The title “Apologize, Apologize!” is fitting for Elizabeth Kelly’s debut novel, considering the main characters are a wealthy family that shares insults as naturally as their DNA. Most of the novel is set on Martha’s Vineyard, so it’s no surprise that the Flanagan family seem to be in perpetual vacation mode. Kelly drops the reader into the middle of the chaos with pages of witty dialogue as each character tries to outdo the other with verbal quips that are often equally funny and mean-spirited.
The Flanagans are wealthy, thanks to media tycoon Peregrine Lowell, who silently, but closely watches over the family, earning himself the nickname the Falcon. The oldest Flanagan son, Collie, who is also the most normal of the bunch, narrates the novel. Collie and his younger brother Bingo (their names are just the first of many implausible details) are polar opposites. Collie and Bingo are both teenagers, and while Collie aspires to study humanities at an Ivy League school, Bingo spends his time on girls and partying.
Their parents are also a study in contrasts. Mom likes to think of herself as an activist, but most of what she does is in retaliation to her father, the Falcon, rather than any real conviction. She consistently berates Collie, mainly for his physical resemblance to the Falcon, and praises Bingo, despite his bad behavior. Their dad is often too drunk to do much more than watch movies and play with their parade of dogs. Added to the mix is their also often drunken Uncle Tom, who spends most of his time racing pigeons.
With Collie, Kelly has created a passive narrator who spends more time trying to get a handle on his crazy family than living his own life. Because the Flanagans are extreme people with irrational reactions to life, Collie himself gets lost as a character.
When Collie announces that he’s going to study liberal arts at Brown, there’s a communal uproar of disapproval from his family. His mom asks him “does it occur to you that the world does not need yet another aspiring creative with no talent?” Though it’s already established that Collie’s mother treats him poorly, it’s hard to imagine any parent being so blatantly mean. Even when Collie tries to defend himself, he’s outnumbered by the negativity coming from the rest of his family. Though Collie narrates the story throughout, it’s scenes like these that leave an impression of everyone but him.
Collie’s life is turned in a different direction halfway through the novel. A personal tragedy inspires him to break free from his family’s expectations. The Falcon has Collie in line to take over the business someday, but he is pulled toward social service. He wants to be something other than be a rich kid who has everything handed to him. So he embarks on a missionary trip to El Salvador where he’s also surrounded by extreme people and situations. The trip is fraught with danger, and it’s an effective way to keep the reader wanting to know what happens next. This is when Collie’s character finally begins to emerge, but it comes too late in the story.
Even in the novel’s final chapters, Collie’s life continues to be filled with unexpected and dramatic events. While Kelly clearly has the ability to create interesting plot developments, she does it at the expense of shaping Collie into a sympathetic character. Still, by the end, the relationship between the Falcon and Collie has turned into a believable one, and Kelly’s dialogue is so sharp that it keeps the novel interesting. Though the novel is lopsided with comedy in the first half and drama in the last half, it also shows that Kelly is fully capable of writing both.