by Karen Hawkins
Jane, a softhearted child who loved animals, cried at the thought of all the thirsty farm animals. As her tears fell, clouds gathered, and it began to rain. From then on, every time Jane cried, it rained. It was said that whenever local farmers wanted it to rain, they would bring Jane onions. And when they wanted sunshine, they brought her cake.
(From page 1)
I loved the way this book began! It had a whimsical fairytale-like aura that was charming. After a few pages, I was hooked. In 2001, The eccentric youngest of 7 daughters who loves the library discovers a grouchy old 18th-century book about the history of her town that is demanding she read it. Literally. I loved the way she just took this in stride and even would not let the book boss her around. There was even a promise of future romance in an exchange with an awkward schoolmate who overhears her answering back to the book. And it turns out that at least some of her sisters also have special powers. I was thinking “Oh, Great! more to come once the intriguing Sarah’s story is told!–Lot’s of possibilities!” Then we meet Grace, a hostile young girl, seeming unrelated, trapped in the foster system whose only care is protecting her beloved and beautiful younger sister. She is finally taken in by her “last chance”: a feisty, wise, no-nonsense woman who strangely seems to take to her, instead of her pretty and seemingly sweet sister. This was all in the prologue.
Unfortunately, starting in Chapter 1 when we meet them again as adults, it started to go downhill. Grace turns out to have made a successful career as a financial advisor, her spoiled sister is dead, and she has become the ersatz parent of her 8-year-old niece as well as the parent of her parent, “Mama G”, who has Alzheimer’s. The depiction of that tragic disease and its effect on the victim and their family was handled beautifully. Not so the depiction of the 8-year-old girl, who acted more like a difficult teenager. Instead of feeling sympathy and caring about Grace’s growth from an angry closed off sour old biddy, I just didn’t like her. Plus, she is not an old biddy, she is only around 25 years old. That just didn’t track with me. Actually, how she overcame her difficult childhood with the help of Mama G would have been an involving journey. But I still liked and was interested in Sarah. Unfortunately, she devolved into a side character and her “book charmer” capabilities were only a sidelight and a catalyst to Grace’s story.
At about a third of the way through the book, it got very slow and dull. And though I kept reading, it lost me. And the reason was the writing. The author kept circling back and going over old territory without doing much to advance the plot and deepen the character development. It’s as if she was circling back to ensure understanding like she was a 4th-grade teacher whose class is not keeping up. We got it the first time, Karen Hawkins: Grace has a lot of anger, She does not want to be friends with anyone, Daisy is struggling, Sarah is nice and wants to be friends because she believes Grace is the key to saving the town. Travis is hot, a good guy, damaged, and he and Grace are fighting their mutual attraction but are meant to be, even though Grace is determined to move back to Charlotte.
It picked up a bit when Grace unraveled the town’s neglect of finances, took the negligent townspeople by the scruffs of their necks, and reconstituted the beloved Apple Festival to revitalize the town. She also did a 180 personality-wise. After all the turmoil and hurt feelings she is turned around after a short conversation with Kat, the local femme fatale. After the build-up to the all-important festival which took over more than half the book, we don’t even get to go! She skipped right over it! I was also grateful (yes, grateful) that we didn’t get any more of Grace’s determination to leave town once her neighbors saved Mama G’s life, made Daisy a nice little girl, and brought her love and friendship. **end spoiler**
I won’t go into the idyllic southern town where black people go to the same 2 churches as their white friends. And a prominent character, Zoe, looks like a “black Audrey Hepburn” whose family owns the bank and is so powerful and popular that the Mayor lives in fear that she will run for office because she would win in a landslide. The other black person that we get to know a little is Aunt Jo who has a dog named “Moon Pie”. I’m just not going to go there. I looked up Karen Hawkins’ biography because I was sure she had never been within two states of the South. I guess Tennesee is really different? I liked the magical realism when it popped up from time to time, but I’m not sure feeding into this kind of fantasy of what it is like in small-town southern America is helpful. It would be wonderful, but unfortunately not remotely recognizable.**a rounded up 3 stars**
December 16, 2021