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Originally published Sunday, March 25, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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Book review

'The O'Briens': money + power + family equals fine storytelling

Peter Behren's novel "The O'Briens" tells the story of an Irish immigrant whose expanding business empire and devotion to his upper-class wife can't insulate him from tragedy.

Special to The Seattle Times

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'The O'Briens'

by Peter Behrens

Pantheon, 384 pp., $25.95

Family sagas have been a mainstay of storytelling ever since the House of Atreus fell. Consider Faulkner's Compson clan, or the Benedicts of the book/movie "Giant." Even the current hit series "Downton Abbey" plays with the same winning ingredients: Money + Power + The Ties That Bind.

This formula is on display in Peter Behrens' latest novel, "The O'Briens," a multigenerational tale that features gold leaf on the ceilings and servants at the gate. Fortunately, the displays of material riches take second seat to Behrens' deftly painted portrait of a marriage.

"The O'Briens" opens around 1900 in the backwaters of Quebec. Joe, the oldest son in an impoverished home, grows up fast after his father dies and his mother marries a drunken loser. He carves a toehold in the timber industry, starts making money and boots the worthless stepfather.

Then Joe tackles the next item on his list: finding a wife with the class to equal his expanding bank account. In California, he meets Iseult Wilkins, a well-bred only child who has just become an orphan. Chemistry and mutual need collide. They tie the knot and their chalk-and-cheese relationship becomes the driving force of the book.

Joe and Iseult both yearn for the family they'll eventually have. But first they face a heartbreak that both haunts and unites them for the rest of their lives. This early loss stands as a metaphor not only for their life together, but also for the shared sorrows and mutual devotion that can push and pull at any couple — not just the ones who have gold leaf on their ceilings.

Almost from the start, we see Joe as a tragic figure, with more than a passing resemblance to the real-life Joe Kennedy, who was also self-made, Catholic and from the same era. Powerful men who think their business success gives them control over the home front seem destined to fail.

Yet it's not all about Joe. He drowns self-doubt in a bottle. Only Iseult has the words to examine his dimensions and their relationship.

"This man, this Joe O'Brien, her husband, had once stepped through the fog and promised life, connection, children, meaning," she reflects early in their life together. "But really people were alone. Even in marriage — perhaps most of all in marriage — they were still alone."

Will the O'Briens hang together through their differences and the blows that life delivers? Timeworn though the topic may be, Behrens proves his mettle by making us care enough to find out.

Two smart, determined individuals are hardly the recipe for a tranquil marriage. But they certainly make life — and fiction — more interesting.

Ellen Emry Heltzel lives in Portland.

She is co-author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasures."

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