A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy

Posted August 18, 2015 by Taryn in Reviews / 0 Comments

I received this book for free from LibraryThing Early Reviewers in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

A Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthyA Place We Knew Well by Susan Carol McCarthy
Published by Random House Publishing Group on September 29th 2015
Genres: Fiction, Historical, Contemporary Women, Sagas
Pages: 272
Format: Print ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
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“Life, like the sea, comes at us hard,” he could hear Old Pa saying. “It’s kindness–simple human kindness—that buffers the blows.”

A family drama set in central Florida, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wes Avery is a successful gas station owner and dutiful family man. His once meticulous wife Sarah is slowly pulling away from the family, as she increasingly retreats to the family bomb shelter. His 17-year-old daughter Charlotte is nervous about the looming threat of nuclear war, but is also preoccupied with high school and upcoming homecoming activities. As the tension builds between Russia and the United States, so does the tension in the Avery household.

Contemplating the global game played out over the past week, Avery had the dizzying realization that they’d reached every chess player’s worst nightmare: zugzwang.

Zugzwang, the endgame perfected by Persian chess masters over a thousand years ago, occurred when every move left is “bad” and whichever player has the next move will, as a result of his move, lose.

In the thermonuclear-charged game between Khrushchev and Kennedy, having reached zugzwang, the only question left to answer was: Whose turn is it? Was it Kennedy’s due to Khrushchev’s downing of the U-2? Or was it Khrushchev’s because of some secret move on Kennedy’s part?

This novel felt like two different books: a family drama and non-fiction novel. The non-fiction sections were actually my favorite parts! At the end of each school year, we would always stall out over World War II and then maybe devote the last couple days to everything that happened more recently. I really only knew the basics about the Cuban Missile Crisis. I learned a lot from this book (Pedro Pans, dog tags, women’s civil defense effort., etc.), especially about the civilian response. The author obviously did a lot of research. The most fascinating part of this book was the setting: Central Florida in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis. With the main character managing a successful gas station and the location set near an army base, the author is able to explore the escalating tension from an interesting, impactful angle. The author did a good job of portraying the fear and uncertainty the families experienced, as well as the innocence off the time, and the subsequent loss of innocence. I liked that the author chose to tell the story from the perspective of those who are helplessly watching the situation unfold through rumor and television report.

He could see in her eyes the struggle between her need and her reluctance to believe him. In kindergarten, she’d nicknamed him Happy Pappy, discerning even at the age of five, his determined optimism. Her childhood drawings of him were always smiling. But clearly the problems they were facing today were so much larger, and scarier, than he had the power to resolve. That realization–her recognition that all the positive thinking in the world couldn’t mask the fact that he was as powerless as she was– pained him to no end.

I wasn’t too emotionally invested with the Avery family and their domestic situation. The characters never felt like fully formed people and I didn’t really care much about them or their relationships to each other. It seemed as if the author’s voice was speaking through them and the characters were simply vehicles through which to explore this fascinating time period in history. Avery and his gas station employees, Steve and Emilio, were the most interesting characters. Avery’s POV dominated most of the book, so maybe it would helped if there were more chapters from Sarah’s and Charlotte’s point of view. I did not like the way the last chapter was set up. I thought there would be more symmetry with the intro, so View Spoiler » threw me off and really took me out of the book.

Whenever Mama did that, she’d quote President Roosevelt: “When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hold on.” …But knots–she sighed deeply, hurting as she thought of it–like families, like dreams, like life, for that matter, can be slippery things, unwilling or unable to hold.

While I felt kind of ‘meh’ about the Avery family, I was very invested in the crisis unfolding around them. That is no small feat, considering I already knew the basics of how that situation ended up! The historical aspects of A Place We Knew Well were really interesting. I will be seeking out more books about this time period.

(Being from Southeast Texas, there was a one sentence reference to Port Arthur in Chapter 8 which was neat to read!)

“This thing’s got disaster written all over it,” Sarah had said. He wished she were here now to see them. Those kids aren’t the disaster, he would’ve told her. We are; every one of us who saw this thing coming and didn’t do everything in our power to stop it.


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