Sunday, October 19, 2014

Book Review: Small Blessings

The description of this book drew me in: "A remarkable new woman at the college bookshop helps a professor - and the son he never knew he had - realize life's small blessings." I did enjoy the book, but there were a few things that didn't sit well with me. For one, the English professor is painted as such a long-suffering saint for staying with a wife who suffers from mental neurosis and lauded for only straying once, in a meager three-week affair. Yet, as soon as she is gone, he embarks on a new relationship, declared to be "love," only days after her demise. Somehow, I couldn't agree to seeing him as a saint. But, if I let go of that, and simply dissolved into the story, the writing did lure me in.

Tom Putnam feels that life has passed him by. He is stuck in a meaningless existence, whiling away the time teaching Shakespeare while sharing the care of his mentally-challenged wife with his live-in  mother-in-law. His own guilt from having a brief affair with a visiting poet eats away at him because it caused his wife to slip further into her neurosis. Then, one day, he receives a letter in the mail, supposedly from the poet, supposedly suggesting that he is the father of a ten year old boy who will be arriving at his doorstep soon for a visit. Once the child arrives, it is clear (because of his race and younger age) that he is not, in fact, the professor's son, but Putnam does the right thing (as his reputation suggests) and embraces the child as his own.

Before Putnam is able to announce the child's immanent arrival, his wife dies in a tragic car accident (possible suicide) and Putnam is drawn into the spell of Rose Callahan, who is a new employee at the college bookstore (his own wife declared her to be worthy of interest, by stepping out of character and inviting her for dinner). How will he deal with the release brought by his wife's death? Will Rose and Tom get together eventually? Who is the child, really, and how did he end up on Tom's doorstep? How will Tom's colleague Russell deal with the loss of his visions of a possible relationship with Rose for himself?

It was an interesting enough story. I did find myself embracing the characters, despite being unwilling to see Putnam as the all-round-good-guy or being quite able to understand the magical lure of Rose, who was an average character, at best. It was intriguing to me to consider how a spouse suffers when a person is mentally unbalanced (especially since I know something of this from watching my husband have to deal with the fall-out of my own clinical depression when I was at my worst). The sense of helplessness that Tom Putnam expressed on behalf of his wife was spot-on. Still, I would hope that my husband wouldn't consider my own death, in the midst of my struggles, to be a welcome release.

I could also relate to Rose's desire to keep moving from one place to another because of her upbringing. I, myself, suffer from a wander-lust driven by my childhood moves of every three years. The thought of staying permanently in this house in Indiana, where I feel devoid of lasting friendships, is excruciatingly painful. I understand Rose's fears entirely.

I agree with the comments on the inside cover, which proclaim this to be "A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings, has a wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels as if life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never could have imagined." For a debut novel, I think Martha Woodroof pulled off an interesting story, with interesting characters, and a compelling plot. It made me wonder if she could see all the pieces before she started writing or if the bits fell into place as the story progressed from her pen. However she managed it, I think it was a moderate success.

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