Ann Packer brings craft to family life in The Children’s Crusade

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      The Children’s Crusade
      By Ann Packer. Scribner, 448 pp, hardcover

      In her well-crafted but occasionally plodding new novel The Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer returns to a theme that appears to hold an enduring fascination for her: the tension between a woman’s drive for personal fulfillment and her obligation to care for others.

      Packer is best known for her 2002 novel The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, which tells the story of a young woman who abandons her fiancé after he is paralyzed in an accident. In The Children’s Crusade, a young woman, Penny Greenway, marries a doctor in the 1950s, but finds herself ill-fitted to the demands of caring for four children and escapes, first to a small studio fashioned out of a shed near the family home, and finally to Taos, New Mexico, where she pursues a career as an artist.

      But unlike the earlier novel, which focuses on one woman’s wrenching decision between a life of self-sacrifice and one of self-discovery, The Children’s Crusade is a sprawling family epic spanning half a century that strives to give equal weight to the stories of all six members of Penny’s family. Packer’s prose is never less than smooth and her insight into her characters is keen, but the book is at once far too long and not nearly long enough for the task the author has set herself.

      It doesn’t help that Penny’s choice to turn away from her children, especially her troubled youngest boy, James, renders her a deeply unsympathetic character. It is one thing to balk at giving up one’s life to care for a disabled fiancé, and quite another to put one’s artistic ambitions before the needs of one’s own children.

      If Penny were a great artist, or so driven to make art that she was incapable of thinking of anything else, that might have made the dilemma at the heart of the novel thornier. But Penny seems merely overwhelmed and a bit bored by childcare and eventually shrugs the burden off onto her husband.

      “Children deserve care,” her pediatrician husband is fond of saying, and by the end of this thoughtful, if only fitfully compelling, novel many readers will agree.