I’m going to be completely honest here. I haven’t read many Westerns. In fact, I count, including this book, a total of two that I’ve read. This isn’t because I have anything against them, rather, I’ve very much enjoyed the ones that I have read. The only reason my count is so low, is because I’ve never found too many to read.
The point being, I read So Brave, Young, and Handsome as just another story, not necessarily as a Western.
The story follows a struggling writer named Monte Beckett. His first book was a runaway bestseller, prompting him to quit his job and turn entirely to writing (every aspiring writer’s dream). That was seven years before the story opens. When it does, we see him yet to publish another book, always unable to get very far into any attempted project. When he meets a man named Glendon who has his heart set on returning to New Mexico to see his former wife one last time, Monte can’t resist joining him.
The author of So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger, had written a single book before this one. That book, Peace Like a River, was a bit of a mixed bag for me. While I enjoyed it, I felt it took too long to get where it was going, and dipped a bit into sentimentality near the end. Funny thing was, everyone liked Peace Like a River, while So Brave, Young, and Handsome got mixed reviews. I personally prefer the latter. Here’s why.
To begin, the story got moving far faster than did Peace Like a River. Because it started so fast, I was a little worried it would slow down around the middle. To my surprise, it kept up the pace for most of the book, while maintaining strong characters at the heart of it. Speaking of which, the characters were exceptionally well-drawn.
Never once did any of them go “over the top.” Meaning, the story never painted anything as black and white, including the characters. They all do good things, they all do bad things. Instead of stereotypical–and slightly easier to write–heroes and villains, we have legitimately flawed characters, all of which we sympathize with in some way or another.
But perhaps the aspect of this book that made me love it so much was the simplicity. It wasn’t simplistic, but it was simple. The entire book was understated, which made the moments where emotions ran high far more believable than if the entire book was written that way. In fact, the most emotional part of the book was simply the main character leaving another, wounded character (arguably the “bad guy,” though as I previously said it’s hard to define anyone that way).
In that scene where Monte Beckett leaves, there’s no long discussion. No speech. No overt emotion. Monte just leaves. And somehow, the way that was written, the subtlety with which the emotion was portrayed, affected me far more than many things I’ve read as of late.
So yes, this book is understated and simple. On occasion, this hurts it, especially near the end. At the end there is a section of about fifty pages that while significant, could have easily been cut back to thirty or twenty-five, without any real loss.
The climax might disappoint some because of how understated it is. For me, I thought it was perfect. Maybe you won’t, but I’d urge you to give this book a try anyway. I highly recommend it.