There are two ways to read this novel: firstly, you can just dive straight in and enjoy it without thinking about the significance of the placename in its title, or, you can give yourself a knowing smile and keep an eye open as you read for all the resonances in its pages.
I did the first, devouring this complex tale of a very dysfunctional Texan family, and then I remembered what the blurb said about Greek and Roman mythology, and started working back to see how it all joins together. That was definitely a good approach for me and I’d recommend it for you too.
The Briscoes are a wealthy family, owning a large portion of the town of Olympus, Texas including several businesses. The clan is led by Peter, sixty-something and a realtor, and June, who runs the family ranch. Their older son Hap runs a machine shop and makes art on the side. Their angry younger son March exiled himself for two years after having an affair with Vera, Hap’s wife. Hap managed to hang on to Vera, and they have a son who’s two. There’s also a daughter Thea who escaped to Chicago to become a mother and a prosecutor.
But now the non-prodigal son is returning to the town and the next six days will turn everyone’s lives upside down. All the skeletons will come out of the closet, and all the simmering tensions in this family, and by extension the whole town, will boil over.
The Briscoe family is more complicated though. Years ago, Peter had an affair with Lee, who got pregnant and had twins, Artie and Arlo. Arlo is a musician and until recently Artie has managed him. But that’s not the life that Artie wants, she’s fallen in love with Ryan in town and wants to stay back in Olympus running hunting expeditions. As the novel begins, no-one knows about this romance, as there is bad blood between the Briscoes and the Barrys. June, meanwhile, had long decided to ‘accept’ her husband’s philandering – Lee wasn’t the only affair – but naturally it still bothers her, and she is surprised to find herself attracted to the new locum vet, Cole, who comes to tend their cattle.
The story evolves over these six days with two major threads. The first is March’s homecoming and the ramifications of him, Hap and Vera being in close proximity again. The second involves Arlo and Artie, and Arlo’s jealousy when he finds out about Ryan. There will be tragedy, shattered marriages and cut ties before the week is out and the Briscoe family descends into full meltdown, although there will be redemption for some. I loved Swann’s portrayal of small town America and the dominant family that is destined to fall – Olympus is no Schitt’s Creek! This novel also reminded me of the superb TV series Six Feet Under – I think it was the emotionally repressed matriarch of the Fisher family, Ruth, so reminded me of June.
Swann tells the main story in the present tense. At first this jarred a little for me, but as I got immersed in the tale, I didn’t notice it any more. This keeps the narrative drive of these six days flowing in the moment, and allows space for flashbacks in the past tense to explain some of the key ‘origin’ stories which include ‘The origin of March’s exile’ and ‘The origin of Artie’s Promise’. Purists may scoff at the way Swann has mixed up the Greek and Roman gods and goddesses in the text, but that didn’t bother me. It made it more fun deciphering who was who.
If you would like to see how the characters correspond with the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods and goddesses, highlight the green block below.
Peter and June are Jupiter and Juno. Hap is Hephaestus, god of metalworking. March is Mars who committed adultery with Venus – Vera. Lee is the Titan Leto who had twins with Zeus (Jupiter) – Artemis the huntress, and Apollo god of music amongst other things – ie Artie and Arlo. Ryan is Orion (I’ll leave you to look up what happens to him with Artemis and Apollo). There’s also daughter Thea who as a prosecutor is probably Athena, godess of wisdom, and the undertaker Uncle Hayden – Hades is god of the underworld (like that one). March’s dogs are named for the legendary founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. The vet, Cole – is probably Hercules, god of strength. There well may be others, but I did enjoy picking these ones out.
With a cover quote from Richard Russo, whose novels I adore (and need to catch up on), I was bound to enjoy Olympus, Texas. It’s the kind of American family saga novel that I particularly enjoy and an excellent summer read. I will certainly be looking out for Stacey Swann’s second novel in due course.
Don’t just take my word for it. See also Susan’s review here, and the previous and following stops on the blog tour for this super novel below.
Source: Review copy – thank you. Stacey Swann, Olympus, Texas, W&N, hardback, 336 pages.
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