A Fraternal Attraction – Summary
Set in a small conservative town in Kentucky in the 1960s, A Fraternal Attraction is the compelling story of a burgeoning love affair between two brothers. Fresh out of Senior High, Rob finds himself falling in love with his older brother Luke, who has just returned from a two-year tour of duty in Vietnam. In desperation, he confides his secret passion to Loubelle, owner of a bakery/coffee shop and repository of the town secrets. She takes Rob under her wing, and together they embark on an ambitious campaign to seduce the tough heterosexual ex-soldier. Loubelle persuades Rob to confess his feelings to Luke, and as their joint campaign of seduction starts to yield positive results she sets Rob up with an unsuspecting male friend, the object being to make his older brother jealous. Told from the perspective of both brothers, and intercut with flashbacks to Luke’s wartime experiences, this is an edgy, intense family drama set against a backdrop of small-town conformity, where illicit desires and skeletons in the closet remain firmly hidden from sight – the “Peyton Place” you never knew existed!
Another minor theme running through the novel is that of mental illness, and the frequency with which various mental disorders are misdiagnosed by the psychiatric profession. Baffled by their younger son’s volatile moods and increasingly impulsive behaviour, Rob’s parents refer him to a psychiatrist, but his family also have a hidden agenda: as the war in Vietnam intensifies, they are anxious to have their youngest son diagnosed as mentally unfit for combat so as to keep him out of the firing line. Rob’s doctor starts to suspect that he may have been subjected to some trauma that could have triggered a dissociative personality disorder and caused his incestuous infatuation with his brother. As children, the brothers acted out scenes from the lives of notorious outlaws from the Wild West and Rob’s doctor believes that he has become so emotionally involved with this role-play he is losing touch with reality. The pragmatic Luke is unconvinced by the doctor’s diagnosis. He views the entire mental health profession with a certain amount of scepticism, but finds himself increasingly mesmerized by his brother’s complex character.
In the meantime, their father Joe is increasingly uneasy about the closeness of their relationship: he had an idea something funny was going on between his two boys, some kind of monkey business – for want of a better term – and he didn’t like it. It didn’t feel right. Things start to get out of hand as the brothers’ mutual fascination with each other snowballs into something more unmanageable and dangerous. Set in a period before the advent of the Internet and social media – an era of drugstore soda fountains, jukeboxes, and drive-in movie theatres – the novel’s primary focus is on the unique challenges posed by a forbidden love that must eventually be confronted by the family, if not by the wider community. The narrative is shot through with a gentle ironic humour as it charts the growing intimacy between the brothers over the course of a momentous summer, concluding on a surprisingly upbeat note.
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