Love attacks. It sneaks up like a pride of lions or a pack of hyenas and eats your heart out while you watch. Love is the bully on the playground who takes your lunch money and gives you a black eye in return, the arsonist who burns your house down with you in it, the witch who lures you into her house with candy and boils you alive for dinner. Love is raw, and violent, and instantaneous. You don't fall in love; you get trampled by it. (p. 210)
Nathan lives, reclusive and celibate, in a small New England town. He teaches high school, tries to ignore the (male) student who's flirting with him, and tries to pretend that he is more than a response to his past. Then his brilliant, loveable younger brother Tommy descends, with his lover Philip and a married couple in tow, and turns Nathan's quiet bitter life upside down.
Nathan and Tommy are dissimilar -- Tommy craves connections, Nathan thinks that 'loneliness is a small price to pay for peace and quiet' -- but they're bound by more than blood: their earliest sexual experiences were with one another, and they spent their youth surviving their widowed father's depression, rage and emotional absence. Though they now lead very different lives, they've been shaped by the same experiences, and the same things matter to them both: love, sexuality, betrayal, rage.
Tommy's presence, and the way he acts towards his friends and Nathan's acquaintances, forces Nathan to reappraise his own relationship with, and memories of, their father. As he revisits memories of his youth, the reader sees what Nathan only gradually begins to acknowledge -- that Nathan takes after his dad in more than just looks, that his rage and despair and vindictive streak is as unhealthy as Tommy's footloose and fancy-free hedonism. And, more, that the two of them together -- unable to let go of one another, even after all this time -- are a recipe for tragedy and disaster.
Nathan is not, exactly, unlikeable. His mordant humour and refusal to comply with others' expectations has an honesty that Tommy (seen through the distorting lens of Nathan's POV) lacks. Nathan's pain, and his unacknowledged grief and love, makes him a compelling character. As he begins to unravel the tangle of his own emotions, he begins to understand his brother rather better, and learns some harsh truths about himself and his family.
There's a subplot concerning archaeological excavations in the field behind Nathan's cottage -- local historian eager to discover lost Indian settlement -- that never quite gelled for me, though it may be a metaphor for Nathan's gradual excavation of his emotions. The relationship between Kyle and Camille, the married couple who accompany Tommy, has more parallels with Nathan and Tommy's uneasy balancing-act than is at first obvious. But the core of the novel is the relationship between the brothers Bishop, and what they know about each other and themselves.
Fascinating, dark, unsettling and tragic: beautifully written, too. Don't come to this novel if you want happy endings: read it, instead, for an insight into the breaking and mending of souls.