4 out of 4 stars
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It's 1968, the year following Janet Hennessy's death; sadly, she's no longer there to serve as a buffer between her husband and two sons. To escape his father's blame for his mother's accident, Al Jr. joins the army and comes back with an amputation and a drinking problem. His younger brother, Billy, is the star basketball player on his high school team, but his performance never meets up to his father's unreasonable demands. After his father physically assaults him for not scoring enough points, Billy leaves home to find Al Jr. In Unopened Letters from Dead Men by Jeff Regan, the story follows the relationship between a father and his two sons, as they each struggle to deal with their loss.
Regan's experience as a mental health worker lends authenticity to his writing as he addresses the complexities of father-son relationships, sibling rivalry, abandonment, child abuse, alcoholism, war-related PTSD, and loss. Strong characterization drives the story, and Regan masters the important rule of showing versus telling. Each family member features strengths and weaknesses as well as likable and unlikable traits. As the story unfolds, the characters gradually show signs of growth. Because of his athletic skills, Billy has been raised to be arrogant but learns vulnerability. Al Jr. begins the story as a fragile shell of a person and becomes more confident.
I most liked Regan's poignant portrayal of Big Al's relationship with his two sons, which was dysfunctional long before his wife's death. The father's overt favoritism of his younger son was heartbreaking and resulted in negative consequences for both young men. While Al Jr. experienced the brunt of his father's disapproval, Billy struggled to live up to his unrealistic expectations. However, as Regan revealed Big Al's past through the multilayered storyline, it brought to mind the expression "Hurt people hurt people."
On the other hand, I disliked the oversharing of details that occasionally caused the pace to lag. For instance, I struggled to maintain interest in the play-by-play descriptions of more than one high school basketball game. In another example, Al Jr. related to a character in a movie, but the desired comparison could have been achieved without sharing so much of the movie's plot.
I rate Unopened Letters from Dead Men 4 out of 4 stars. Despite some extraneous details, the book is exceptionally edited, and Regan delivers an engaging story featuring complex characters. Readers should be aware that the book contains plot-related violence, profanity, and non-explicit sexual content.
Unopened Letters from Dead Men
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