I am having a horrible time writing this review. There’s nothing I can criticize about this book. Not one single thing. How can you write a balanced review when there’s nothing weak or flawed there to balance all the good? So I’m giving up-‘this is not a balanced review, I’m going to gush and praise like the most rabid of fangirls.
The back cover blurb doesn’t even begin to convey the complexity of the story, nor the mastery of the writing:
In town, they called her "Crazy Widow Dinsmore." But Elly was no stranger to their ridicule-‘she had been an outsider all her life, growing up in a boarded-up old house under the strict eye of her eccentric grandparents. Now she was all alone, with two little boys to raise, and a third child on the way.
He drifted into Whitney, Georgia, one lazy afternoon in the summer of 1941, hoping to put his lonely past behind him. He yearned for the tenderness he had never known, the home he’d never had. All he needed was for someone to give him a chance.
Then he saw a classified ad: WANTED-‘A husband. When he stepped across Elly Dinsmore’s cluttered yard, Will Parker knew he had come home at last.
The book spans about two and a half years during WWII, and follows two of the most memorable characters I’ve ever met. He’s an ex con, an orphan, displaced and haunted by his past. She’s a pregnant widow with two young children, a reputation for madness, and a deep mistrust for the people who have made her an outsider all of her life.
Contrary to a widely held convention in romances-‘particularly those written in the 1980s-‘neither of these characters feel in, or behave from, a position of power over the other one. Elly needs a man to work the farm and help provide for her children, and all she has to offer is marriage-‘a stake on the land. Will has been drifting, his jail time making it impossible for him to hold a job anywhere. All he has to offer is a strong back and his willingness to work. They feel equally inadequate, equally lonely, equally lacking in worth. Their lives are hard and nearing hopelessness, but neither of them indulges in self pity. Their world is harsh, and one doesn’t survive in it for long by being weak.
After a trial period, they do get married-‘a marriage of convenience, and from which they expect nothing, want nothing and need nothing, beyond a sense of security and belonging. Gradually, as they get to know each other, and learn to deal with the responsibilities marriage entails, even a marriage that doesn’t seem to exist except on paper, things change. They both need more-‘to give and to receive. And it is this journey, from isolated entities to a tightly bound unit, that the novel charts.
The setting, a small town in Georgia in the early 1940s, is rendered with sure strokes and built up, bit by bit, through the course of the novel. America hasn’t quite recovered from the Great Depression, and rural towns move at a slow pace reminiscent of times long gone. The historic detail is never intrusive, but pervasive nonetheless, from the smallest aspects of everyday routine to the larger social and political issues of the time.
There are a number of delightful secondary characters, from the inimitable Miss Beasley, to Robert Collins, Lydia Marsh, and all the way down to Nathaniel and Norris MacReady, who comprise Whitney’s Civilian Guard during the war years. Lula Peak, the town slut, and Harley Overmire, superintendent at the local sawmill, are two other key secondary characters-‘not delightful by any means, but still skillfully drawn.
Will’s friendship with Miss Beasley, the spinsterish librarian, is particularly poignant in its realism. While both Elly and Will have felt like lonely outcasts for most of their lives, Elly has a family-‘her relationship with her children is something Will envies and doesn’t believe he can even hope to have. For her part, Miss Beasley is a lonely old maid, separated by intelligence, education, and character from most of the people around her. Given their personalities and interests, there is a tremendous sweetness in how these two characters, loners by circumstance rather than nature, find a kindred spirit and, tentatively at first, lower their defenses to offer and accept friendship.
Throughout the book, the dialogue is so good you can virtually hear the different accents and see each character’s background and education just from hearing them talk. But it’s really Ms Spencer’s incredible portrayal of the main characters’ inner lives that grabs the reader’s imagination and heart. Here is a snippet from a particularly lovely scene near the mid point of the novel:
They lay flat, quivering inside, disciplining themselves into motionlessness. From the corner of her eye she glimpsed his bare chest, the looming elbows, the hands folded behind his head. From the corner of his eye he saw her pregnant girth and her high-buttoned nightie with the quilts covering her to the ribs. Beneath her hands she felt her own heartbeat driving up through the quilt. On the back of his skull he felt the accelerated rhythm of his pulse.
The minutes dragged on. Neither moved. Neither spoke. Both worried.
One kiss-‘is that so hard?
Just a kiss-‘please.
But what if she pushes you away?
What is there for a man in a woman so pregnant she can scarcely waddle?
What woman wants a man with so many tramps under his bridge?
What man wants to roll up against someone else’s baby?
But most of them were paid, Elly, all of them meaningless.
Yes, it’s Glendon’s baby, but he never made me fell like this.
Turn to her, he thought.
Turn to him, she thought.
This novel is a perfect mix of characterization and dialogue with plot and pacing, along with a poetic quality to the writing that manages to convey, so very vividly, the time and place where these lives unfold. I have read this book more than a dozen times over the years, and each time I start (like this time, in order to review it), I’m taken away to Whitney, to wonder anew at the everyday miracles that Elly’s and Will’s relationship embody.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. If I could, I’d give it 200 out 100 :grin:
azteclady (who guest blogs on a regular basis at Karen Knows Best)