Arabesque, $6.99, ISBN 1-58314-288-6
Contemporary Romance, 2002
This is the fifth time Leslie Esdaile has charmed me with her voice and style. This author is really someone you should consider at least browsing through at the bookstore if you want to seek out a contemporary romance that focuses on ordinary people with issues one could relate to. In Through the Storm, the author focuses on two divorcees, a 42-year old man, Forster Scott Hamilton, Jr, and a 35-year old woman, Lynette Graves, trying to find love in the midst of dealing with their personal issues.
I love the prologue, which is vintage Leslie Esdaile – a whimsically written introduction to the characters’ inner psyche. Forster is a forensic photographer who, while snapping the scene of an elderly man’s fatal accident, wishes that he would one day put together a coffee table photo book of more inspiring matters – old people laughing and kiddies playing, you know, that sort of thing. Just outside, Lynette, a freelance writer currently doing crime coverage for the local small-time paper, is wishing that one day she would find the time and opportunity to write happier and more inspiring things, like the poetry she has in her drawer. Both are burned by bad marriages (he was married to an alcoholic and she to a philanderer) and both see their mothers moving in with them after the recent hurricane has wiped off Mommies Dearest’s homes. His mother is an alcoholic just like his late ex-wife, while her mother is slowly suffocating her with her own issues.
Lucky them, while they were unaware of the other just a few feet away at that time, later they will meet again. Lynette’s best friend is conducting a relationship with Forster’s best friend, and a double date will lead Forster and Lynette into trying to relearn the intricacies of modern dating while juggling their financial, family (Forster has two kids), and personal issues.
Leslie Esdaile writes some of the best children in romance novels – Forster’s daughters act their age without trying too hard to overpower their scenes with cloying “precious” antics. But what is really impressive is how the author takes very real and even mundane daily issues the modern middle-class person experiences and make it seem like a real act of courage to find joy in overcoming these issues. In a way, maybe it is, but in this book, never have things like driving the kids to their school and classes only to come home to collapse in exhaustion and dream of just running away from it all – never have these things been so… well, touching in a bittersweet way.
Forster is a good father, good son, and good husband and if he is bitter, he is bitter at his own apparent inability to be a better person in all three roles. Lynette is a good daughter who is trying to find her own way since her divorce but with her mother back in her life, she is losing sight of the road map. These two’s dating once again has the giddy euphoria of two people who have long forgotten how to enjoy themselves rediscovering all that, and it’s fun to read, these two. Their previous lousy marriages could have been a thing of stereotypes, but the author wisely make her characters’ issues go deeper than superficial gloss, even avoiding the “I hate the opposite sex forever!” issue. Instead, these characters have to deal with issues like having to meet their parents’ expectations of them (Lynette) or dealing with one’s own expectations of oneself (Forster).
Also, their mothers are never portrayed as caricature villains. They have their own issues too, and in the end, son and mother or daughter and mother become closer as a result. Lynette’s mother hides behind religion to avoid her issues while Forster’s mother seeks solace in the bottle. Yet their pain and guilt over their own failed marriages and their remorse when they realize how selfish they have been ring real and even painfully with me.
I love how Ms Esdaile goes the extra mile to give her Everyday Joe and Jane characters likable traits and ennoble them with strength to overcome their issues. In a way, people like Forster and Lynette resonate more with me than any Joe Millionaire and Daddy’s Girl Jane out there. I can relate to these people, I care about their problems, and watching them become stronger from dealing with their issues and problem is inspiring. This book may not be what you want if you want pure escape from everyday issues, but me, I could use more books of this sort in my daily reading.
So why isn’t this book more amazing?
Firstly, the author tends to get rather heavy-handed at times with her anvil of enlightenment. I notice that this anvil is becoming more and more heavy-handed with each of her newer book. Where her books tend to be whimsical or graceful, there are times in Through the Storm when I feel as if I’m reading an overly passionate motivation track. I hope the author will tone this down in the future. She can let her characters speak and act to drive the message home. There’s no need for any literary evangelical exposition whacking away at me.
Also, the author really, pardon my language, did a literary premature ejaculation with Lynette and her mother. While their confrontation is really powerfully written, it takes place too soon. More misguidedly, the mother then undergoes an unconvincing transformation into Happy Soul Momma – do people change that much overnight? Forster and his mother are handled in a better-paced style, but the author somewhat blows it with Lynette and Mom. There is also an external conflict towards the end that seems to be added in for reasons I can’t comprehend. It does nothing to the story, in fact, I think it sets back the characters’ development with devastating effectiveness.
And how long did this story take place? In one week? That’s a bit fast, although the romance is nonetheless an easy sell to me because the author does it so well.
If it has kept to being a story of everybody people quietly overcoming their issues, this one will be pure magic. It handles issues like healing and forgiveness so well that I can overlook its flaws if they were minor. But in this case, Through the Storm suffers from pacing, frequent distracting bursts of preaching, and some plot issues towards the end. It’s a really good book because it tries to and succeeds in a way to present a romance story that inspires instead of just providing cheap escapism to its readers. But I can’t help feeling that the author has bitten off more than she can chew by trying too hard to inspire. Am I making sense here? By being a little more low-key, she would be so much better than she is now.