Avon A, $13.99, ISBN 978-0-06-168840-9
Contemporary Fiction, 2009
Bring on the Blessings contains some romance, but I have better inform anyone who is expecting a story similar to Beverly Jenkins’s historical romances or romantic suspense stories that this story is more of a mainstream fiction than romance. The romance here doesn’t end with marriage and babies – in fact, it’s not the main focus or even the main priority in this story. The focus of the story is the renaissance of the sleepy town of Henry Adams and the lives of several main characters during this period.
This story is filled with Easter egg references for fans of this author’s historical romances. Henry Adams is in fact the setting of Ms Jenkins’s first published historical romance Night Song. However, you don’t have to be familiar with these references to comprehend the story.
In the present day, Henry Adams is a dying town. Nearly all the younger folks have moved out for greener pastures, leaving behind a population comprising mostly elderly folks. Since the economy is pretty much in the drain, the mayor Trent July finds himself in a very difficult position. The town is heavily in debt. Any effort to improve the infrastructure of Henry Adams requires money, money that the town does not have, to pay all kinds of taxes and fees before any work can begin. Finally, the folks in this town decide to auction Henry Adams on eBay, hoping to find someone very rich to give it a new lease of life. It’s either that or being annexed by the neighboring city, and most folks of Henry Adams view selling out on eBay as the lesser of two evils.
In walks Bernadine Brown. On her 52th birthday, she discovered her husband in a most compromising situation with his secretary. She filed for divorce, took her very wealthy husband to the cleaners, and walked away with $275,000,000. During the next few years, she had been looking for a mission or a purpose in life. When she came across a news report on Henry Adams being up for sale, suddenly she saw very clearly what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Not only would she rejuvenate Henry Adams, she would also run a home for orphans and homeless children in that town, with plans to set up an adoption program to give those lost kids a loving home.
Meanwhile, Lily Fontaine is also in need of a new direction in life. She has come a long way from the sheltered and idealistic young woman she once was. After a divorce, she toughened up, became a successful businesswoman as well as a single mother, and now she’s not sure what she wants to do anymore as she has sold her business for a tidy profit and her son is a grown man who doesn’t need her to hang around and mother him around. When she realizes that she is settling for a man who has everything but is very lousy in bed, she decides to leave for Henry Adams for her godmother’s 60th birthday party. While she is in Henry Adams, she hopes to figure out what she wants to do for the rest of her life. Lily doesn’t expect to find that her first boyfriend Trent back in Henry Adams. Since he’s the mayor as well as the town mechanic, it’s not like she can avoid him easily. These two are soon roped in as Bernadine’s assistants in her efforts to change Henry Adams into a better place, and old feelings are rekindled again as a result. These two parted ways most acrimoniously the first time around, however, so this reunion is not smooth sailing all the way.
As I’ve said earlier, the relationship between Lily and Trent as well as that between Bernadine and Trent’s father Malachi are merely secondary story lines in Bring on the Blessings, so you really shouldn’t read this story for only the romance. The main emphasis of the story is Bernadine’s efforts to rebuild Henry Adams and how these efforts affect the lives of the characters mentioned as well as the lives of the five homeless kids that become the first batch of guinea pigs, er, lucky recipients of Bernadine’s generosity.
The first two-thirds are a Hallmark fan’s dream come true. Unabashedly sweet and sentimental, the story is all about feel-good drama. Trent, Lily, and the other secondary characters are all likable people who are so good that I suspect the only reason we can’t see their halo is because we are all too dazzled by their awesomeness to notice. Malachi, Trent’s father, is the good guy with the most flaws, but even then, his flaws (he is an incorrigible womanizer despite being in his sixties) are played up in an “Aw, shucks, but he’s still a good man who hadn’t met the right woman yet!” manner. The good guys are very obviously good, while the bad guys are very obviously bad.
One very noticeable aspect of this feel-good part of the story is the lack of conflict. There are plenty of problems to be overcome before Henry Adams can flourish again, but all Bernadine needs to do to overcome these problems is to call up her well-connected friends or wave her money around. The only opposition she faces is from an 86-year old mean banker and a pathetic ex-mayor who loves his hog Cletus more than anything else in his life. The message I get at the end of the day is that doing good is prohibitively expensive since we can’t all be Oprah Winfrey types who are rich enough to be magnanimous. Do they still store gold bars in Fort Knox? Let’s go steal a few so that we too can be good people!
And yet, despite the fact that I am usually too cynical for stories of this kind, this part of Bring on the Blessings works pretty well on me. I don’t know how Ms Jenkins does it, but even as the cynic in me recognizes her main characters as pretty two-dimensional people who are too good to be true, I find myself falling under Ms Jenkins’s spell and liking those characters. Bernadine and Lily are both strong-willed women who had made something for themselves despite the hard knocks that had come their way, especially Lily who had to fend for herself after her divorce. Bernadine has a fabulous sense of humor and she isn’t afraid to poke fun at herself now and then as well. In fact, this story boasts many strong female characters who are doing it for themselves. I really like that. The male characters are fine in their own right, but make no mistake, this story belongs to the sisters. Also, apart from the kids, the characters here of a “mature” age – the youngest adult here, Lily, is 40 years old.
The last third or so of the story, however, sees the author taking a much darker turn. No, the story doesn’t turn into a war zone or something equally drastic, but it sees Ms Jenkins shifting from feel-good drama with plenty of humor into something resembling more of a dark comedy more typical of something straight out of Deborah Smith‘s Southern style stories. While I personally do not recommend authors switching gears so drastically late in a story, I don’t mind this change because I find this last third far more memorable and hilarious than the previous two-thirds of the book.
Oh my goodness, I still can’t stop laughing at all the scenes involving Cletus the hog. I never knew Ms Jenkins has it in her to come up with that kind of scenes – and if you have read this book, you know which scenes I am talking about, heh – but now that I do, I love this side of the author. And then there is that final scene involving that mean midget judge! And it’s brought about by Jesus showing the finger to mean people, bwahahaha! Seriously, I love the late third of this book. If the author had kept this up throughout the entire book, I’d have happily given this book a keeper grade.
Okay, to be objective, I would give a guarded recommendation of this book, mostly because the late shift of gears in the story would not appeal to every reader, especially as this shift is a pretty dramatic departure from the feel-good and inoffensive uplifting drama of the earlier parts of the story. Just approach this book without any expectations of getting what you usually get from this author’s previous books, and keep an eye out for some pretty unorthodox scenes late in the story. Me, I can only wish that the author would write an entire book in the same tone and manner as the late third of the book sometime in the future.