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Bright Before Us

3.23  ·  Rating details ·  305 ratings  ·  69 reviews
Facing the prospect of fatherhood, disillusioned by his fledgling teaching career, and mourning the loss of a former relationship, Francis Mason is a prisoner of his past mistakes. When his second-grade class discovers a dead body during a field trip to a San Francisco beach, Francis spirals into unbearable grief and all-consuming paranoia. As his behavior grows ...more
Paperback, 288 pages
Published May 10th 2011 by Tin House Books
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Average rating 3.23  · 
Rating details
 ·  305 ratings  ·  69 reviews

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Diane Prokop
Apr 20, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I like when authors take me hostage right out of the gate and don’t let me go until they’ve had their way with me. That’s what Katie Arnold-Ratliff does in her debut novel “Bright Before Us.” The story begins: “We hadn’t expected it; the sky had been clear.” That’s ominous. I want to read more and as I do I watch while teacher Francis Mason discovers a dead body on a San Francisco beach. But it gets worse; he’s got his second-grade class with him.
This moment of unexpected darkness on an
Karen Germain
Apr 19, 2012 rated it really liked it
As usual, another book from Tin House Publishing that is a winner. "Bright Before Us" is a very, very dark book. The protagonist is hard to like, as he openly admits to being cruel and manipulative. However, he did garner some sympathy from me, as he is in constant conflict and knows his faults, in particular his anger and resentment issues.

The subject matter hit a little too close to home with the subjects of mourning and parents dying. I could completely relate to the falling apart that
Jun 19, 2012 rated it liked it
While on a field trip, a young teacher and his second grade class come across a dead body within sight of the Golden Gate Bridge. The death is, presumably, a suicide. The fallout from this could make a great novel. How do the children and their teacher cope? How does the school community come together in the wake of this tragedy? The simple answer is they don’t. We see moments of the aftershock, but ultimately the book is not about that. The event is instead a trigger for the real subject of the ...more
Jun 09, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: books-read-2011
It is to the immense credit of Katie Arnold-Ratliff that she can create a debut novel so vividly populated with a full compliment of characters who are equal parts thoroughly believable and completely reprehensible. It strikes me as a fearless way to write a novel, to create a landscape where no character exists to be sympathetic. It creates a story with a bold lack of artifice. It is nothing less than a Coming of Age in the Age of Bad People: a book about a terribly f*cked up narrator and all ...more
Sep 02, 2011 rated it really liked it
“I cried the next time Mom asked if I wanted a story, because I didn’t know how to say I wanted a story but not that one.”

In her debut novel, Katie Arnold-Ratliff leads her readers into the cavernous mind of Francis Mason, a young teacher whose entire life begins to unravel after his second-grade class finds a dead body washed ashore a San Francisco beach. As the narrative continues—and Francis’ past slowly emerges through a stream of flashbacks in the even-numbered chapters—it becomes clear
Jan 28, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I didn't really like this book all that much. The characters were not likable, but that would be okay if they were at least believable. But they weren't. Granted they're supposed to be in their early twenties, when every little word and action in life is wrought with meaning, but so much of this book just seems like, well, something out of a hipster-angst movie, I suppose. I'm not sure if the author is young. If she is then that might change my take on the novel. This really felt like a young ...more
Jun 07, 2011 rated it it was ok
I have mixed feelings about this book. I admire the writer's skill with description and explaining the thoughts of the main character/narrator. But Francis was such an awful, unlikeable character, it didn't makes for the most pleasant reading. No, not every work of fiction has to be happy and cheerful, but I didn't always enjoy reading about a self-hating person be cruel in all of his relationships. It's probably not fair to judge the quality of the book based on this, but so be it.
Andi Adamson
Jan 16, 2019 rated it really liked it
Aesthetically, I really appreciate this book. The way it's bound is different and I think makes turning pages easier. The story is told in an interesting way and I found it interesting. My one complaint is the jumping around in time and between 2 love interests. The style of writing clued me in between the 2 love interests, but I still found myself confused at times and had to re-read a bit too straighten myself out. If you don't like jumping back and forth between time periods, this book is ...more
Callie Hass
Aug 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
I wanted this to be good, I read it after Elizabeth Gilbert mentioned it in Big Magic. It just never clicked for me at all. The protagonist, if you could call him that, was such a sad-sack asshole that I just wanted HIM to jump off a bridge. Every single thing he did made his own life and the lives of those around him worse and even though he mentioned this as if he was self-aware, he never took a single step towards responsibility and it drove me NUTS. I was so happy when this book was over.
Lisa Mccoy
Feb 01, 2017 rated it really liked it
It is a testament to an author's skill when she can create a character who I don't particularly like and yet find the story compelling and by the end I feel sympathy for the poor guy. I really, really liked this book.
Micha Goebig
Apr 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
It didn’t really draw me in but it’s an excellently written book.
May 04, 2011 rated it liked it
Bright Before Us is a first novel by Katie Arnold-Ratliff, published by the literary house, Tin House. With this novel, Arnold-Ratliff, an assistant editor at O, The Oprah Magazine, forcefully enters the literary world.

The novel's narrator, Francis Mason, is a twenty-something, progressive second grade teacher in San Francisco. On a field trip to the beach with his class, Mason discovers the body of a suicide victim. The trauma of the experience unravels Mason, who becomes lost in memories of
Aug 28, 2011 rated it really liked it
Here is a great example of being able to really write. Not relying on a fantastic character that we all love, which you know, is fine to do. But I dislike it when people act like authors must constantly churn out super huggable characters. You don't necessarily need likeable characters if an author is fantastic! For example, our main character Francis is a complete JERK. He makes mistake after mistake. He actually maneuvers himself into these terrible situations and you want to scream, "No! ...more
May 08, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I had to take my time in deciding how to rate this book, because by the time I was halfway through the book I was reasonably certain I would give it 3 stars, but at the time I finished it, I was inclined to give it 4. In the end, I settled on the higher rating because of how this story lingered in my mind and because of all the emotions I felt during and after reading. After all, isn't the point of a good book that it affect you in some way? Preferably in a positive way, but not necessarily. ...more
Jun 19, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: fiction
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Shonna Froebel
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I got this book in the mail from Powell's on Friday, and it sounded so interesting I started reading. What a great read. This is a debut novel from a promising new writer. The main character here is Francis. Francis is in his first year of teaching, and has a second grade class. On a field trip, some of the children discover a body on the beach and Francis begins a downward spiral. Immediately he doesn't react as he should by protecting and helping the children, and it only gets worse. He ...more
Jul 13, 2011 rated it really liked it
I loved this - but I can't really explain why. I was immediately annoyed with the author's overuse of the comma, I eventually absolutely hated all of the characters, and the end was completely predictable.

But I don't often read for hours at a time anymore and something made me plow through the last half of the novel in a few hours yesterday (even seeking out a coffee shop to continue reading after my lunchtime read, which I *never* do). So that says a lot.

I can't recall how I found out about
Jul 29, 2011 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: writing students
Shelves: debut-novels
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Chris Go
Jul 03, 2011 rated it really liked it
This book is really about first love, but it begins with a field trip that ends unexpectedly. Frank, the main character and a fledgling second grade teacher, takes his class to the beach to explore the tide pools when a few of them discover the body of a dead woman. This event turns Frank's world inside out and upside down.

I admit that I got a bit lost and confused along the way, but am glad I stuck it out, as it does get better. The story unfolds in alternating chapters where we learn about
May 01, 2011 rated it liked it
** I won this book through Good Reads First Reads. **

I'm having a hard time deciding how I feel about this book.

I had a very hard time getting into the story. I was never able to connect with any of the characters in the book. The story was jumpy and I didn't like the way the main character talked to his former love. It was almost written like a journal written to this woman and it became very confusing. I was able to hate the main character, but I really wanted to see where his train wreck of a
Jul 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Francis/Frank Mason is a 23 year old teacher, with a wife, Greta, who is four-months pregnant when his second-grade class finds a dead body washed ashore during a field trip to a San Francisco beach. An idealist who describes himself as wanting to teach tolerance, the people's history and free-association writing, Frank breaks down in front of his class at the sight of the dead body. As he deals with the aftermath of the field trip tragedy, Frank intersperses his current story with a story he ...more
May 12, 2011 rated it really liked it
For a debut novel, I was impressed. The flow of the novel captured the wild, detached and often confusing emotional roller-coaster that our protagonist Frank was experiencing as a result of finding the body. The problems that he faced were genuine and as a reader I was conflicted, often wanting to hate Frank but then forced to sympathize with him, which is a sign of solid work by the author. For me, the issue was I simply didn't believe that finding the body was a powerful enough catalyst for ...more
May 21, 2011 rated it really liked it
Bright Before Us oscillates between a story, told straight in 1st person, to a revisiting of the past, told as if written in a letter to someone. The development of both stories together pair surprisingly well, illuminating the tragedy while fleshing out the main character.

Who is, it must be said, is quite the bastard. We never root for him, or want him to succeed. We want him to wake up! But the prose makes it clear we are being told the story as he feels it, rather than how he is perceived by
Aug 24, 2011 rated it liked it
This book reminded me how interesting it is when men try to write women characters and vice versa. Arnold-Ratliff wrote about a man in a way I found foreign and not familiar. It was the story of a generic man of my generation, probably of a similar skill set, with maybe a bit less ambition or energy, but not that much less. Yet it still felt different. That's when I realized how it was more an anthropological study than a complete occupation of a character's identity.

Which is fine.

I liked the
Stephanie  Hames
May 02, 2011 rated it liked it
The quotes on the cover don't do it justice. This book is filled with one liners between characters that I can easily see one of my friends saying. Wile it wasn't one of those OMG CAN'T STOP READING kinda books, it was most certainly a good read. I felt that the alternating perspectives from chapter to chapter were really confusing. At first it was really hard to follow WHO the narrator was speaking to, but even after you figured it out it was still a little awkward. The writing is done ...more
Kate Merriman
There were some very interesting and compelling things going on in this little book, and I had read glowing blurbs about it, having received this as part of the monthly "Indiespensable" program with Powell's.

The good: wonderful sense of place, interesting plot, intriguing working of threads of the story back and forth.

The distractingly not-good: I just could not accept the narrator's voice as that of a young straight man. The floaty, self-indulgent and weepy interior tone kept telling me that
Jul 12, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: indiespensable
This book is a tough one to review. The protagonist is a thoroughly unlikable character, but he's also fascinating in what a train wreck he is. There is something really compelling to see someone build an increasingly elaborate framework of lies, knowing at any moment it will come crashing down. And I have to hand it to Arnold-Ratliff for keeping me interested in this miserable person's life and his relationships with his miserable wife and his former love. The writing is great, and her take on ...more
Judy Mann
Aug 08, 2015 rated it did not like it
I found this book to be completely incoherent. So writerly and so pretentious that I am giving up after 94 pages. I mean what the hell is going on ?I don' t understand the plot. I sure as hell don't understand the narrator and I really don't understand who in God's name is saying what. You think I'm kidding? I'm not. Who is he talking to? and why is he talking to her? And his wife? who is pregnant? She hates.him. They hate each other. So why the F. is she pregnant with their baby? And why don't ...more
Feb 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Katie Arnold-Ratliff made me hate Francis Mason. He is so perfectly pathetic - weak and consumed by regret. That's how I know this is an exceptional novel. Her writing style is precise and masterful. At times I was reminded of the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay and of course the title eludes to Langston Hughes. Arnold-Ratliff's protagonist made me think very much of George Gray in Spoon River Anthology too. I don't know how she did it, but I really felt like she must have been inside my head ...more
Sep 17, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: indiespensable
Honestly, it earned three stars largely for keeping me entertained on a cold, snowy day when I'm away from home. The structure of the story, while it takes time to adapt to, drew me in and kept me interested. The characters? Wow. There is not a sympathetic character in the bunch, and the protagonist is infuriating- his cognizance of his own foibles and his lack of interest in doing anything about him keeps this from being a heartbreaking story. The entire tale just felt grey, much like the Bay ...more
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