Saturday, March 24, 2007

Book Review: His Brother’s Keeper by Jonathan Weiner

Jonathan Weiner is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Beak of the Finch. He’s a great writer, and you will see why in His Brother’s Keeper. That’s one of many reasons to read this book, chosen by The New York Times as one of the 100 Notable Books of 2004.

This is the story of the Heywood family: Mom Peggy, Dad John, oldest son Jamie and his wife Melinda, middle son Stephen and his fiancĂ© Wendy, and youngest brother Ben. They come from the Boston area, but the story moves to San Francisco and back, visits the Outer Banks of North Carolina, Providence, Philadelphia, New York, places in New Zealand, and elsewhere where the family pursues its archenemy, ALS (aka Lou Gehrig Disease), which the family learns Stephen has. The book centers around Stephen’s battle against time and Jamie’s obsession to find a cure.

Although we see the family in youth, the real story takes place in their adulthood long after families should have split up and people gone their separate ways. Jamie takes after his Dad and is an engineer. Stephen, like most middle sons, refuses to be “his father’s son” and becomes a self-employed carpenter. Ben, initially an engineer, goes back to school to learn the film industry. About the time Stephen moves to San Francisco to rebuild a dilapidated old house, Jamie moves out, too, and changes career: He goes to work for a prestigious bioengineering institute, which turns out to be very timely, for it is then that Stephen finds out he has ALS.

Author Weiner begins his relationship with the Heywoods while researching an article for The New Yorker magazine. He visits with them many times over a couple of desperate years and he becomes hooked on their struggle. He, in fact, becomes so involved it’s too hard to remain objective as a writer. Weiner’s mother has a brain disease at this same time and he finds he has far more in common with the Heywoods and their search for a cure than he could have ever imagined.

I’ll warn you, I read this story slowly because I kept waiting for time to run out and Stephen to die. I kept waiting to receive the bad news and read about the devastation of the family and the writer. Weiner kindly saves you that misery. What I did read about was a brother who cared so much about his brother that he dropped everything else he was doing to do research, created a non-profit company, engaged doctors and scientists, found potential ideas to pursue, conducted fundraising, and brought all the right people to the appropriate tables to make things happen. The family was always there to support him.

In many ways, this story reads like a thriller. ALS is the bad guy ready to do someone in and Jamie is the detective in pursuit trying to stop what he knows he has limited time to avoid. Will he piece the clues together in time? Who is getting in his way? We know who the bad guy is and we see him plotting out his attack, slowly over time thwarting what authorities try to do to circumvent him.
You will also learn a lot about ALS, the search for a cure, genetic research, and the character of the people behind the effort to stop an indecent murderer. Especially one very driven brother. His Brother’s Keeper is a good read for all these reasons.

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