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An Unfinished Life Hardcover – August 31, 2004

4.3 out of 5 stars 76 customer reviews

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The Nest by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
"The Nest" by Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney
A warm, funny and acutely perceptive debut novel about four adult siblings and the fate of their shared inheritance. Learn more | See author page

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

An old rancher reluctantly takes in his daughter-in-law and granddaughter in this moving and well-crafted, if rather derivative, second novel by Spragg (The Fruit of Stone). Jean Gilkyson hasn't been back to her hometown of Ishawooa, Wyo., since her husband, Griffin, died in a car accident. Jean was driving, and Griffin's father, Einar, has never forgiven her for his son's death. Ten years and four boyfriends later, Jean has run out of money and options. With her precocious nine-year-old daughter, Griff, she escapes boyfriend number four, a smirking brute named Roy. Einar isn't happy to see mother or daughter, but Griff loves his log house and ranch life. She makes friends right away with Mitch, Einar's old Vietnam War buddy, who's been mauled by a grizzly and is horribly scarred, and gradually wins over her grandfather. Meanwhile, Jean is charming the town sheriff, which comes in handy when Roy tracks her down. Spragg's spare storytelling is rock solid, but he covers well-worn territory in language familiar to readers of Cormac McCarthy and Kent Haruf, never quite striking off on his own.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Bookmarks Magazine

An Unfinished Life follows on the heels of Spragg’s memoir about growing up on a Wyoming ranch, Where Rivers Change Direction, and his Western debut, The Fruits of Stone. This latest effort, which raises comparisons to Kent Haruf’s Plainsong and Eventide (*** July/Aug 2004), delves into the world of fractured families. Memorable secondary characters contribute a great deal of spirit to this emotionally charged story of love, loss, betrayal, and reconciliation. Although most critics adored An Unfinished Life for its concise language, fast-paced plotting, and Western feel, a few criticized its predictable romance and untidy ending. And, most mourned its Hollywood qualities—yes, it will soon hit the big screen, with Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, and Jennifer Lopez.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


Product Details

  • Hardcover: 257 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (August 31, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400042011
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400042012
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,164,209 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
One of the finest books written about growing up in the West is Mark Spragg's memoir, "Where Rivers Change Direction." He's also a talented screenwriter whose "Everything That Rises" is a touching film about a rancher father and young son. So I've found myself expecting probably too much from his fiction. "The Fruit of Stone" and "An Unfinished Life" seem to lack the sparkling brilliance and deep truth of his earlier work, and I wish it wasn't so. When Spragg is good, he breaks your heart.

"An Unfinished Life" reads much like a film script. It moves along in the present tense and is largely visual, describing behavior and capturing dialogue, but often staying just on the surface and not getting to the emotional heart of a scene. The characters and situations are often a little too predictable; you feel that you've seen and heard them already somewhere else. Dedicated to author Kent Haruf ("Plainsong"), the book seems rather much inspired by that author's small-town characters of three generations. You keep wishing Spragg would just yield to his own vision, which if his memoir is any indication, has to be deeper, darker, more troubling, and powerful.

Having said all that, I won't discourage readers from enjoying many of the pleasures that are to be found in this novel. A master of quirky dialogue, Spragg writes several scenes, mostly between the two old men at the center of the story, full of quiet verbal sparring that makes their relationship spring to life. The tentative friendship between a young sheriff and a woman on the run from an abusive husband keeps us interested. And his journey into the mind of the husband who stalks her is thoroughly creepy and disturbing.

But for readers who don't know Spragg, I'd point them instead to his memoir, "Where Rivers Change Direction." It's the real thing.
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Format: Hardcover
Griff, a precocious 9yo girl who is determined to force Jean, her mother, to grow up and take responsibility for herself, is the main focus of this book that starts with Griff pretty much forcing her mom to drive away from her last abusive boyfriend and head toward California. They only make it to Ishawooa, Wyoming, where Jean grew up and married Griffin, Griff's dad, who died in a car accident before Griff was born.

Einar, Griffin's angry old father (angry cuz he blames Jean for the death of his only son), reluctantly takes them in, and Jean begins working at the local restaurant.

Griff falls in love with the ranch, the old man, his Vietnam War buddy Mitch who's been nearly killed by a grizzly, and with the sense of permanence that she's been lacking all her life - and she's determined not to leave.

Good story-telling, good writing, good characters, good book.
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Format: Paperback
Though well written, this is not a challenging read, as I tore through the book in nothing flat. The characters are largely well developed and enagaging. I agree with another reviewer, this reads like a film script or could even be a play. Griff, the little girl is the centerpiece of the story and her brave, gutsy, irrespressible spirit is a delight. I felt the author captured that time in a little girls life where there's a fear of nothing-that is definitely the case with Griff. I loved this book for Griff-she's spunky & wise.

You genuinely care about the characters and the two crusty old cowboys who are lifelong friends getting goo-goo over a little girl is sweet-I love Griff's observations of these two old coots. You really sense the patience and calm in these two older men that often in life only comes with age.

There is some predictability to the story however, and I found some trouble with Jean's character. The constant bad taste in men when she'd been married to a good man who was not abusive I find a bit implausible, and what's the deal with her and the sheriff? Their relationship just seemed a bit flimsy for me, was it just for the sex or for protection from the nasty abusive boyfriend Roy, I couldn't really tell- it could have been fleshed out more.

I look forward to the movie, but casting Jennifer Lopez as Jean??? She just doesn't strike me as the earthy ranch girl type from Wyoming...sorry folks. Maybe she'll surprise me.
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Format: Paperback
Three of the main characters in this book are fairly stereotypical - Einar, the hard, wizened grandfather who lost a son, the precocious adolescent, the hated daughter-in-law. Added to this mix is the grandfather's best friend, a near cripple due to a bear-mauling, and the novel works well although at first blush you think you have seen them all before.

The daughter-in-law is battered by her boyfriend. Her daughter calls her on a promise that they would leave with the next beating and they do. With no where else to go, they end up at the grandfather's ranch. He did not know he had a granddaughter and she did not know she had a grandfather. The mother is hated by her father-in-law because she was driving when her husband, Einar's son, was killed in an accident.

As one might expect, the granddaughter melts the hearts of the two old men. The daughter-in-law begins to win some grudging respect, mostly due to the fact that she has a good daughter (if the child is good the parent can't be all bad).

So much of this book is predictable, you would think it would fall into the "already read that" category. However, Mr. Spragg's writing has a haunting quality to it. This makes the entire novel different and makes the characters almost seem ephemeral at times. They haunt and are the type of characters that will stay with a reader for a good long time - the mark of quality characterization.

This is a story of family and character renewal. The individauls renew themselves independently as well as members of the family. The precipatator is the child, yet she is very likeable. She is not the sappy sweet irritating child cast member. She is believable and has no supernatural insights or powers. Perhaps this is why the entire novel seems more believable than most of this type.

A good book that will stay with you.
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