When I was in junior high, upset that no one seemed to understand my perspective or feelings, my mother tried to comfort me by offering, “Well, everyone’s an island.” It didn’t help. (What happened to, “This, too, shall pass”?)

Years later, I remember my desperate refusal of her words, though that feisty naiveté is gone. The rueful kind of laughter we all often have when remembering episodes of our past is among many of the emotions, and perhaps the strongest, that Alex George conveys in his heart-rending second novel, “Setting Free the Kites.” A beautifully told, nostalgic tale about friendship, George brings to life true, strongly independent characters that transform the reader into a big kid, running right alongside them throughout the novel.

The story opens briefly in the present day, at the construction site of a long-abandoned paper mill in Haverford, a fictional small town in midcoast Maine, where the narrator, Robert Carter, has come to take a last look as demolition of the building begins. The mill, where he and his best friend escaped to on so many summer days, represents the most defining time of his life. “Inside those old brick walls, the light of uncomplicated happiness shone down on us, as warm and as comforting as the sun,” Robert recounts. “But such a bright light casts long, dark shadows.” The novel then flashes back 40 years, as Robert tells the story of his friendship with Nathan Tilly. Together during an incredibly turbulent time, several tragedies occur that change their families and their lives forever.

Although author Alex George is British and lives in Missouri, it’s obvious that he has both done his research and spent his time well while visiting Maine. Through Robert, he describes the beach in winter, highlighting the drastic contrast of black ocean water against the undisturbed white of snow-covered sand, “as if the cold had bled all color out of the world. I had never seen the shoreline more stark, or more beautiful.”

Apart from a few small quibbles – Maine’s paper mills mostly are located well inland – George’s depiction of Haverford is so authentic, the town could easily exist alongside Brunswick, Rockland, Harpswell, or any other small town along the Gulf of Maine that “stuck out a leg and pulled up its skirt,” to lure in tourist dollars to keep the local economy alive as other industries declined.

In Haverford’s case, the attraction is Fun-A-Lot, a 13-acre amusement park run by Robert’s father and the town’s largest summer employer. From behind-the-scenes George uses the park to show the backside of the version of Maine marketed to tourists, as well as to introduce us to many of the complex personalities that drive the plot and highlight the local vibe with both kind and humorous descriptions.

George’s lovable characters earn the reader’s concern as quickly as the first impression of a real-life friend. Robert is sweet and hesitant, pensive and introverted, while Nathan is the fearless, fun-loving free spirit who pushes limits – the coaxing “why not?” to Robert’s worrisome “why?” As similar in some ways as they are opposites, both are endearingly unjaded. Then there’s Robert’s punk-rock loving older brother Liam, who has muscular dystrophy, and Lewis Jenks, the craggy war veteran-turned-repairman at Fun-A-Lot.

Themes of disappointment, loss and living life to the fullest emerge as Robert and Nathan’s relationship grows. Despite the highs and lows of their friendship, together they experience many firsts, from first jobs and first obsessive crushes, to many more first nibbles of knowledge, they provide a consistency for each other that their own families can’t provide, deepening the bond they share.

The tension between the carefree lifestyle of youth pulling against the perplexing realities we discover as we mature out of childhood makes “Setting Free the Kites” an effecting, emotional read. So many excellently crafted details are packed into its pages, poignantly capturing the rapid change of emotions during adolescence. As the boys become aware of life’s many complexities, their story is a reminder that good and true friends are like the bridges that connect the islands to the mainland.

Marae Hart is a graduate of the University of Iowa and the Salt Institute. She is a freelance writer and can be contacted at:

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