The Radleys are a typical family living in a staid English village. Peter is an overworked doctor whose wife, Helen, has become increasingly remote. Rowan, their teenage son, is being bullied at school and their anemic daughter, Clara, has recently become a vegan. They are typical, that is, save for one devastating exception: Peter and Helen are vampires and have – for seventeen years – been abstaining by choice from a life of chasing blood in the hope that their children could live normal lives.Anyway, I’ll admit, The Radleys is not exactly a paranormal roma – *grabs collar* I said don’t go, dammit – romance. Both the back of the book and the introductory letter (in our ARC) by Free Press Senior Editor Amber Qureshi call it a ‘domestic drama’, or as Amber says, more of an American Beauty than a Twilight. This is an accurate description (I think – I barely remember American Beauty), and exactly the reason I fell in love with The Radleys by the end of the first chapter.
One night, Clara finds herself driven to commit a shocking – and disturbingly satisfying – act of violence, and her parents are forced to explain their history of shadows and lies. And when the malevolent, alluring Uncle Will, a practicing vampire, arrives, he throws the whole house into temptation and turmoil.
The Radleys is a radiant domestic novel that explores with daring the lengths a parent will go to to protect a child, the cost of denying one’s identity, the undeniable appeal of sin, and the everlasting, iridescent bonds of family love.
The writing here is solid. It flows, it’s quick, light, and – oh God you have no idea how much of a wonderful relief this is – it’s intelligent. There’s no pandering, no painfully awkward witty exchanges that are trying too hard (and often failing) to be funny. The dialog is natural, and the characters speak the way normal people speak. In England, anyway. I can’t emphasize enough how wonderful it is to read a vampire book with a tone that isn’t dumbed down or soaked in angst, and doesn’t take itself too seriously.
But again, calling The Radleys a “vampire book” isn’t fair. The vampirism here is really incidental. Being a vampire – and all the blood, biting, and changing that go with it – really only serve as a stand-in/allegory for everything from alcohol to the suppression of basic aspects of human nature for the sake of conformity. And it’s kind of awesome.
It’s not perfect, though. The book does have its issues, the biggest of which is that what it does have to say about the lengths that people will go to to conform (in an upper-middle-class suburban setting, specifically) has been said before. The characters, while quite likable, all fall neatly in to cliched roles. You have your frigid housewife, the neglected husband, the roguish brother, the seductress neighbor, the victimized loner son, the principled daughter, the beautiful best friend, etc, etc. Almost exactly the kind of character tropes you’d see turning up on Desperate Housewives.
Their plights are similarly familiar: the husband and wife, Peter and Helen, have drifted apart and lost that “spark” they shared in their youth. Peter contemplates an extra-marital affair with the foxy neighbor, while Helen lusts after her husbands ne’er-do-well older brother, Will. Meanwhile, their daughter Clara is finding radical ways to cope with her difference from others (for example, going vegan to make up for the fact that her very presence violently distresses animals), and son Rowan is dealing with both relentless bullying, and his unrequited love for his sister’s beautiful best friend, Eve.
It’s nothing we haven’t seen in media before – frequently – but that also doesn’t make the book bad. Haig does a very good job here of exploring each character’s psyche, and making them all quite sympathetic – even the traditionally hate-able vixen-next-door, Lorna. We get the opporitunity to spend more than one chapter in each character’s mind (though the vast majority is spent in Peter, Helen, and Will’s), and see the world through their eyes. Everyone has a story, and nobody is just plain evil. Oh my god, are these three-dimensional characters I see? Is that character development? SOMEONE GET A CAMERA.
Seriously, though I liked everyone. That never happens.
The other bone I have to pick with this book is the plot itself; it’s predictable. To be fair, I don’t think the book is meant to be very suspenseful – Haig hints here and there about upcoming plot developments, but for the most part, they’re natural, rather than being intentionally vague. And when the revelations do come, they’re not Dramatic Gopher moments. We take them in stride, and watch the characters react.
That being said, I did feel like the last quarter of the book was a bit too…tidy. Each chapter felt like a chess piece being strategically positioned for the final checkmate maneuver, and…everything went according to plan. There are no loose ends, nor really any sequel-bait openings. Even the side characters’ subplots were resolved. It was also extremely happy, which I didn’t expect, considering the American Beauty comparison, and the rather violent turn of events in the last few chapters.
I’m going to try and discuss this without spoilers, but I have to get this off my chest.
I mean, come on, they were family, and quite dear to one another at that. Are you telling me that “a Few Days Later”, certain people aren’t even upset about the sacrifice that was necessary to allow this cheerful conclusion? And Eve and her father’s subplot resolution made no sense at all. Eve’s sudden about-face re: Rowan came out of nowhere, and boy were they quick to seal the deal on that one, despite never even going on a date. Then her father completely went out of character near the end, taking someone to the very person he was sure had hurt her for help. LOL what? Both of those twists were clearly only there for the sake of a happy ending, and mar what was otherwise a pretty believable conclusion.
But I’ll admit, as much of a fan as I am of sad/melancholy endings, the inner neat freak in me was pleased with the way everything turned out just so. I was proud of Rowan for growing a backbone, and of Clara for not backing down to Will, even though I do wish she could have been more involved in the final fight. And wow, Peter totally sat that one out, didn’t he?
Still, the show of familial devotion and cooperation was awesome. That whole last scene actually reminded me a lot of the final fight scene in The Incredibles, in that respect.
I also noticed something about Will and my reception of him that I’ll expand on in a separate article tonight or tomorrow, about the way paranormal romance, as a genre, has pretty much come to accept glorified serial killers as potential love interests, but suffice to say now that I’m glad Haig handled him the way he did in this book.
All in all, I quite liked The Radleys. It went fast – the chapters range from 2 – 5 pages, so you really feel like you’re whizzing through it, too. The writing was engaging, the characters were realistic and relatable, and I liked the underlying, non-conformity message, and the fun it poked at the steadfastly “normal”. While I admit I did want – and was expecting – a bit more from it than what I got, it certainly has more to say than the vast majority of “vampire books” out there. The Radleys is a solid read for everyone, fan of the genre or not.