter and Helen are vampires and have—for seventeen years—been abstaining by choice from a life of chasing blood in the hope that their children could live normal lives.

One night, Clara finds herself driven to commit a shocking—and disturbingly satisfying—act of violence, and her parents are forced to explain their history of shadows and lies. A police investigation is launched that uncovers a richness of vampire history heretofore unknown to the general public. And when the malevolent and alluring Uncle Will, a practicing vampire, arrives to throw the police off Clara’s trail, he winds up throwing the whole house into temptation and turmoil and unleashing a host of dark secrets that threaten the Radleys’ marriage.

I was browsing the Amazon reviews for The Savages when I came across someone saying they thought that book would be more like this one, and I decided to check it out. I have no clue why, but suburban families with dark secrets that threaten to come to light fascinate me. And really, that's the only thing these two books have in common. Everything else is pretty different.

The Radleys are (trying to be) your typical next door neighbors in a well-to-do suburban area. Except that none of them can leave the house without slathering themselves in SPF 60, they're photosensitive, they are constantly sleepy during daylight hours, and possess a mean garlic allergy. Nevertheless, the children are just trying to survive high school, where they are picked on for being different, when Clara Radley attends a party one night. She is accosted by a boy who "knows" she likes him and attempts to have his drunken way with her, but said incident doesn't get very far before something happens to Clara causing her to attack and kill the boy. Understandably freaked out, she calls her parents and begs them to come get her, and this is where the story kicks off.

Let me say that the other students picking on the kids is hard to stomach. I had to put the book down for a good while after reading the first few sections because I was really uncomfortable, so if that makes you uncomfortable as well, be warned. There's also the scene where Clara is accosted and, yes, the kid attempts to rape her, so also take warning at that because, while it's not lengthy, it's pretty graphic.

While you've probably guessed from the covers and blurb: the Radleys are vampires. However this isn't your typical vampire book. There's bloodsucking and thinking about bloodsucking and talking about vampire traditions, but most of the time they felt more of a stand in for other issues the family was facing, and there are a lot of issues that the family faces.

The parents have kept their children in the dark about the family secret because they are abstainers, people who have dropped blood cold turkey and intend to live their lives as "humanly" as possible. Peter Radley is a doctor, Helen is a housewife, and their children, Rowan and Clara, attend school. Originally the children are told that they have inherited some family illness that includes the symptoms previously listed, and their doctor father has been trying to help them through it as much as possible, including extra strength sleeping medicine for the nights that they're all wide awake.

After Clara attacks and kills the boy, the parents decide that they can no longer hide their nature from the kids and will inform them of everything. Peter also decides to call in his brother Will, who is still a practicing vampire and who Helen strongly objects to having stay with them. Since Will is still a practicing vampire, he has a talent for bloodminding (glamoring) unbloods (people who are not vampires). Initially they call him in to help fly the body to a location it won't be found, but later need his bloodminding for when police eventually come to question Clara. This is where thing gets interesting.

It's clear Helen and Will have a history, but it also becomes apparent later in the book that this is not what it appears to be. Although I really liked the conflict between what Helen felt for Will and her desire to do anything to protect her family, it was also extremely creepy to see Will exerting this influence over her. It's reminiscent of abusive relationships or addictions, the way Helen knows she shouldn't want to be with Will, but the way something inside her yearns to be with him. When it's revealed why this is happening, it's pretty brutal and show how sadistic Will really is.

But it made me feel for Helen. In all honesty, I began reading thinking that if she didn't want to be with Peter, she should leave him. We are told and shown multiple times from Peter that when he says "I love you" to Helen, she doesn't reciprocate and barely responds, so much so that Peter contemplates an affair. Later in the book, we know why and you genuinely feel sorry for Helen because it's not supposed to be that way for her, it's just that something out of her control happened one night and the guilt of it has rendered her unable to tell Peter what happened.

Rowan had my sympathy because, while both Radley children are outcasts at their school, Rowan gets bullied the worst. When he finds out the family secret, he attempts to adjust to it in his own time. However, later he finds out another secret about himself that causes him to freak out and believe that all the bullying he's received in his life is justified. It was really hard for me not to feel for Rowan at these times, especially since, after seeing how feeding from the kid she killed cleared up all of Clara's ailments, he still debates drinking blood.

Peter's story with Helen is really heartbreaking because you get back story on how they met and how in love they were, and Peter's wondering how they got to the point where Helen can barely stand the sight of him and hates him touching her is devastating. They barely talk and when they do Helen seems short with him, but Peter cannot understand what he did so he begins contemplating finding love / acceptance in another place.

The only character I didn't really feel for was Clara, which I thought was odd. I mean, I did feel a bit of something for her when it was revealed that she went vegan in an attempt to combat her symptoms and because she loves animals so much, even though she's never had much luck with them. I felt like I was supposed to feel scared for her when she killed her classmate and was wondering what on earth could drive her to do such a thing, but the way that was written didn't make me feel anything. After that, Clara's personality changes and she becomes a jerk, which made it hard for me to care about what happened to her. However, she mentions to Rowan one night that she knows she's been a jerk that weekend and wouldn't blame him for being upset with her. It was nice, but instead of not liking her, it just set me back to not feeling anything for her.

The book is written in present tense, which I think I've mentioned before I'm not a fan of. Sometimes it shows through; there are a lot of sentences like, "Helen looks in the knife drawer," "Rowan walks down the street," and "They stare at her eating the eggs," which irked me, however the sentences like that become rarer as the book moves on and at one point I forgot I was reading a novel set in present tense.

I wish the vampire lore of this book was explored a bit more. While you get vampires drinking each other's blood instead of human's, you aren't told much about how this started, which I thought would've been a fascinating concept to explore. There's also the concept of conversion, which saying anything more about would spoil a good portion of the book, but I thought that was another thing that should've gotten more time and I really wanted an answer as to why it worked that way.

The ending to me felt a little too neat. I was really itching to see what happened with Helen and Peter, but things with Eve and her father felt too nice. I felt like Will's involvement in the plot should've made everything a bit messier, but that's all I will say on that to avoid massive spoilers.

I definitely recommend it. It was a pleasant surprise and I will be keeping an eye out for more Matt Haig books.

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  1. I've never heard of this book before, but after reading the blurb I am highly intrigued after reading the blurb, I actually think that I will have to give this book a go now, thanks for putting it on my radar!

    1. Glad I could bring some attention to it! I hope you enjoy it when you give it a go!