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As Douglas Kennedy himself said, he loves to write stories of ordinary lives 'going into freefall after some unforeseen mistake or happenstantial event.' His novels never fail to be gripping page-turners, for this reason, though some are slightly more gripping than others.
Despite the view of a critic for The Independent, who says us Brits regard Kennedy's work as 'commercial women's fiction' (why does the term 'women's fiction' always sound so derogatory?) I think he's up there with the best of those writers of suspense thrillers, joining ranks with the likes of Dan Brown and Harlen Coben (perhaps some might wonder why I've classified these two authors as the best of any type of writing, but you get the idea!)
State of the Union, for me, falls into the 'not-so-gripping' category, though it's still well worth a read. It's roughly divided into two parts: the first of these ends in 1973, with the protagonist, Hannah Buchan, as a woman in her twenties, who has rejected her parents' radical way of life for the more sedentary, small-town life of a doctor's wife. After falling pregnant at a young age, she moves to a town in the back of beyond in Maine, for the sake of her husband, who is still at the training stage of his career.
However, while he's away visiting his father, who's recently suffered a massive heart attack, Hannah receives a phone call from a young radical who managed to get in contact with her through her father. He asks if he can visit her as he's passing through on a hitchhiking tour. She agrees, but comes to regret several of her decisions during the time he's with her, especially when he announces that actually he's on the run for having harboured terrorists. Hannah is forced to drive him across the border to Canada after he threatens her with the loss of her son.
We then rejoin the story in 2003, when Hannah is 50 years old. Her whole life, in true Douglas Kennedy style, comes crashing down around her when the young radical she had to stay 30 years earlier publishes a book about what happened during those years of his life. One whole chapter is dedicated to his stay with Hannah, although he uses a thinly disguised alias to describe her, except that he has made it look as though she drove him across the border voluntarily, and he goes into all the gory details of their torrid affair.
Of course, with this being George 'Dubyah' Bush's America, those right-wing, religious fanatics among the American population manage to whip themselves up into a media-led frenzy directed at the supposedly immoral Hannah and her wicked ways (the 'young radical' manages to avoid all such accusations by pushing his sudden enlightenment with regard to all things Christian.)
The State of the Union is actually an address made annually to the United States Congress, by the president, to report on the condition of the nation. Essentially this is precisely what Douglas Kennedy has produced here- it's a critique of life in the US post 9/11. So, the question is: does it work? And I'm going to have to sit on the fence on that one.
On the one hand, it does present the sort of hysterical, extremist atmosphere you might expect, and it's one I imagine was certainly present in the USA up to a short time ago, if not even up to the present, though I can't say for certain as I'm observing from the outside.
The whirlwind destruction of Hannah's life, and her struggle to piece things back together was a gripping as this has ever been in a Kennedy book, although I did think it took a long time to get going. It's not that I like a story to be purely of a nightmarish quality, but what came before this element was introduced didn't keep me turning the pages as convincingly as I have done with others of his works. I'm not sure why this was. Maybe it was unconvincing character portrayals, or how one-dimensional Hannah's husband, Dan, was. He didn't seem to have any particularly distinctive qualities, which I know was the idea, but I certainly didn't warm to him.
On the other hand, the swift ruthlessness with which almost everyone Hannah came into contact with judged and dismissed her did seem to me to be slightly unrealistic.
Aside from Kennedy's style of critique, I did also think that he was unnecessarily, and uncharacteristically, harsh on his protagonist, considering that on top of everything else, her daughter goes awol and is presmed dead, and her best friend develops a life-threatening illness, all while she's trying to deal with the main thread of the story. I found myself pleading with him to just give the woman a break!
So, if you like Douglas Kennedy already then this is one I'd recommend. However, if you haven't read anything by him yet then I'd recommend you start with 'A Special Relationship,' which, as far as I'm concerned, is his best yet.