When I discover a book that speaks to the truth of my heart, it's a book I keep. Someday, I will want to go back, reread it, and see if it still resonates with me. Martha Woodroof's debut novel, Small Blessings, is one that brought so many moments of recognition. Her phrasing is exquisite. Her characters ring with life. It's a book that will be on my favorite list at the end of the year. And, I'm not going to be able to do it justice because a summary will not spell out the beauty of the lives in this book.
Tom Putnam, Professor of English, first met Rose Callahan at a college function held at the bookstore where she was the new assistant director. And, it came as a shock when his wife, Marjory, invited Rose to dinner. Marjory was a shy, nervous woman, "an exquisite china doll, immensely chippable" whose wild phobias about germs and obscure diseases, her pathological timidity, had dominated their lives for years. But, Rose Callahan was kind to Marjory, and smiled at Tom. "And just like that he, Thomas Marvin Putnam - lover of Shakespeare, educated at Amherst College and the University of Virginia, dysfunctionally married for twenty years - was a joyous, carefree child somersaulting down a hill, joining Alice in falling, falling, falling somewhere he had never contemplated going." And, he hoped Marjory's social invitation to Rose meant there would be change in their lives.
Oh, there's change. And, Marjory's unusual behavior is noticed by her mother. Agnes moved in with Tom and Marjory years earlier, giving up her legal practice to take care of her needy daughter. Agnes is also the one who hands Tom the letter that will also bring change. Tom learns that his brief three week affair with a poet ten years earlier has resulted in a son he never knew he had. And, Henry will be on a train to spend the next three months with his father. In moments like this, Tom can only think of dumping everything in the lap of his capable mother-in-law. Then, in one week, Tom and Agnes deal with two shocks that will change their lives forever.
Small Blessings is so much more than a novel of a small, insulated college community, or the story of change in one family. I've seen blurbs that concentrated on the charming, imperfect characters. They are all of that. Tom and Agnes, Rose, Henry, even characters with cameo appearances, but important roles, are wonderful characters. But, I saw another side of this book, the tragedy.
Small Blessings is a story of mental illness, alcoholism, and addiction, and how it affects people, both the addict and those around them. I've lived Tom Putnam's life, with a mother-in-law who suffered from mental illness, and a husband who was an addictions counselor because he himself was an alcoholic, and suffered from depression. Woodroof is understanding in pointing out that life is always off-balance for the people living with the mentally ill person or the addict. We become "skilled at coping, not at living". And, Tom realized over the years that "One human being, with the best will and intentions in the world, cannot fix what is wrong with someone else." If Tom enjoyed an evening away from Marjory, she worried, and paid the price. "As long as he lived with her, her price was his price, and an evening of fun simply wasn't worth it."
Yes, I agree with the blurbs and the reviews that say Small Blessings is an optimistic story and a story of hope. But, it's all of that because people reach out to get past the loneliness, past the pain, and the tragedy of lives that are stuck. I loved Martha Woodroof's debut novel. Small Blessings is a wonderful story of living people. And, it's joyful, and beautiful, and hopeful because the author speaks the truth.
Martha Woodroof's website is www.marthawoodroof.com
Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof. St. Martin's Press. 2014. ISBN 9781250040527 (hardcover) 310p.
FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.