Monday, May 22, 2023

Review: Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann

If you've ever done any reading about the Greek gods and goddesses and the messy, immortal family dynamic that they've got going on, you'll have a head start with Stacey Swann's novel Olympus, Texas. Although her novel is about human beings, it's not hard to see the parallels, starting with the very title of the novel. This is not gods behaving badly but rather mortals behaving badly, though no less interesting for the change. For those who don't have a close knowledge of the gods, that is actually no impediment here; the story will still be a captivating wreck without the mythological backstory.

The Briscoe clan in Olympus, Texas is as close to the town's first family as it gets. They have money and influence and scandals galore. March Briscoe is returning home from a two year self-imposed exile after he was very publicly discovered sleeping with his brother Hap's wife, Vera. Neither Hap nor June, the boys' mother, has forgiven March for the damage he's done to their family and they'd prefer if he had stayed away. His arrival not only reopens old wounds but it plays a part in a new and terrible tragedy. Taking place over just six days, with sections of the novel labeled by the day of the week and with short chapters within the section labeled for the origin stories of the characters, their feelings, and their relationships, the novel is epic in scope.

The major characters here are Peter, the powerful patriarch of the family (Zeus), who has strayed often over the years and fathered several children outside his marriage; June, the matriarch (Hera), who has tolerated, forgiven, or ignored her husband's foibles but has a spine of steel of her own; Hap, their oldest son (Vulcan), who is a hard worker and always felt over shadowed by his younger brother despite being the one who manages to marry the beautiful Vera (Venus); March, the younger brother (Mars), who has an explosive temper and riles everyone up; and twins Arlo (Apollo) and Artie (Artemis) who are Peter's children by another woman but have been welcomed into the Briscoe clan by June and who are trying to figure out their respective futures. The secrets and shifting alliances between these complicated characters and the convoluted family dynamics come together in great shows of destruction and demolition. There is much wrath and ruin, love and death, cheating and vengeance, and sound and fury as all of the hallmarks of the mythological gods' worst (and rarely the best) natures are placed on show. Even March's dogs are named Romulus and Remus. If you ever needed proof that the gods on Olympus were just bigger, more over the top reflections of the human family, this novel highlights this truth in ways you can't miss.

The novel is as sprawling as the Briscoe family tree. The characters are not necessarily likeable, and without the cache or divine gifts of the Greek gods and goddesses, they come off as selfish and terribly, humanly flawed. The messes they make and then leave in their wake are outsized and probably unredeemable even with the glimmer of hope in the end. As Peter says on the second to last page, "It seems like we're all armed with sharp knives we can barely control." But those readers who enjoy a good family dysfunction tale will likely find this satisfying.

1 comment:

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