Sunday, November 11, 2012

Review: A Simple Thing by Kathleen McCleary

When Susannah Delaney discovers her young son is being bullied and her adolescent daughter is spinning out of control, she moves them to remote, rustic Sounder Island to live for a year. A simple island existence--with no computers or electricity and only a one-room schoolhouse--is just what her over scheduled East Coast kids need to learn what's really important in life. But the move threatens her marriage to the man she's loved since childhood, and her very sense of self.
For Betty Pavalak, who moved to Sounder to save her own troubled marriage, the island has been a haven for fifty years. But Betty also knows the guilt of living with choices made long ago and actions that cannot be undone. "A Simple Thing" moves beyond friendship, children, and marriages to look deeply into what it means to love and forgive - yourself.

When I first picked up this book I wondered if it was going to be one of those character-driven novels where there is a lot of talking, very little actually going on, and by the end of which you're wondering what is it exactly you've just read. I am not too big of a fan of those. But "A Simple Thing" turned out to focus both on the characters and on plot. From the very first chapter it was obvious that Susannah is a woman who is not afraid to act, even if fear is what propels her. She, as well as her children, made things happen, and I liked that about them as much as I liked that Susannah recognized her mistakes and was willing to correct her course when necessary. She may seem flighty to some, but to me she is a woman figuring it out as she goes, and I feel that this makes her relatable for most people. Betty, the second protagonist, is her antipode in many ways, a solid, sure woman who makes plans and follows them, even if she realizes later on that she has made a mistake somewhere. The blurb on the back cover suggests that both Susannah and Betty undergo a transformation but I found this misleading. Suzannah is the one discovering herself and while Betty's story often mirrors that of the younger woman she has already recovered from the pain of her past and is now there to sympathize, listen, and provide a gentle nudge in the direction of healing.
A novel such as this one I think relies heavily on the author's ability to create a sense of a place, not just set the scene, but make you comfortable in the setting. McCleary does this very well and in a way that doesn't intrude on the characters or their journeys. By the time the book was over I felt as if I knew what it's like to live on Sounder, understood the rustic nature of the islanders' existence, and even loved the place for the simple comforts and the camaraderie. This even made me yearn for a place like that in a way, until it occurred to me that this sort of romanticized portrayal was very fitting for the perspective of a person who, like Susannah, is not really passing through but not staying either, and that given more opportunities Betty might've revealed more gripes than just having to take care of the chickens, who clearly don't hold a special place in her heart. After all, living in a tiny community for decades can't be bliss all the time, no matter how much hard work there is to keep people out of each other's business.
There are a few good messages woven into this novel, and one of my favorites is the one that talks about the necessity of nurturing oneself. We forget about that much too frequently and it really is a universal truth that applies to both men and women, although women are the ones who need reminders most frequently. Susannah getting in touch with her artistic side after a hiatus of many years was the turning point of the book for me, echoed by Betty's recollection of the time whine she remembered that she was more than just a woman who took care of everything and everyone. The parallels between these two women's lives were eery at times, and while they are very different people their stories somehow anchored each other, showing that no matter how different the people the same principles of recovery apply.
For the most part this was a very enjoyable book filled with interesting characters (Barefoot stole every scene he was in and Katie definitely made things interesting with her indomitable spirit) and sage advice on subjects such as guilt, responsibility, knowing when to hold on and when to let go, and it worked for me until almost the very end when a dramatic event seemed to be too over the top to fit in with the rest of the story while remaining its climax. That chapter was well-written but it was just too much for me, although it did help Susannah put a lot of things in perspective and move forward with her life. Throughout the book this was a relatively subtle story with the struggle mostly internal and turning it almost into an adventure story at the eleventh hour seemed incongruent.
A friend offered me an ARC of this book when she somehow got two copies and I'm glad that she did. It is a solid novel and I won't hesitate to pick up other novels by Kathleen McCleary should I happen upon them.

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