The Wednesday Letters

The Wednesday Letters, by Jason F. Wright, is the second novel I will have read for The Marginal Virtues which features letters as a crucial plot device; the first, of course, being The Letter (Richard Paul Evans).

This is not the only similarity between the two works. Both are written by Americans, who are authors of other popular works. It remains to be seen whether Wright can treat the subject of The Wednesday Letters (forgiveness, according to the blurb on the dust jacket) with greater skill than Evans did the subject of The Letter.

After lengthy discussions on the abuse of power in Shades of Grey and on satire in A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder, I am going to take it easy and focus on the style of The Wednesday Letters, what I enjoyed and what I didn't care for.

The edition of The Wednesday Letters to which I shall refer in this post is the hardcover publication by Shadow Mountain in 2007. Since this book was recommended me by Jen (thanks, Jen!) from a list of books that her book club is reading, I hope that what I have to say about it comes in handy, and I should note that the book includes a link to the author's website where questions for book club discussions may be found.

As an aside, I should mention that on the back cover of the edition of The Wednesday Letters from which I am quoting passages, there is a blurb in praise of Wright's other novel, The Christmas Jars, from none other than Richard Paul Evans. There is, alas, also a blurb praising The Christmas Jars from none other than Glenn Beck. However, I won't let that cloud my judgment - but then, I am not reading The Christmas Jars.

On we go.

Well, it will probably come as no surprise, but the phrase I used to describe the ability of authors of what may be called popular American literature in my marginal commentary on Shades of Grey applies to Jason F. Wright. He is a writer whose stylistic reach exceeds his grasp. To put it succintly: I don't like his style.

There are, in fact, quite a few things I don't like about The Wednesday Letters, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the book filled me with nothing more than indifference. There were many factors for why this is so, but the book's style is one of them.

Interestingly, I found the book's drab style appropriate when Wright quoted one of the many letters of Jack Cooper. Jack Cooper and his wife Laurel both die in the first chapter (so I'm not giving anything away here), and their three children discover that he, Jack, has been writing a letter to Laurel once a week, every week, since their marriage. The name of the book should tell you on which day he wrote the letters.

As I said, the drab style was appropriate when used of Jack's letters, for presumably Jack, while prolific (indeed, there is a certain charm to the fact that he wrote letters to his wife, especially now that the writing of letters is passé), was not talented. The drabness is appropriate whether Jack is writing a letter either trivial or dramatic:

November 14, 1979
     It's Wednesday, but just barely! I'm sitting in the parking lot of the theater and all I've got to write is on a flier from tonight. I'm watching Joe tell jokes to some women across the street.
     But time for the news of the night. You better be sitting. I MET WILLIAM SHATNER!
     Did you hear that? I MET WILLIAM SHATNER!
     I was sure when they said there would be cast members from the show at the theater tonight they meant George Takei or some extra whose name you never knew. But as Joe and I were standing around the lobby, he just walked in. What a sight! He's just as nice in person as I thought he'd be. Some think he's a windbag and maybe he is. I think he's always in character. And really, who isn't?
     I wish I'd thought to have him sign something. I was so nervous when he shook my hand that all I could say was, "Live long and prosper." He looked at me and just smiled. He didn't say I was the most pitiful sixty-two-year-old man he'd ever met, but I had to be. Probably had no idea what to say to me. Who cares? I MET WILLIAM SHATNER!
     By the way, the movie was amazing! I can't wait to take the boys on opening night. You'll come with us, right?
     You know what? Joe was really grateful for the night out, Laurel. He wanted me to thank you. And thanks from me too for being so great about it. He needed it.
     By the time you read this I will have told you all this already, probably more than once, knowing me. Who cares? I love you.
     And are you still sitting down? I love you more than Star Trek.
                                                           Jack (Kirk) [pp. 87-8]
This, as it happens, is the first letter which the Cooper kids read, and stylistically it is, as I have said, appropriate for someone of Jack's skill. The clumsy enthusiasm; the inexpert but sincere professions of gratitude and love; the lack of description of any kind (except for the brief 'Joe is joking to some women across the street'. It is actually somewhat endearing. Of course, I had to chuckle at the line about George Takei; one hopes he doesn't read this book. As it happens (if I may digress momentarily), I met George Takei at a Star Trek convention when I was a boy, and somewhere I still have the notebook in which he signed his autograph. Also somewhat of a digression: the Star Trek film being remarked upon is The Motion Picture, and if Jack thought it was 'amazing', was he watching the same film I saw? Admittedly I thought it was good when I was a boy, and, on the other hand, it probably took some time for some Trekkies to admit it wasn't a good film (it was, after the first new Star Trek, not counting the animated series, in ten years, or so), and Jack wrote immediately after meeting William Shatner and watching the film, so we'll let that one slide. Anyway, there's not much to the letter stylistically, but (if I may repeat myself), in Jack's case, that's just fine. The problem, as we shall see, is that this, more or less, is the style used throughout the book. It must be said that Wright uses this letter to good stylistic and dramatic effect in talking about Jack's brother, Joe, as the line about Joe being 'really grateful for the night out' is cleverly suggestive (what is more, thankfully, Wright hadn't given the game away about Uncle Joe earlier).

On to a more dramatic letter; the most dramatic of the book, in fact:
November 1, 1956
     This may be the last letter I'll ever write you. I'm not sure why I'm bothering. I suppose because I keep my promises.
     I hope you saved the first letter I ever wrote. Find it. Read it.
     I just realized it's not Wednesday. Maybe that's appropriate.
     Malcolm just turned one today.
     It rained this afternoon, almost two inches in two hours.
     Malcolm took his first steps last night. Is that what prompted you to talk? Guilt at seeing me beam over his accomplishment?
     I only write these things so that when you read this letter years from now the day - this day - is crystal clear.
     What do you say when you discover your wife has lied to you? What you do say when you feel your life is taken right from your chest, even though I miraculously find myself still breathing?
     Am I the last to know?
     What am I expected to say? What were you hoping I would say? How have you lived with this? How have you lived with me?
     I don't know where I'll be for the next few days. When or if I'm ready, I'll talk.
     Please don't look for me. That's the very least you can do.
                                                          Jack Cooper [pp. 144-5]
The narrative terseness and brevity which I noted from the other letter is most appropriate in this one. Arguably this letter is the best piece of prose in the entire novel. The hurt and pain is felt beneath the surface, even if it is not expressed directly, which makes it all the more effective. Also effective is the suggestiveness, which Wright uses to good effect to mislead the letter's readers (both the Cooper kids and actual readers alike), for, as the Cooper kids conclude on pp. 146-7, it appears that Malcolm (the youngest child) is the product of adultery (that he is not Jack's biological son is confirmed by another letter on pp. 148-9). In fact what actually happened in 1955 when Malcolm was conceived was not quite what the Coopers initially construe it to have been, but Wright cleverly does not reveal all of the details in Jack's letters to Laurel, which, in fact, is what you would expect - why would he carefully explain every detail pertinent to the plot in the letters? Unhappily, Wright does not display such effective style (or plotting) very often, and, as I have said, the narrative style appropriate to Jack's letters is found, for the most part, throughout the book - as I hope to demonstrate. At any rate, this letter (and that found on pp. 148-9) is the best Wright can do, stylistically, in The Wednesday Letters.

The above examples should give you an idea of what Jack's letters are like. Some are more romantic than these two; some sentimental (I mean this descriptively, not derogatorily); some matter-of-fact. As I have noted, Wright does not display much stylistic variety, and his lapses in style sometimes affect the quality, if not the action, of the plot.

For example, in the first chapter, in which Jack and Laurel die on the same night (she of a heart attack or stroke, he of brain cancer and 'giving up'), Wright writes:
"Hey you, I thought you were asleep." Laurel dabbed her eyes on her navy blue cotton pillowcase.
"Not quite. You feeling better?"
"I'm fine, but I'm leaving the dishes for Rain to get when she comes in tomorrow morning. I've got some heartburn still. Is it possible I'm too old for my own quesadillas?" She ran her right hand through a single, thinning patch of his [Jack's] grayish, silver hair and with her left hand rubbed her chest. "How 'bout you? Dizzy?"
"Nope, peachy."
"You're a horrible liar, Jack Cooper." [p. 2] Here Wright skilfully 'foreshadows' the impending deaths of Laurel and Jack - even though both are dead by the second chapter. There is a certain skill to introducing sudden action in a story, and it in fact requires a certain amount of foreshadowing in order to prevent it from being implausible or a deus ex machina.

"Sweetheart!" Jack lifted his head."What is it? Laurel? Sit up."
She struggled halfway up but fell back against the wooden headboard. "I've... no... breath... my chest... call..." The words were bursts of air.
Jack turned to the open window and called for [one of the regulars at the B&B the Coopers run]. "Mrs. Prestwich, come! Come quick! Please!"
But [Mrs. Prestwich] was already on her evening walk, strolling along the creek's edge, counting stars in the reflection of the slow-moving water and chatting astrology with Castro [her cat] as she tugged his leash.
"Oh, Lord, help us!" Jack cried out as Laurel's breathing became more pained and her eyes screamed. He looked toward the cordless phone cradle on Laurel's nightstand.
It was empty. [p. 8] Italics original. 'The words were bursts of air' and a following statement about Laurel as she is dying, 'She somehow made the single word [she says Jack's name] sound like an apology', are stylistically good, or at least passable; it might have been better had Wright used fewer ellipses when Laurel speaks, but it communicates effectively the kind of pain and trouble those having a heart attack suffer when trying to speak. Wright's comment about what Mrs. Prestwich is up to has a certain darkly comic feel to it, but it feels out of place; there was plenty of time for a narrative comment or for Jack or Laurel to comment to the effect that she had gone for her evening walk (although this at least is known beforehand; on p. 3) before Laurel has her heart attack, by which including would have made the paragraph belong. The dramatic pause Wright employs by giving '[i]t was empty' its own paragraph is overdone, and by not mentioning that the phone was not in its usual place: these are overdoing it. Reference to the telephone cradle on the night-stand could have been omitted, and it would have been acceptable for a man known to be severely weakened by cancer to realise he wouldn't be able to make it to a phone (say, downstairs) in time (say, if Wright wrote something like, 'Jack fell as dizziness overcame him as he tried to get out of bed to get to the phone downstairs, and as he struggled to his feet and looked at Laurel he knew he wouldn't make it'); better still, a brief, seemingly innocent narrative comment at the beginning of the chapter to the effect that Laurel had been talking on the phone and had left it out of reach would have at least made its lack of presence plausible instead of a deus ex machina. Also a bit of a stylistic error are the italics. I realise that if ever there was a time for emphasis, it is when one is calling for help (or, I suppose, pleading with God), but elsewhere in The Wednesday Letters Wright has people shouting dramatically without recourse to italics (more or less effectively); likewise, when he elsewhere uses italics for emphasis when people are shouting it seems over-dramatic. Oddly enough, the emphatic use of italics in speech seems to work best when people aren't shouting, or so it seems to me (I make this observation of speech in fiction in general, not necessarily just with respect to The Wednesday Letters). Meanwhile, just to return to the phone for a moment, it is interesting to observe that Wright feels obliged to account for its absence (except, of course, that he doesn't), because it would have been implausible even twenty years ago for someone in Jack's situation not to call for help if a phone were accessible.

So much, then, for some of Wright's early stylistic strengths and defects.

Returning to the point about Wright's use of italics, I want to look at two passages of crucial speech, one in which Wright uses italics for emphasis, and one in which he does not.

The one is when Malcolm Cooper, having just discovered that he is not Jack's son (physically; in every other sense Jack is truly his father), is standing on an observation tower just outside of the town (Woodstock, Virginia) in which his late parents lived. His aunt (Laurel's sister) Allyson talks to him to try to convince to come down from the tower:
"Allyson?" Malcolm answered, leaning over the side and looking down. "That you?" Malcolm's hands felt clammy against the metal railing.
"The one and only. Come on down, would ya?"
Malcolm looked away from her. "Did you know?" he asked, his gaze fixed far across the horizon.
"Did I know what?" Allyson asked.
Malcolm yelled this time. "Did you know? Did you know your sister was a cheater?"
"Malcolm! Come down here. Come see me."
"You'll tell me? You'll tell me who I am?"
"We'll talk."
Malcolm paused briefly before beginning to descend the three flights of gray metal stairs.
"Is he drunk?" Allyson whispered to Samantha.
"No. Just broken."
"Well, remember to be kind, Sammie. And you too," she looked to Matthew standing behind them. "Put yourself in his shoes for a bit today." Brother and sister half-nodded to her and then to one another. [p. 171]

The other is shortly after they read the letters in which they discover that Malcolm is not (strictly speaking) Jack's son. As it happens, I cannot find any piece of crucial dialogue which does not include italics except the last part of the revelation of the identity of Malcolm's father (the circumstances of his conception having been previously revealed in one of Jack's letters). However, Wright uses italics to better (or at least less irritating) effect when it is only a word or two:
"She cheated," Malcolm said again, calmly. Matthew and Samantha looked at one another across the mountain of letters. Samantha whimpered.
"Malcolm," Matthew said and waited for his brother to face him. "This doesn't change anything."
"Excuse me?"
"It doesn't change anything. It doesn't change you."
"It doesn't change me? It doesn't change me?"
"You're a Cooper. Dad loved you. He and Mom survived this."
"But this doesn't change things? Finding out our mother cheated?" Malcolm's voice rose with each question. "Finding out I'm a bastard?"
"I think Matthew means you're still our brother," Samantha added. "We still love you. Mom and Dad loved you. You know that." [p. 150] Shortly thereafter (on p. 151), Wright has dialogue in italics. I wonder whether a lack of confidence in his ability to transmit the feeling which he intends the characters to have (especially Malcolm, who most often shouts in italics) led Wright to so use italics. Certainly I found his depiction of emotions to be bland. Just to make things clear, Matthew is the oldest son, and Samantha, the daughter, the middle child.

Malcolm's use of the word 'cheated' and 'cheater' to describe his mother makes one think that he is the product of her looking at someone else's notes in a high school math test, or something. In fact, the conversations between the three siblings are uniformly childish. To be fair, it is probably quite realistic: siblings or members of extended family who get together (at, say, a funeral) after long absences often indulge in ritual 'kid-talk' with each other; and certainly I know my conversations with my friends and family is often childish. But the three Cooper children seem virtually incapable of addressing each other except in this mode of speech:
Malcolm nodded and in his peripheral vision saw his sister approach the Inn's open front door.
"I guess I thought I might find someone waiting for me," he continued, raising his voice, "but I expected it to be one of the town pigs." [Samantha is a police officer.]
"Malcolm!" The shout came from inside the screen door. "Don't talk about your sister like that!" Samantha flew through the door and ran toward her brother, catapulting into his chest, knocking him backward and nearly down the stairs.
"Eeeeasy girl!" he said. "I knew you were sneaking around here somewhere." He flexed every muscle in his arms and legs to keep the teetering twosome from falling down. "It's not like I haven't seen you in two years."
Samantha let go and punched her brother in the chest. "Actually, Dip Stick, it is like you haven't seen me in two years."
"Has it been that long? Really? It seems only yesterday since you last called me that."
"You'll hear more than that before this night ends."
"Can't wait... "...
"Well, now, we better let you children catch up," Pastor Brathwaite interrupted, bending down to grab his brown leather briefcase. [pp. 55-7] The 'town pigs' comment is actually witty, especially compared with the rest of the banter we are subjected to. And despite the paternalism suggested by a pastor calling two adults, one of whom is a mother and a police officer and both of whom are at least thirty years of age, 'children', you can see why he might be a bit confused as to whether they are grown-ups or not. But wait, there's more!

"Don't be sorry, at least about that." Samantha reached across and took Malcolm's hand. "You did the right thing."
"Did I?"
"Yes. You didn't have to come back."
"Mom and Dad are dead. How could I not come back?"
"Even still, I'm proud of you. Mom and Dad would be, too."
"Let's see if you still feel that way Sunday night."
"No trouble, Mal. Please?"
"Cross my heart, hope to die," Malcolm said, crossing his chest with his index finger.
"I love you, Doof." [p. 63] I believe making exaggerated retching sounds is the appropriate response at this point.

"Sammie, you remember homecoming the year you made Rain and me dinner and you dressed up like a fancy hostess? I probably never told you this, but between that salad you made, and the trout, which was surprisingly good, well, that was the first time we kissed." [The three siblings are driving in Samantha's cruiser to pick up milkshakes after the viewing (what we would call the visitation or wake).]
"You and Sam kissed? Oooooooh."
"You sicko," Malcolm answered. A healthy laugh belied his churning, nervous stomach.
"Mal, you did not have your first kiss with Rain at homecoming. It was on that church tubing trip down the Shenandoah River. I saw it myself."
"I think she's right, Mal," Matthew agreed.
"Don't you morons think I'd know where and when I had my first kiss?"
"First kiss with any girl?" Matthew posed. "Or first kiss with Rain?"
"First kiss."
"First kiss, my butt."
"No thanks," Malcolm quipped. "I haven't got that kind of time."
Matthew couldn't help but laugh. He wondered when he'd last been so at ease with his brother.
Malcolm couldn't help but think it was pathetic that he knew who he'd first kissed as a geeky teenager, but now didn't even know the name of his real father. [pp. 194-5] What knee-slappers these one-liners are! Again, it must admittedly be said that most of us in our interactions with our families are far more like this than, I expect, we would care to admit, but just because this is so doesn't make it any easier to read. More to the point, the fact is that, this far into the novel and after such disturbing revelations, Wright appears to be unwilling or unable to write dialogue for the three siblings that is anything other than thin, infantile jocularity.

Well, I could go on about the various stylistic failings of the book, and there are failings of many other kinds, too: psychological; theological; structural (i.e., with regard to the plot). But perhaps the most noticeable failings are descriptive. Consider: on the back of dust jacket, the blurb about the author notes that 'Jason fell in love with Virginia's Shenandoah Valley while researching the area for The Wednesday Letters, and... recently relocated... to the historic town of Woodstock.' And, in the first chapter, we learn about the bread & breakfast owned and operated by the Coopers:
Their Inn, dubbed by the previous owners as Domus Jefferson - The Home of Jefferson - rested in the heart of the Shenandoah Valley, squarely between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains. Jack often said that if he survived judgment day and his Maker granted a choice between heaven and that hillside, the inner-debate would be short. [p. 3] These suggest that Wright should at least be able to communicate some of the obviously implied beauty and grandeur of the Shenandoah Valley. It doesn't take much to leave an impression, as my marginal commentary on World Made by Hand demonstrated. We shall see whether Wright is able to accomplish this feat. In the meantime, (file under 'N' for 'nitpicking'), the name of the Inn is wrong: Domus Jefferson would read 'The Home the Jefferson', because in Latin the unmodified form of the noun is in the nominative case, which is about equivalent to the subject (of a sentence) in English. To accurately render 'of Jefferson' in Latin would require altering the end of the word 'Jefferson', for 'of Jefferson' is, being a possessive, a modification, in Latin and English both, of the subject/nominative. Assuming 'Jefferson' in Latin to be a noun of the third declension, it would be, as a possessive, in the genitive case, which means that an accurate translation of 'The House of Jefferson' in Latin would in fact be: 'Domus Jeffersonis'.

So, to finish this marginal commentary, let's see how well Wright describes the beauty of the Shenandoah. The first descriptive paragraph, as we have seen, consists (like a similar description of the geography of New York state in World Made by Hand) of naming the major geographical features alone, as if that would suffice. But perhaps there is more:
On this spring Wednesday night, their [Jack and Laurel's] beloved B&B was nearly empty. The only guest was Anna Belle Prestwich... . [Her] room... overlooked the four acres of meadow sweeping from the back of the seven-bedroom Inn to the narrow creek at the forest line. [p. 3]

She [Rain] liked to think her dreams could come true just as easily on the rolling hills of the Valley as in some big city, maybe even more so. [p. 13] Rain is a family friend of the Cooper's and ex-girlfriend of Malcolm's, as well as his true love.

Malcolm drove west through suburban northern Virginia until the strip malls and fast food joints slowly faded into farmland and rolling hills along Route 66 and later south on 81. [p. 47]

Little had changed in the two years he'd been gone. Earlier he'd noticed a new Arby's at the freeway exit and a nicely remodeled Shell station, but downtown Woodstock looked precisely as it had two years ago...
Malcolm drove to the far end of town [Woodstock, Virginia] and pulled into the Ben Franklin Department Store parking lot and was reminded again why he loved Woodstock. Unlike many Virginia towns, Woodstock was neither a complete throwback to another century nor an entirely new and modern community. In the parking lot of the Ben Franklin - surely one of the last still standing - sat a brand-new branch of a national bank. Historic sites peered across the main drag at new restaurants and hotel chains. Malcolm considered it the perfect blend of old and new. The locals would never forget their town's rich heritage or sacrifice their safe, small-town spirit. But neither would they resist, just out of principle, a Wendy's Double with Cheese and a large Frosty.
Malcolm pulled... onto Route 11 and drove the other way back through town. He turned left onto Woodstock Tower Road and followed it several miles up the winding mountain and into the George Washington National Forest. Just a few minutes later, at the peak of the mountain overlooking Woodstock and the famous Seven Bends of the Shenandoah River, Malcolm hiked a hundred yards up the rocky trail to the well-known metal tower. ...
Malcolm... had spent many hours atop Woodstock Tower. It offered a unique, panoramic view of northern Virginia. To the west... visitors saw Woodstock and the Seven Bends of the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. To the east, if the air was crisp and clear, one could see Fort Valley and Massanutten Mountain. The clearest of days offered glimpses of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He made a mental note to return to the tower during the daylight to enjoy the view. [pp. 48-50]

Malcolm took the left off the highway and drove up the familiar driveway that led to Domus Jefferson standing at the top of its grand hill. As the car rolled to a stop, his headlights revealed the Inn's customary quiet. ... [T]he Inn was always a scene from a watercolor picture book. [p. 53] There are a few other short passages which are descriptive, but nothing particularly impressive. I'm not asking for Wright to provide the kind of description which Tolkien so ably crafted in The Lord of the Rings (for a brilliant analysis of which, see Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon, by Brian Rosebury). But more time is spent describing the highways and shops of Woodstock than the natural beauty of the Shenandoah Valley which I presume is what attracted Wright to the area in the first place. In this, Wright shares the stylistic weakness of James Howard Kunstler in that he, like Kunstler, merely names the geography instead of actually describing it. That he feels it necessary for Malcolm to note that he ought to return to the observation tower in the daytime to 'enjoy the view' to me is an admission that he has not described the view in such terms as to make the reader enjoy it without comment. C. S. Lewis somewhere observed that it is a stylistic failing to tell, rather than show, your readers what you want them to see; and here Wright is, for the most part, guilty of it. Except for one or two evocative lines, such as 'the Inn was always a scene from a watercolor book', or brief mention of 'rolling hills' (which, I would venture to say, is bordering on cliché, if it is not outright), Wright does more telling than showing. Suffice it to say, I don't think he evokes sufficiently the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley.

After all of this mostly pejorative criticism, I think it is only fair that I acknowledge one of Wright's stylistic strengths, which is the description of people:
[Laurel] wrapped her strong arms around [her husband Jack] from behind and worried at how easily she could feel his ribs. She remembered the many years when he'd weighed considerably more than she had. [p. 1]

[Laurel] ran her right hand through a thinning patch of his grayish, silver hair[.] [p. 2] I have, of course, already quoted this passage in another context.

Their encounter that morning led to an unlikely marriage, the first for both. Her new husband said he loved Anna Belle for being genuine, for having large, bold hips with personalities of their own, for her milky-white and buttery-smooth skin. But mostly he loved her dark red, almost maroon, and now gracefully graying har. ... "[Y]ou, Anna Belle - [said her husband] you're a different fish in a sea of sameness." [p. 4] The 'genuine' comment feels a bit contrived, but 'large, bold hips with personalities of their own' is most clever; it strikes me as something Pratchett might have written (of, say, Agnes Nitt).

[Jack's] own once-lively eyes now appeared sunken in his head... and were guarded beneath by heavy half-moon circles. He'd inherited the raccoon eyes, as Laurel teasingly called them, from his father, but in the last year the dark circles had become even darker and appeared almost separated from his cheeks. [p. 7]

Rain's country drawl was light and attractive and her shoulder-length hair was not quite blonde, but still more light and lively than brown. At just over five feet tall, she could have easily blended into a crowd. But Rain Jesperson had never blended into anything, not with eyes so green and endearing. [p. 13] This passage is not so good, with its 'telling' (calling Rain's drawl 'attractive' and her eyes 'endearing') rather than 'showing', but the description of her hair is evocative, inviting the reader to picture that shade of hair in his or her mind's eye.

"Fala inglês?" the young brunette asked.
"I do. Do I look American?" He [Malcolm] ran his fingers through his rough beard. Malcolm's skin was tanned and weathered from months of living in the Amazon and his eyes were sore and deep red. His hair stopped just off his shoulders.
"Yes, sir." She smiled, revealing brilliant white teeth that contrasted beautifully with her naturally dark complexion. ...
She deftly slipped her long black hair behind her ears.
Malcolm noticed two small birthmarks previously hidden near the top of her neck, just below her jawline under her right ear. ...
The florescent lighting would have been unflattering to anyone else, but for the angelic young Brazilian they made her bronze skin glow. [pp. 24-5] I am beginning to wonder whether there is any significance to the young Brazilian woman's birthmarks other than that Malcolm is paying quite close attention to her appearance; but for the sake of retaining my sanity I shall assume there is none. On the one hand, individually each description of the Brazilian woman is not very good (and calling her 'angelic' and stating that her 'bronze skin' glows under the lighting is a bit much), but by spacing it out (the effect of which I have, admittedly, spoiled by omitting sections of this passage due to considerations of length) Wright deftly enables us to picture Malcolm checking the young woman out.

I'm certain there are more such passages descriptive of people, but I will finish with the following:
Pastor Doug and Pastor Brathwaite were the same height and approximately the same age. Pastor Brathwaite's hair was well groomed and hadn't appeared to grow or thin since the day Malcolm had first met him... . The pastor's hair was always perfectly trimmed over his ears and his bangs were plastered against his shiny forehead. He wore his customary white shirt, blue tie, and matching blue sport coat.
Pastor Doug, on the other hand, was frequently disheveled and tonight was no different. He had rapidly thinning hair on top of his head and long, uneven sideburns. He wore a black windbreaker over a white shirt and a loosely-knotted black knit tie. His black polyester pants were too snug and light brown socks led to black tennis shoes with black laces.
When Malcolm shook Pastor Doug's hand, his fingers brushed past the remains of a scar on his wrist. [p. 55] The style of this descriptive passage is, it must be said, more serviceable than good, but the evocative reference to the heat - Pastor Brathwaite's hair 'plastered' against his 'shiny forehead' - is good, and the description of Pastor Doug picturesque (and suggestive of a history, given the reference to the scar).

In any event, Wright is actually quite good at describing people. It is too long to quote (and I have quoted too many passages already), but his description of Laurel's sister Allyson and his encapsulation of her life (pp. 155-8) is very nearly worth reading the whole book for; it certainly includes the book's best passage (part of which is the book's best line), which I have to quote:
There was no choice for Matthew but to smile. "Wow, you... you look really good." He noticed her fur coat.
"Don't worry," Allyson said. "It's not real. It's from fake minks."
"In that case, come on in." Matthew reached for her suitcase.
"Put that down," she ordered. He obeyed. "Hug your aunt." He obeyed again. "You're Jack Cooper's son, no doubt about that. He was never one to hug me either."
"I'm sorry," he said...
"Now let me go, you're married... and grab that suitcase." [p. 158]

At the beginning of this post, I stated that it remained to be seen whether Wright was more able than Evans to handle the primary theme of the work. I did not, in fact, look at Wright's thematic writing, but allow me to assure you that he handles it with no more skill than he has handled stylistic matters. At its best his writing is serviceable or pedestrian; most of the time, it could be said of his writing that:
there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
This may be too harsh a judgment of Wright's style, but it is not, arguably, of his treatment of his themes of forgiveness and redemption. However, that critique will have to wait for another time, and will have to be at the hands of another person, because at this point I have finished.


  1. My wife absolutely made me listen to the CD (spoken version) of this piece of drivel and I am so glad that my impression of the book was the same as yours. I have read so many glowing reviews that I was beginning to think maybe I was just to snobbish. In fact, as I listened to the section that Mal described the young Brazilian woman, I also wondered the relevance of the special notice of the birthmarks.

    Thanks again for the review.

    1. You're welcome! Thanks for the comment.

      I tried, I really tried, to find something praiseworthy about this book, but the few merits it possesses don't outweigh its overall badness.


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