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The O'Briens Paperback – March 12, 2013

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor; Reprint edition (March 12, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307744388
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307744388
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (82 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,234,643 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Behrens proves himself a first-rate storyteller. . . . As befits a saga so ambitious in design, there is an able mixture of agony and ecstasy throughout.” —The Washington Post

"Impressive . . . World War II hovers in this novel’s path like flak and rips the lives of the novel’s characters to shreds. The last hundred pages are a powerful evocation of that war’s effect . . . A major accomplishment.” —The New York Times Book Review

“A fascinating depiction of how Irish sorrow ripples through time.” —Bookpage
“Epic in its scope . . . lifetimes unfold in its pages. That the lives hold our attention so closely is a tribute to Behrens’s beautiful writing, and a reminder of just how vital, brutal, and pervasive love is.” —Huffington Post

“Brimming with character and incident, even more ambitious in scope than its prizewinning predecessor, The Law of Dreams. . . . Behrens celebrates the warmth of human attachments without pretending they can ever entirely dispel the existential chill of mortality and loneliness.” —The Daily Beast

“Gritty and nimble. . . . The O’Briens has the surprising, sometimes-random quality of real life rather than the plotted-ness of a conventional novel.” —The Columbus Dispatch

“A deftly painted portrait of a marriage.” —The Seattle Times

“Peter Behrens’s family saga The O’Briens spans the first half of the Canadian twentieth century, finding a parallel epic in an unforgettable narrative of marriage.” —

“This is a saga that warrants your attention. This is a story whose quiet brilliance can’t be ignored. It’s an intimate epic, if that makes sense—a portrait of an entire world through the lens of a single bloodline. All the joy and passion, all the anger and fear, all the love and loss involved in simply living and being—that’s what Peter Behrens has captured with The O’Briens.” —The Maine Edge

“Impressive in its scope and ambitious in its goals. Some of [the] descriptions are flat-out jaw-dropping . . . In giving his family a past few of them knew existed, Behrens has made The O’Briens unforgettably alive.” —The Globe and Mail

“Having read both Buddenbrooks and The O’Briens this summer, I can affirm they are definitely in the same league—great, juicy tales that will make you take a second look at annoying relatives. They are, after all, part of the big picture, otherwise known as history and destiny.” —The Gazette (Montreal)

“Illuminating . . . An epic along the lines of Middlesex in the way it follows a family through time and examines the results of their actions . . . A brooding novel, engrossing in its scope and detail, The O’Briens keeps sight of the family’s personal stories amid the larger history of much of the twentieth century.” —Booklist

Powerful . . . Moments of grace and romance are rocked by cruel words and violence in this epic, a piece of rough beauty itself.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

About the Author

Peter Behrens is the author of The Law of Dreams (which received Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and was published around the world to wide acclaim) and Night Driving, a collection of short stories. His stories and essays have appeared in many publications, including The Atlantic and Tin House. Honors he has received include a Wallace Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University’s Creative Writing Program.

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Customer Reviews

I will be reading the first book in this series;"Law of Dreams" next.
I enjoyed the realistic characters but they just weren't endearing enough to me and the same with the plot to make it stand out.
VW Smith
He is able to pull the reader in with his beautiful descriptions and realistic characters.
D. Sorel

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

36 of 42 people found the following review helpful By Philip Koplin on March 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover
In the end, as in the beginning, it's about family.

Peter Behrens' first novel, The Law of Dreams, centered on the fierce attempt of a young, nineteenth-century Irishman to survive in a desperate world of famine and exploitation after his family had been violently erased from the narrow patch of earth that was his home. The key to that survival was to keep moving, from Ireland, to England, and on to North America, in the hope of constructing a new life. In this second novel, The O'Briens, Behrens examines what it means to construct a life, not just for a newcomer in a new land, but for anyone.

Behrens' other great subject, besides family, is place. We first encounter Joe O'Brien and his younger brothers and sisters, descendants of the hero of Behrens' previous book, in the early twentieth century, coming of age in Pontiac County, in western Quebec. It's hard to imagine the light of the modern world ever breaking in on this darkly wooded, isolated landscape. The siblings, each in his or her way shaped by that environment, leave and begin to disperse, seeking to make of their lives whatever their talents and opportunities might allow them.

In time, we follow Joe from the evanescent, ghostly canals of the freshly built tracts of Venice, California, where he meets his wife-to-be, Iseult, to the harsh terrain of central and western Canada, where he establishes the basis for his fortune by contracting for the laying of railroad track across the mountains. It is also here that he and Iseult begin their family. As that family grows, the next phases of the story play out, from Santa Barbara to Kennebunk to Montreal. History, place, and event are all densely and exquisitely evoked, from the early twentieth century to World War 2 and beyond.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By L.W. Samuelson VINE VOICE on February 9, 2012
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The story begins in the rugged wilderness of Canada as the 19th century turns to the twentieth. Joe O'Brien, the eldest son of an Irish Catholic family, becomes responsible for his brothers and sisters when his father dies. He feeds them, eliminates an abusive step-father, and provides opportunities for each of his siblings.
He runs his own sawmill and eventually becomes an industrial businessman. After his success, he meets the love of his life and weds her. The story then follows the O'Briens as they raise a family, centering on the interrelationships between husband and wife, father and children, mother and children and their relationship to the world. The characters are believable and dynamic and the story deals with love and death as it progresses from WWI to WWII.
Peter Behrens's writing is descriptive, his dialogue spot on, and his words are lyrical. I enjoyed reading it and thinking about the universal themes it explores. There were some very poignant moments in the book and I would give it 4.5 stars if the rating system allowed.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Josephine Ireland on April 13, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'd read Behrens's first book The Law of Dreams so when I heard his second book was available I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I wasn't disappointed. From the first unforgettable scene set in the early 1900s in the outback of Quebec in which a priest teaches a group of rough-hewn siblings to waltz in his improbably refined living room ("It wasn't that he loved the dance....What he was trying to teach was courage."), I couldn't put the book down. If I'd had to keep reading by flashlight I would have. Until the batteries ran out. The writing is gorgeous (having read The Law of Dreams I expected that), and once again the historical setting is so seamlessly and convincingly woven into the story that I felt for a few days I was living in the first half of the twentieth century. The first book has a compact elegance, but The O'briens is wonderfully complicated and layered, the many characters beautifully and compelling drawn. Finishing it late at night was like taking the last bite of the ginger cake my friend Virginia makes from-scratch, deliciously sad; I tried to make it last, but I couldn't stop reading. I miss Joe and Iseult and Frankie already.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Pesso on March 30, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
I reserved this book when my local paper gave it a good review. After reading the Amazon reviews, more kindly than mine, I should have realized what I was in for. The beginning starts promisingly. Who doesn't like a family saga? But only if written well - right? Initial chapters had details upon details. And then 2/3 of the way through something changed. Was a deadline looming over Behrens's head? Chapter themes seemed to be arbitrary - at times a grouping of times and experiences despite the title and date at it's beginning. For example, Displaced Person chapter(s) having two parts. Why? Written on different days? Attempt to increase page count? No need to drag things out page-wise especially when character development came to a halt only seeming to hang on earlier descriptions. Ended up being a total disappointment. Will not bother with his other books. Not my cup of tea.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By SaraJean W. on April 12, 2012
Format: Hardcover
I am a big fan of the author's first book, The Law of Dreams, and could not wait for this follow up. The O'Briens includes all of the poetic language of The Law of Dreams, but in this second novel the author has written a character-driven saga that speeds through history. We follow this expanding Irish-Canadian family as it is being dragged from sea-to-sea by the stormy, duty-bound Joe O'Brien, an incredibly well-drawn and complicated character. The O'Brien family travels through big moments in a modernizing North America and Behrens has an impressive ability to capture the past through his pitch perfect depictions of landscape and setting. It is impossible not to be drawn into the railroad camps, eerily empty canals of early Los Angeles and the privileged world of captains of industry.

And while this is very much an Irish, Canadian and Catholic tale, I really felt that I was reading an American epic in the spirit of East of Eden. There was such a sense of this family being caught up in the various spokes of Western expansion and their need to live the dream and to protect the dream, whether the characters do this by selling real estate or volunteering for war.

The author brings us far into the head and motivations of all of his characters, whether it be lovelorn young Iseult or the son, Mike, who is totally overwhelmed by his powerful father. Behrens is a sensitive reporter who excels as exploring the interior space of his characters. And the way he handled the private landscape of the marriage of Joe and Iseult was truly excellent.

Behrens has created an addictive read that I would feel confident recommending to anybody looking for something to bring to the beach that is also so well-written that it will be on the short list of endless book awards. This is one of those moments of art meeting craft.

And since Behrens is also a screenwriter, I hope to one day watch this family epic play out on the big screen.
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