Thursday, June 12, 2008

Then Came Heaven (audio) by LaVyrle Spencer ****

I've been sorta getting away from audio books recently - not sure why. I downloaded Diana Gabaldon's Drums of Autumn in April, and decided to do a full listen starting with Outlander. But I've cooled off a little from the Outlander experience (thank gawd because it was eating me alive) and so I haven't rushed through them, and even though I decided to go to a 2-credit-a-month plan, I've slowed down in buying audio books in general.

I stopped in the middle of Dragonfly in Amber to work on Stephanie Laurens' Bastion Club book #1, The Lady Chosen. Jesus H Roosevelt Christ, that narrator (Jill Tanner) is driving me crazy. So many pauses - complete stops end sentences that should have been slight pauses for a comma. Me, who listens to an audio book a day, and I have been working on it for days, weeks. I have given up and might actually not even finish it!

So I shifted over to Then Came Heaven. Like That Camden Summer, the audio quality is pretty poor, and there are some squeaks and squawks in it. Also the volume is a little wonky in places. The narrator is Amy Irving - not sure if it's The Amy Irving as in the movie star. She's a little better than average, tops. She uses accents well enough, but doesn't do much in the way of creating different voices for non-accented characters. And with the poor sound quality, it's hard really to tell.

The book opens with the heart-wrenching death of the hero's wife Krystyna when her car is hit by a train. Eddie is left with 2 young daughters to raise. Krystyna was truly loved by everyone in the small Polish-American community, including the nuns of St Joseph, where Eddie works as janitor and where both girls attend parochial school. True to form for Ms. Spencer, you grieve and mourn along with Eddie, with his family and with Krystyna's family over the senseless loss of this saintly young mother.

Somehow from reading reviews, I got the wrong idea about the heroine in this book. Sister Regina (aka Jean) is a nun and teaches both of Eddie's daughters. She has been a nun for about 10 or so years, and apparently had been questioning her vocation for about a year at the time of Krystyna's death. I'm not sure why I went into this book thinking she was no longer a nun at the beginning of the book (that the nun part was only backstory) - in fact, she doesn't even request dispensation until more than halfway through the book, and it's near the end that she receives it. That makes building any relationship well past impossible, it would seem. Instead the first half of the book is spent mourning Krystyna (Sister Regina also mourns) and developing the reasons for Sister Regina's dissatisfaction.

In spite of it being so much about why Sister cannot abide her life in the religious community, Spencer is nothing but thoughtful and respectful of the nuns' lives. She spends a lot of time lovingly describing their customs and lifestyle. Even though she makes a good case for why Sister Regina questions her vows, and God knows I could never lead the type of life they live, she doesn't make a strong case against joining a religious community either.

Spencer also spends time developing Eddie's life as a widower - he manages to go on, as best as he can, with the loving support of his large extended family. He attends dances, and family gatherings, and he dallies a little with Krystyna's sister Irene just to test how it might be to have another woman in his life. When Sister Regina reaches out to him, he finds he can talk to her about how he is doing, what he is feeling, and a kernel of the relationship begins to appear.

Sister Regina's dissatisfaction really comes to a head when she realizes she can't ever comfort the girls because she isn't allowed to hug or even touch them, to talk to them outside of what her teaching duties require, to show any kind of emotion. Then she begins to notice things about Eddie, things she finds attractive about him. All of this makes her question her vows to the point that she confesses to the priest. It seems she hasn't been successful in hiding her feelings and the priest isn't surprised at all. (At this point I couldn't help but think of Maria von Trapp.)

Slowly, over time, as Eddie begins to heal, he also begins to notice Sister Regina. Of course, he doesn't even know what color her hair is. She cannot show even her wrists - the only part of her body he has ever seen is just the face that shows through her wimple/gimp. Imagine.

This book takes us from a heart-breaking beginning, through a long, slow, healing search for guidance, to the development of the relationship between Jean and Eddie at the end. A heart-breaking moment for me was when Jean gets her dispensation and is whisked away from St Joseph without being allowed to tell anyone goodbye, not even her students. The students are told she is gone because Jesus needed her somewhere else, which is exactly the way the girls are told their mother died. I actually gasped out loud at this point, feeling the jolt of pain the girls felt when they thought Jean had also died.

There's no mystery, no true suspense, just the story of the developing relationship between Jean and Eddie - it's a Romance, and by definition the hero and heroine get their happy ending, so we know that eventually they overcome the obstacles, including the objections of her family. It's the touching way Spencer builds this tension that makes her stories so memorable.

I'm going with 4 stars for this one for the story, with no points off for the poor quality and mediocre narration. I think I also ordered the book.

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