Wednesday, April 3, 2019

An Open Book: A Trio of Love Stories

This is going to be a bit on the long side; but I wanted to talk about three different novels I've read in the past month or so--a trio of love stories, two of them by Catholic authors whom I admire and the third by a NY Times best-selling author who caters to a more secular audience.  (I'm going to try really hard not to give too many spoilers!)

First up, Ornamental Graces, by Carolyn Astfalk (who happens to be the host of this link-up).

I recently ordered a Kindle copy of Astfalk's romantic novel (which has a 4.5 out of 5-star rating on Amazon and has been reviewed positively by several Catholic authors which whom I'm eFriendly).  I wanted to get this book uploaded in time for my recent trip to Rome with my husband, and I read it on the airplane on the way back home.  I found it to be a highly enjoyable story, written with compassion and insight--and plenty of sometimes bitingly witty, other times poignantly tender dialogue between well-drawn, sympathetic characters--by an author whose prose is clean and uncluttered and compulsively readable.  Getting lost in this will-they-or-won't-they drama was a wonderful distraction for a recovering white-knuckle flyer like me, and the flight flew by.  (See what I did there?)

When I looked at the appealing poinsettia-red cover of Ornamental Graces, which is graced with a Christmas tree ornament, an evergreen branch, and a love-struck couple embracing in the snow, I couldn't help but think that this book would be akin to a sweet and simple Hallmark Christmas movie (you know, a holiday love story with a predictable but satisfying happy ending), but told from a Catholic perspective.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  Astfalk's novel is so much deeper than a Hallmark movie; it tackles some of the most difficult subjects--human frailty, sin (sins against chastity in particular), faith, and redemption--while telling the story of Dan Malone and Emily Kowalski, two twenty-somethings who fall in love but spend most of the novel at cross purposes.  At times, I was reminded of Rhett Butler and Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (one of my all-time favorite books), who never seem to be on the same page, even though it is plainly obvious to the reader that they are meant to be together.  Every time Dan and Emily grow closer, something--usually a hidden truth about Dan's checkered past, but sometimes a simple misunderstanding caused by poor communication--tears them apart again.  I wanted to strangle one or both of them a few times!  But those two crazy kids kept me turning the pages--just like Rhett and Scarlett did!

Dan is slightly older than Emily; he previously had a shallow, long-term relationship with an unsuitable woman, a relationship that included pre-marital sex but very little substance.  After a painful break-up, he turns away from God, choosing instead to drown his sorrows in booze and drugs.  Once a devout Catholic who carried a Rosary in his back pocket, he has lost his faith and can't believe he is worthy of any woman, especially one as uncomplicated and sweet and faith-filled as Emily.  Emily's past is much different than Dan's; she has not has much experience with men at all (and definitely has never had a physical relationship with one), and she doesn't have any confidence in herself when it comes to the opposite sex.  These two young people don't think they're "good enough," but for different reasons.  Dan has been forgiven of his past sinful life by God through sacramental grace, but he still can't forgive himself; Emily suffers from a lack of self-esteem, thinking she's not pretty or interesting enough to attract men.  Both dream of getting married and starting a family, but so far they haven't had much luck. They meet and feel a connection, but must go through a roller coaster of ups and downs before they finally learn the healing power of God's grace and the true meaning of love.

Ornamental Graces is spicier (less Hallmark-y) than I thought it would be, as far as the sexual situations it explores; there isn't a lot of embarrassing detail, but I would still rate this an adult book and would not recommend it for a young adult reader.  The characters come dangerously close to ruining their chances for a holy union a few times, due to the near occasions of sin in which they find themselves when they let their guard down.  But this is balanced out by their commitment to chastity and abstinence, and by the way they turn to prayer to receive the grace from God that will give them the strength to keep their relationship pure.  Dan doesn't want to make the same mistakes with Emily--a wonderful girl whom he hopes to marry one day--that he made with his former girlfriend, with whom he shared a sinful life.

I did enjoy this book; I really liked the characters of Dan and Emily (even though both, especially Dan, were quite flawed--which I suppose is exactly why they did seem so real).

One of my favorite characters in the book is Dan's grandma--a chocolate chip cookie-baking, Miraculous Medal-wearing, devout Catholic woman who never ceases praying for her wayward grandson and "interfering" in his life in the best way.  I won't give away too much here--but it is evident that her prayers on his behalf were heard, because there is a conversion scene in this book that is extremely touching (especially to someone like me, who also wears a Miraculous Medal always, and who even owns a first-class relic of St. Catherine Laboure).

Aside from the relationship between Dan and his grandmother, I loved the family dynamic between Emily and her married brother Robert's big, rowdy brood.  The descriptions of what life is like in a household that has five young children living in it rang utterly true-to-life.

There are some powerful messages in this book: that you can't live an unchaste life and then just decide to change when you meet the right person, with no lasting wounds; that the negative effects of that kind of sinful lifestyle can be far-reaching and have the power to destroy future relationships; that God can forgive us much more easily than we can forgive ourselves; and that if we don't love ourselves, it is hard to truly love others.  Best of all, there is a clear pro-chastity, pro-life message that desperately needs to be heard in this day and age.  For that reason most of all, I hope that Ornamental Graces will find its way into the hands of as many readers as possible.

Next up is Katie Curtis' The Wideness of the Sea (4.3 out of 5 stars on Amazon), a book I've had for over a year now and for which I am finally posting a review!

After reading lots of buzz about Katie's book on my favorite social media platform, Instagram, I ordered a copy.   It was sort of a Christmas present--from me to me--in December of 2017.

I did read this book several months after that IG selfie was posted.  But I never got around to writing my review, because, grandbabies...and I've got a whole bunch of other really good excuses.  I recently decided to read it again, in order to have it fresh in my mind for this review.

I am an admirer of Katie Curtis, who has a popular food blog (The Humble Onion) aside from her regular blog, and has written for numerous other publications as well.  The Wideness of the Sea is her first novel.

Anyone who can raise six kids (including twin toddler boys) and still flourish as a working writer is kind of my hero.  (I didn't get around to embarking on my writing "career" until my five boys were mostly grown!)  It's too bad that I didn't become acquainted with Katie sooner, or we might have been able to meet in real life.  She hails from Portsmouth, NH, which is a stone's throw from Dover, NH, where my husband and I made our home for almost three decades before moving to VA in 2017.

This debut novel, a story of lost loves and fractured families, of forgiveness and redemption, is set in Maine, a wildly beautiful state with which I fell completely in love during my years living on the nearby NH Seacoast.  If you've ever visited the lighthouse-dotted seaside of Maine, you know that there just isn't anyplace in the world like it.  The setting for this book is one of the reasons I was drawn to it. 

Okay then, here is a quick synopsis:

Anna Goodrich is a 28-year-old artist who grew up in Coastal Maine but has been living in New York City for seven years, working at an art gallery and also selling her own original paintings.  After years of being pressured by her domineering father to work on her art and rebelling against him, she paints in secret.  Her big-city life is hectic and high-powered, and it bears little resemblance to the slow-paced, small-town existence she left behind: she has a job she loves, a loyal roommate, and a handsome, charming boyfriend named Raphael, a workaholic with whom she enjoys a busy social life.  There is also an old flame living back home in Maine, a man whom Anna has tried to forget all these years.

Anna is the daughter of a well-known artist, Therese McAllister, who was not only a loving mother to both Anna and her sister Marie, but also mentored Anna in her formative years and helped her to develop her natural artistic talents.  When she is in 10th grade,  Anna falls in love with a boy named Andrew, her older brother's friend, and the relationship lasts all the way through college graduation.  But having sacrificed going to art school to follow Andrew to U Maine Orono, Anna feels it is now Andrew's turn to follow her when she wants to move to NYC to get away from her father, who has become increasingly controlling in the wake of Anna's mother's death.  John Goodrich thinks that by giving up painting, his daughter is wasting the talents she inherited from his late wife, for whom he is grieving; but Anna is so traumatized after losing her mother that she can't bring herself to work on her art.  And for his part, Andrew just cannot leave Maine and the lobster fishing business that his father started ad that he has plans to take over.  This disagreement leads to a painful break-up for these high school sweethearts.

When Anna's Uncle Charlie dies suddenly and unexpectedly, she goes home for the funeral.  At the reading of the will, she is shocked to learn that her uncle has bequeathed his beach house to her.  While she's in the area, reconnecting with Marie (and her family) and doing some odd projects around her uncle's house, she runs into Andrew and sparks fly.  Ultimately, Anna is faced with making some tough decisions.  Should she sell Uncle Charlie's house and return to NYC?  Should she keep it as a vacation home?  Does she belong with Raphael, or is Andrew really the one for her?  As she searches for answers, Anna does come to the poignant realization that "the people who know you well, that have known you for your whole life, are irreplaceable.  No new addition in your life can ever have what you shared with them.  Your past is gone, except for the people who carry it with you.  But they take that part of you when they go."  And like birds who always instinctively migrate home, she knows that no matter how far away she might roam, "her instincts would take her back to Maine, and to the sea."

There are some things I really liked about this book.  One of them is the character of Andrew: he is kind, humble, responsible, hard-working, steady as a rock--and let's not forget, easy on the eyes!  There's the perpetually mussed-up hair, the sun-reddened cheeks when he comes in from a day spent out on his boat setting lobster traps, and the shy, crooked smile that so disarms Anna and makes her go weak in the knees; really, what's not to like?  He reminds me of my own high school love, my husband, whom I met at about the same age as Anna meets Andrew, and who is--in my humble opinion--the best template for creating a fictional love interest that I can imagine!  Here is one of my favorite quotes about Andrew: "He was a captain.  There was something about him on the water.  He was a person in his element, doing what he was born to do.  Like God had called him to be a lobsterman.  An behind him sat the wideness of the sea."

I have to say that I didn't quite get Anna and Raphael.  They don't seem to fit, as a couple, and I don't understand why Anna thinks they do.  As Marie puts it, they are "two puzzle pieces that almost fit, but not quite."  Raphael is often referred to as "charming" in the book, but I don't find him particularly so.  Now Andrew, on the other hand...I would like to have seen more scenes with him in this novel.  Less Raphael, more Andrew!  Although truly, they are both good men; there are no villains here. (Speaking of relationships, I just wanted to add that I appreciate that this book does not glorify the usual secularized, morally relativistic attitude regarding pre-marital sex.  If Anna and Raphael are having physical relations, this is never mentioned.  The same goes for Anna and Andrew.  Hugging and kissing is as far as it goes.)

Some of the other characters, like Anna's big sister Marie and her husband Mike (parents of an adorable boy named Henry), are quite endearing as well.  Marie and Mike are so very uncomplicated and normal, a quite genuine example of a happily married couple.  Marie is a good foil for Anna, a steadying force for a younger sister who tends to be more high-strung, emotional, and unsure of what she wants in life.  And Marie is also a great example of grace under pressure when dealing with life's trials and tribulations.

I am always happy to read stories like this that show how through God's help we are given the graces that can heal wounds and soften hearts.  Anna's faith life had become non-existent in the wake of her mother's death, and going to Mass on Sundays had not been part of her rather shallow existence in NYC.  Once back home in Maine, she begins to go to church again, and as her relationship with God improves, so do her relationships with the people in her life.  The Wideness of the Sea explores the idea that no matter how tough things get, no matter how long a feud between relatives might go on, in the end, the people who love you most and are there for you no matter what are the members of your family.  And just as God loves us, His children, so much that there is nothing we can do that's so bad it can't be forgiven, so it goes between earthly parents and their offspring.

My one caveat is that this book could have used more careful proofreading and editing.  Typos and grammatical errors distracted me at times and lessened my enjoyment of what was otherwise a very good story.  (I think it's possible that I'm a frustrated copy editor, however; so this is a pet peeve of mine, but might not be as big a deal for someone else.)

The Wideness of the Sea tackles a lot of heavy topics and weaves them together nicely.  Ultimately, I found it to be a heartwarming and satisfying tale.  I won't tell you if Anna ends up with steadfast Andrew (the member of this love triangle for whom I was most definitely rooting throughout the book) or with suave Raphael.  But by the end of the novel, you'll get the message loud and clear that if you find the place you're meant to call home and the person with whom you're meant to share your life, you're pretty lucky.  Almost as lucky as you are if you get to see a blue lobster (a creature with a genetic anomaly that has a mere one in two million chance of occurring)--not once, but twice, with your own eyes.

Who gets to see this this extremely rare and beautiful genetic mutant?  Do you want to know?  I guess you'll have to read the book to find out! ;)

And finally, here are a few words about Susan Wiggs' Map of the Heart.

Touted on the back cover as a "sweeping story that spans generations and continents," it is a very well-written book and a bit of a page-turner.  This is a work of historical fiction (my favorite genre!), going back and forth between present-day America and WWII-era (my favorite era!) France.

There are so many things to like here.

The historical parts are well-researched and fascinating.  Then there are the long-held family secrets, exposed via old family photos found in a dusty old trunk in the attic of a crumbling old house (who isn't a sucker for that sort of thing, right?!).  There are so many mysteries surrounding the lives the main character's grandparents, and finding out when and how they will be solved keeps the reader on the edge of her seat.  The author's writing style appeals to me.  The characters interact in a natural way and their dialogue is often quite humorous and entertaining.  And there are characters in this book who exhibit almost superhuman courage during the war, risking all--even their own lives--to do what is right.

BUT...there are also some things I didn't like.

I suspect that Wiggs is a Christian author, and there is evidence of this sprinkled throughout the book.  Mass is mentioned.  Prayer is mentioned, and not in a disparaging way.  The fact that the USO handed out prayer cards to US soldiers during the war is mentioned.  HOWEVER: the main character, a widow named Camille Adams (whose father grew up in war-torn France), talks about the relationships she's had after her husband's untimely death, and she says that one man got "all weird and Catholicky on me."  He was a "one-date wonder" because he "took some of the doctrines a bit too literally"--meaning, he wouldn't sleep with her because they weren't married!  It annoyed me that the author describes a person who wanted to adhere to the teachings of the Faith as "too Catholicky."  Also, there are other aspects of the book that pander to a modern, secularist world view of morality that I won't mention here; suffice it to say that even though this historical novel has much to recommend it, I did not feel as good upon finishing it as I did with either Astfalk's or Curtis' cleaner, more morally uplifting works of fiction.

Okay, that's it for me.  (Sorry for the length of this post--I guess I had a lot to say!)  Now head on over to Carolyn Astfalk's link-up to see what books are keeping other readers up way past their bedtimes.


  1. I'm glad Ornamental Graces kept you company on your flight! I'm not much a fan of flying myself, so I know the value of a good distraction! So glad you enjoyed the book. The characters are still close to my heart. Thank you for your review. And for linking up! The Wilderness of the Sea is one I'm going to look up!

  2. Ooh Ornamental Graces sounds fascinating! You wrote a riveting review!

  3. I haven't read "Map of the Heart" but I did read and enjoy the other two, especially Carolyn's. I love your line "compulsively readable" -- absolutely! And wasn't Grandma the BEST? I keep telling Carolyn I want to adopt her.