There’s something irresistible about a boarding school novel: the picturesque grounds; the tight-knit community of teachers and students and staff; the routine of seminars, lacrosse games and chapel; the inevitable romances that bud in such an insular world. In The Half Brother, her second novel after 2010’s sensual The Swimming Pool, Holly LeCraw has created an appealing setting in the Abbott School, a campus at the top of a ridge in north Massachusetts where azaleas and cherry blossoms surround the stone and clapboard buildings, and the grass almost shimmers with mist.
After he graduates from Harvard, where he never quite belonged, Charlie Garrett falls under the spell of Abbott. “The only time I felt even slightly proficient at life was when I was holding a book in my hands,” he reflects during his interview to become a teacher. So he is hired to teach English, and one of the true joys of the novel is watching him gain confidence in the classroom. And it is a pleasure to get lost in LeCraw’s prose, which is both graceful and filled with smart observations. (“She nodded like a doctor who was pretending to be solicitous but really was just thinking of her next patient.”) The dramatic plot is less enchanting—though the pages turn quickly as we move back and forth from Charlie’s childhood to a decade of his life at Abbott.
Contrary to the title, the relationship at the center of the novel is that between Charlie and May Bankhead, the daughter of Abbott’s enigmatic chaplain. As May comes of age and the two seem to circle each other in the classroom and on campus, the romantic tension between them is palpable. But for reasons beyond their control, they cannot be together. In a somewhat inexplicable act of sacrifice (or possibly self-punishment), Charlie encourages his half brother, Nick, a golden child, to pursue May when the three of them eventually find themselves on the faculty at the same time. As this love triangle develops, readers will no doubt balk at certain twists that strain belief. Still, by the end, we’re invested in the characters and want to see them happy. And we understand the draw of Abbott, which seems humble yet magnificent—an enclave where people grow up and blossom in the rolling hills and the charming “honeycomb of crisscrossing paths.”