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Friday, January 15, 2016

Review of "Small Blessings" by Martha Woodroof

From my archives, I’m choosing another book that appears on the 2016 Dublin Literary Award longlist.  I read the novel in August of 2014, and, obviously, I wouldn’t have recommended it for a literary prize.

3 Stars 
This is the story of a group of people living in a small university town in Virginia. Tom Putnam is an unassuming professor whose life revolves around work and looking out after his wife who suffers from a number of debilitating neuroses. His life is turned around after an unexpected family event and after the arrival of Henry, a son he didn’t know he had. Another arrival, that of Rose Callahan, the new employee at the campus bookstore, also changes the lives of many.

The plot has a number of twists and turns, some of which are rather unrealistic. The amount of chance and coincidence is occasionally suspect. One event, a major twist near the end, left this reader shaking her head; it is precipitated by behaviour that is totally out of character and seems intended to add suspense, but it is just too jarring. The ending is predictable and ties everything into a tidy, neat package.

This book is a gentle, unchallenging read. It does not require the reader to ponder profound philosophical ideas though it does suggest that people need to appreciate life’s small blessings. Simple things like a conversation can be enough “to build a bearable day on.” “Small pleasures, deeply enjoyed . . . [provide] the true joy of living.”

The characters are all rather quirky and all have distinct personality traits. My complaint with regards to characterization is that Tom is just too good to be true. He is a “sweet, dutiful, loyal guy” who is “one of the rare few who had the courage to accept – without malice – other people exactly as they were.” His 20-year marriage has been dysfunctional because of his wife’s mental illness; his is a marriage “anyone except for Tom would have fled years ago.” When a friend behaves in a way that is meant to hurt Tom, Tom sees the behaviour as a cry for help and chastises himself for not having been sufficiently supportive: “The truth was that he, Tom Putnam, had been an iffy friend.” Tom is not perfect; his indecisiveness, for example, can be truly annoying, but his goodness knows no bounds and everyone holds him in high esteem. A little less shine on his armour would have made him more convincing.

I can see this novel as a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. It has lovable characters about whom the reader comes to care. There are poignant moments as well as humourous ones. It has the requisite charm and warm-heartedness with a simple message that everyone can appreciate.