Saturday, May 3, 2008
The Widows of Eden by George Shaffner
The citizens of Ebb, Nebraska are suffering through their worst drought in history. After more than one hundred days without rain, farmers who have lived in Ebb for their entire lives are packing up and disappearing in the middle of the night unable to make a go of it any longer. Not to worry, though, help is on the way. Word comes that a certain Vernon Moore, mysterious traveling salesman and occasional worker of miracles, is on his way for his first visit to Ebb in about five years. The quaint townspeople of Ebb believe that Mr. Moore is the answer to their prayers and their only chance for rain, but the ailing multi-millionaire Clem Tucker has other ideas. What happens when Clem proposes a deal that would have Mr. Moore choose to spare his life instead of asking for rain?
This is the premise of George Shaffner's The Widows of Eden. It defied my expectations in more ways than one. There were parts of this book that I enjoyed very much and others that nearly discouraged me from finishing it. The premise is very attractive, which is why I requested and received it from Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. The follow-through is a bit less than optimal. At the helm of the book is first person narrator Wilma Porter who operates the bed and breakfast where Mr. Moore stays when he is in town and is also the fiance of the aforementioned Clem Tucker. As one might guess, Ms. Porter is very much at the center of the story given her relationships to those two pivotal characters, however, her first person narration continues even into places and situations where she is not present which is somewhat disorienting. It also often seems that Shaffner has taken every stereotype of small town fiction and played each up to a fever pitch that can, unfortunately, be a bit cringeworthy. Sometimes this can be overlooked - I'll admit to giggling at a few of Wilma's kooky comments such as, "An amendment to the state constitution was supposed to prevent the sale of family farms to big corporations, but it turned out to have more loopholes than a cheap shag rug." Other times, Shaffner overplays his quaint rural fiction hand with his constant use of the endearment "honey pot," the existence of an all-powerful Quilting Circle of gossipy ladies who don't seem to do any quilting at all, and Wilma's irritating way of never referring to her goddaughter by her name but as her "sweet/perfect/adorable little goddaughter."
That said, there were parts of this book that I found so absorbing that I could forgive this book some of its more irritating tendencies. Despite the occasional lapse into pure cheese, Shaffner writes snappy dialogue and creates a cast of very lively characters bent on saving their town and their way of life. The mystery of Vernon's possibly miraculous origins as well as the origins of three widow friends who accompany him on the occasion of this book is well thought out and even a bit suspenseful. My favorite part, however, was Vernon's conversations with Clem on the subject of the deist's paradox (which suggests that a benevolent God would intervene in the affairs of men and since He hasn't in quite some time He has abandoned us), the nature of God, and his attempts to persuade the unbelieving Clem that God cares for His creation and hasn't retreated to heaven leaving His people to their own devices. I'll be the first to admit that having guaged the tone of this novel, I didn't expect a philosophical discussion this well thought out and absorbing. I might not believe everything that was said, but I drank it up and these scenes kept the pages turning the quickest. By the end, I was thoroughly curious whether Vernon would be able to convince this selfish and heartless millionaire of God's existence and providence and what would happen if he couldn't.
All in all, this book seemed to be a paradox in and of itself, as if Shaffner intended to write a lighthearted novel for those in need of some small town centered brain candy but ended up with something a bit more serious than that, and the reader is stuck trying to figure out just how to take it. While it isn't one of my favorite reads and it definitely wasn't what I was expecting, it does have its redeeming qualities and as such could make for a fun summer read with a side of a little food for thought.
The publication date for this book is June 17, 2008.
That's another one down for Pub 2008 and the Spring Reading Thing, too!