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Monday, May 6, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Book review
Kristin Hannah’s ‘Fly Away’: grief sends family and friends into a tailspin

By Melinda Bargreen
Special to The Seattle Times

‘Fly Away’

by Kristin Hannah

St. Martin’s Press, 400 pp., $27.99

The sequel to Kristin Hannah’s widely beloved 2008 “Firefly Summer,” “Fly Away” returns 30 years later to the lifelong best friends, Tully and Kate, who are now about 50. At the very beginning of “Fly Away,” we discover that Kate has died of cancer, and the fact of Kate’s death permeates nearly every chapter that follows. That’s because almost everyone around Kate — her husband, her best friend, her daughter — goes completely to pieces, utterly unable to deal with a loss that they knew (but didn’t quite believe) was coming.

Unable to cope, Tully — formerly a successful television personality with her own show — sinks into total disarray: drugs, alcohol, unemployment, failed rehab, jail, and all kinds of inappropriate and unreliable personal behavior. Kate’s widower, Johnny, rushes the family off from their Bainbridge Island home to a well-meant but ill-advised post-funeral Hawaiian vacation, then relocates the family in California: anything to get away from the reality of Kate’s death. Kate’s teenage daughter Marah, inconsolable and completely adrift, falls under the sway of an amoral Goth boyfriend who leads her in an extensive variety of revolting behaviors.

No one can help each other, console each other, or support each other. Each character is absolutely disabled by grief. We see very little of the few family members who seem more functional.

Hannah also writes the backstory of Tully’s unhappy childhood, probing the history of Tully’s absentee druggie mother — an aging hippie formerly known as “Cloud,” whose neglect and abandonment of her daughter caused irreparable psychic damage. And there’s more: we go back another generation to discover why Cloud (now known by her real name, Dorothy), scarred by her own terrible parents, is so irresponsible and emotionally stunted. This makes four generations of appalling behavior, and as you read on, the unrelenting grimness of the plot starts to feel burdensome.

Not even the dead Kate, who speaks to Tully from the afterlife, is happy; she misses her children and worries about them.

This is not to say that Hannah isn’t a gripping and intelligent writer. One reason the book is so depressing is that she’s very skilled at making her characters come to life, in all their angst and despair. The difficulty here is, that with almost everyone behaving badly, there is little to enjoy or admire besides the eloquence of the writing. There’s a certain amount of chronological dislocation in the narrative, though Hannah prefaces most of these leaps with dates to reduce confusion.

And in the final few chapters, there’s a silver lining: a redemptive ending that offers the hope of a better future for these troubled and bereaved characters.

Pacific Northwest readers will particularly enjoy the ability of Hannah, who divides her time between Washington state and Hawaii, to set an authentically local scene, from the farms of Snohomish to the streets and sounds and foods of Seattle.

Melinda Bargreen is the former classical music critic for The Seattle Times. She’s a freelance contributor to the Times and reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM (www.king.org).


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