“Readers will relish Adrienne Brodeur’s Little Monsters for its meticulous world building, gripping storyline, multidimensional characters, and utterly reasonable ending. It is an extraordinary story, unique . . .”
The fully realized setting of Wellfleet Woods, halfway between the tip and the elbow of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, launches Adrienne Brodeur’s mesmerizing, modern day saga about a dysfunctional family so cleverly drawn as to make the story’s dynamic relatable and completely understandable.
The 2016 set story begins with the anticipation of a birthday celebration, and as preparations are made, each characters’ relationship to Adam Gardner is explored. Adam will reach the milestone of age 70 in mid-August and wants to stay relevant. He’s on the verge of what might be his last scientific breakthrough before retirement as a widely respected and highly lauded marine biologist who specializes in whales.
Adam is father to Ken and Abby, who are now moving toward midlife and living disparate lives while nursing a relationship inexplicably strained in their childhood. They are devoted to Adam, aware of both his genius and the highs and lows of his bipolarity. They keep the seething caldron of their history barely tamped down while warily staying in each other’s orbit, due in part to the remote artist’s studio tucked back on the sand dunes that their deceased mother Emily owned, in which Abby now lives and works, and which was left to Ken before Abby was born.
The siblings are diametrically opposed in personality and temperament. The conservative Ken is a successful real estate developer with political aspirations who “married into an old Boston Brahmin family” and “already had social status and access to money.” The bohemian, single Abby is a “graduate of RISD, 1999” and had been “making art on Cape Cod ever since.”
Emily, the mother “Ken lost, and Abby never had,” died immediately after Abby’s birth, and looms like a shadow throughout the novel. She is the undercurrent of and catalyst in this cause-and-effect story, whose death at age 30 left Adam a distracted, single father, and Ken and Abby emotionally on their own to cling to each other in a way that might not have been healthy. When Abby abruptly changes the relationship with no explanation, it is the cut that continues to fester as Ken’s central wound.
In preparing her father’s birthday present, Abby reflects on her family. She “couldn’t pinpoint a date, but over the last few years, the distance between the three of them had turned into something more palpable, a liquid congealing into a solid. Ken was nursing old grievances, their father’s fuse was growing ever shorter, and Abby felt herself pulling away from them both.”
The chapters in Little Monsters alternate between the three Gardners and two other characters, who add depth of field to hidden events in the Gardner’s complicated history. Jenny, the once wild-child and now tamed trophy wife of Ken’s, remains Abby’s best friend, ever since their first year at the Rhode Island School of Design. Jenny is now conflicted over where to place her loyalty, and equally at odds over what she has become.
The enigmatic Steph is a competent police officer vacationing in Provincetown, with her partner, Toni. Newly the birth mother of Jonah, Steph wants to connect with the Gardner family, now that a recently revealed secret has come crashing to the fore, but how to best proceed?
The author’s knowledge of Cape Cod, its environmental laws, the indigenous intricacies of land and sea and all that lives above or below the ocean or flies overhead makes Little Monsters a visceral, multi-sensorial feast woven into the perfectly paced story as each chapter builds by connecting the dots and ends with the lure of a page-turning cliff-hanger.
Brodeur’s descriptions are circumstantial and breathtaking: “The bay was full of ambient sounds—waves roiling pebbles, gulls wailing, families packing up to go home. As often happened at dusk, a fracas erupted offshore—bluefish, crazed with hunger, thrashed, and arced open-mouthed, having corralled a school of bunkers to the surface. Overhead, terns screamed, diving into the fray to collect the spoils.”
In a wonderful scene where the passionate Adam shares his love of all things aquatic, it is incidental that he steers his boat out to Stellwagen while off his meds, so sincerely enthusiastic is he to tell his passenger, “You’ve just entered one of the most important ocean sanctuaries in the world, where whale watching rivals California and Hawaii.” In what might be a manic moment, Adam reasons, “Stellwagen needed to be explained from the bottom up, not the top down . . . words rushed out—'nitrates,’ ‘phosphates,’ ‘phytoplankton,’ ‘zooplankton,’ ‘photosynthesis,’ ‘chemosynthesis,’ ‘rotifers,’ ‘copepods’—and Adam explained the aquatic food chain from the base of the pyramid.”
The culturally specific language in Little Monsters is lively, au courant, and at times delightfully salty, giving insight to the times and nuance to all personalities in a tightly crafted story of a family that would like to connect, but is in denial of its individual and collective wounds.
Readers will relish Adrienne Brodeur’s Little Monsters for its meticulous world building, gripping storyline, multidimensional characters, and utterly reasonable ending. It is an extraordinary story, unique while it informs even as it entertains.