I’m going to tell you right off the bat that Before the Wind, a novel by Jim Lynch, is terrific, a book you can’t put down, a wonderful read. The reason I’m starting with that is because if you just looked at the book, or even read the inside cover, you wouldn’t necessarily realize what a treasure you were holding in your hands. A book about sailboats? A book about a dysfunctional family that built sailboats and raced them? A book whose plot turns on the father of the family getting all the siblings together for one last race? You would be well within your rights to put it back on the shelf and looking for something else, thinking you’ve read the basic plot and met these characters before, but you would be cheating yourself of a fabulous reading experience if you did.
You don’t have to be a sailing aficionado to read and love this book. Obviously if you’ve been sailing and fallen in love with it, your experience with Before the Wind will be that much deeper and more pleasurable, but even if you’ve never been on a sailboat, by the time you finish reading this book you will feel the joy of sailing and the pure love of the process.
Yes, this is about a dysfunctional family, but no one in the family is presented as a grotesque or a monster. The father is a bit annoying and I personally wouldn’t want to have to live with him, but he’s understandable even as he badgers his sons and manipulates the rules of the races to get a better handicap (another way of describing what he does is “cheating”, but I’m going to be generous here). The mother is the only non-sailor: she teaches physics at the local high school and is interested in sailing as a function of wave dynamics and wind dynamics and becomes obsessed with solving this famous mathematical problem (which has a million dollar reward for the person who solves it first). The oldest son, Bernard, is on the lam from the law, an anarchist and a smuggler. The daughter, Ruby, was a sailing savant with an almost supernatural ability to read and anticipate the winds, until she turned her back on sailing and headed to Africa to work on providing medical care to poor people there.
And then there’s Josh, our narrator, the middle child, who’s a man who fixes boats and lives in a run-down marina an hour from where he grew up, the only one of the children who’s still kept in touch with everyone else in the family. I think it’s because Josh is our point of view character that the book is so warm and generous of heart. He’s so experienced with boats and with repairs that he can take a look at a boat brought in for repair and know immediately whether it’s salvageable and how much time and money it will cost, and whether it would be worth it, from a strict dollars and cents viewpoint, to do the work, and yet he’s so softhearted that he does a lot of work for people without even charging them, just because he feels for them. He’s clear sighted and realistic of vision, but he doesn’t allow that clear (and even a bit cynical) vision to prevent him from doing what he believes in. These qualities make him the ideal center for this family, someone who can listen to and sympathize with everyone, and because he’s the one describing everyone else, they come across as real, flawed and lovable people and not just bizarre characters created by a novelist.
I can’t remember the last book I read that was so warmhearted, so generous and forgiving, a book that was both exciting and surprising and yet so satisfying. If you read it, you’ll probably want to go out on a sailboat yourself and experience the beauty and timeless wonder of the intersection of the wind and the water, but there’s nothing wrong with that, either.