Wednesday, September 3, 2008

A Little Help From Above by Saralee Rosenberg ***

This is a book that was loaned to me by a friend. I let it sit in my TBR pile for months and months because I've been on a Romance novel binge and this is more Chick Lit.

That, of course, brings up the whole Women's Fiction thing - what is Romance? what is Chick Lit? What is strictly Women's Fiction?

Basically, Romance is a relationship story. There are several sub-genres off that, but a relationship (usually male/female - always m/f in my case) is center to the story. They meet, perhaps not the first time, and develop a love relationship during the course of the book, which ends with a strong possibility they will live happily ever after, together. There may be suspense, comedy, murder involved. It can take place any time, historical or contemporary.

In Chick Lit, from what I can gather, the story is centered around the woman's life, which usually does involve a man. She is single, career-oriented, and probably urban, and we learn the conflicts and obstacles in her life. And there's humor and, from what I understand, usually snarkiness in the writing style. It's (usually or always?) contemporary.

Ok - on to our story. This is the debut novel for author Saralee Rosenberg, written in 2003. It contains a thread about DES, a drug given to women for decades to prevent miscarriages that is now known to cause birth defects and cancer in the children and even grandchildren of the woman who took it. I don't know if Ms. Rosenberg or her family was affected, or if she just used it as a story line.

The Protagonist is Shelby - almost 40, single, a successful and driven journalist in Chicago. She is obnoxious. Rude. Mouthy. Snarky to the extreme. I wanted to reach into the book and slap her about 3 times per page. I kept putting the book down and asking myself if it was worth finishing. There isn't anything she does like: her job, her current boyfriend, past boyfriends, family members - no one is safe from her acid tongue.

Her younger sister calls her to tell her their father and stepmother have been in a near-fatal accident and are both at Death's door, and she tries to figure out a way to avoid going to their home, where she grew up, in New York. Apparently she has some issues: her mother died of cancer when she was 10, her father married the mother's sister (her aunt), her sister and the aunt's son grew up calling both parents Mommy and Daddy, and for some reason to be revealed, Shelby hasn't spoken to any family member in 2 years.

It gets even deeper - her mother's death from cancer spooked her to the point of never going to doctors or hospitals again (or rarely), partly because she blames the hospital and the doctor for her mother's death. Her mother was told it was nothing until it was too late for any treatment. And to cap it all off, her very best friend in the entire world was the boy next door, who moved away with his family the week after her mother died, and he was never heard from again - despite her efforts over the past almost-30 years to locate him. Keep in mind, she was 10 years old at the time.

The book takes on a number of issues, all of which Shelby mouths about but shoulders, in a number of twists that push credibility even for fiction. She is determined to remain single and childless, despite the pushiness of her family. However, her sister is a victim of the DES her mother took - and cannot bear children. She and her second husband push and push and push Shelby to consider being a surrogate mother for them - at age 38? For a neurotic sister with a husband who comes on to Shelby at every chance? Everyone around conspires to make Shelby feel guilty about saying no.

She's also convinced she will find her first love (from age 10?), the boy next door, and live happily ever after with him - she knows he is the only one for her. What, is she a vampire or werewolf who can only have one mate? Also unbelievable, as is how she eventually tracks him down.

The reason we are to believe all this is the Help From Above - Shelby's mother is meddling from the beyond to see that her daughters find happiness in life. So I guess the central theme is Mother's Love Overcomes All Obstacles. Including death.

To be perfectly honest, by the time the book ended, I was happy for her. Ms. Rosenberg's writing is good, and often funny - in spite of my dislike of her heroine, I found myself laughing out loud. And she did manage a romantic HEA for the ending as well, as incredible as it was. I still never got over how mean Shelby was to everyone - maybe it's a New York thing, people talking to each other like that, but it grated on my nerves to the point that I am begrudgingly giving it 3 stars. I didn't think someone who lived and acted and spoke like Shelby even deserved a HEA, especially since I was never convinced she redeemed herself or made a true turn-around in her attitude, but I did manage to like it somehow. Such is the power of good writing.

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