Sunday, November 23, 2008

An Accidental Woman by Barbara Delinsky *****

This is the sequel to Lake News and it's the story of Poppy Blake, the middle of the 3 Blake sisters we met in that book. They all live in Lake Henry, a small town in New Hampshire.

Delinsky writes in the back of the book that she originally planned to do 4 Lake Henry books, one for each season. But she didn't write more Lake Henry books for several years after Lake News, and then only because of the requests for Poppy's story.

At the end of Lake News, Poppy has finally met in person Griffin Hughes, a journalist who had been calling for news about her sister Lily's debacle (the false rumors of her being a Catholic Cardinal's lover). They struck up a relationship by phone, and Poppy never wanted him to know she was paraplegic. She's actually got a good setup - her home was built specifically for her needs, and she has what seems to be state-of-the-art equipment - wheelchair, car - for getting around. But she's never fully forgiven herself for the role she played in the accident that killed her boyfriend and caused her injuries 12 years earlier. They meet in person at the news conference at the end, and we are left only to imagine that a relationship bloomed between them at that point. An Accidental Woman takes up several weeks later, after John and Lily marry, and Poppy has given Griffin the brush-off.

Griffin Hughes doesn't have much in the way of secrets or disabilities himself, unless you count a sister having run away and never being found some 7 years earlier. He comes from Money and has 4 or 5? brothers, all of them living high-powered lives, but since their sister ran away after a drug scandal, the family hasn't been close. However, he mentioned to his FBI brother that a cold case fugitive photo looked a lot like a woman he met in Lake Henry - and the next thing you know, Heather Malone has been arrested for murder and flight from prosecution.

The FBI is claiming Heather is actually Lisa Matlock, who ran over and killed an influential California politician's son 15 years ago and was never brought to justice. Heather claims she is indeed Heather Malone, but refuses to help the lawyer, Cassie, with any details that might exonerate her. Now in jail in another New Hampshire town awaiting trial, Heather left behind her lover Micah and his 2 young daughters with whom she'd been living for 4 years - well, it was heartbreaking all in all.

And Griffin is responsible for this, he feels, responsible for tearing the town in half - half thinking Heather could never have killed anyone and she wasn't this Lisa, and half thinking nobody really knew Heather or what she was really capable of.

Like Lake News, it's a complicated story with a cast of thousands (well, ok, dozens), all fully fleshed out. I said Lake News wasn't complex or layered - I'm not sure I was using the right adjectives. It's got several storylines going on at once - Poppy coming to terms with her disability; Poppy coming to terms with her mother Maida; Griffin's search for his sister and also his search for redemption for having inadvertently turned Heather in; Heather's story - was she Lisa? - and Micah's story - could he still love Heather if she was Lisa and had never told him the truth? We got a glimpse of Lily and John, and we got a taste of the life of lawyer Cassie and her husband and children. Everyone has a story, all intertwined, and all leading up to whether they could let the past rule their present and their futures.

There was a twist in the book that felt forced and not as natural, almost as if there were no other way to find the child given up for adoption so the author threw in an extra, sort of mysterious character. I'm not sure why that bothered me - it wasn't really that outrageous, it just didn't flow easily from the story in my own mind. It seemed too pat, too coincidental. And where we got justice for the wrongs done to Lily in Lake News, we had to settle for what little justice could be had for Heather when the facts were put on the table. It was a lot messier than Lily's cut-and-dried situation: Lily had not done anything at all wrong, including the affair which did not exist. What Heather had done - what Poppy had done - even what Cassie was doing to her own family, these things were not as simplistic and as easy to resolve. No Die Hard YESSS! moments here.

Still the story was tender and touching and I teared up on more than one occasion, most notably when Micah's younger daughter Star urges him to go see Heather in jail and take her a tuna fish sandwich so maybe Heather would be think of Star when she ate it. It reduced an enormously complicated issue to a very small and simple one: all that really mattered to Star was whether Heather thought about Star, or had left her for good, like Star's mother had done by dying.

There's a notable pet in the blind cat Victoria that Griffin picks up in town and then loses to Poppy, and the maple sap business is given enough copy that you'll be able to open your own someday - but not so much that I felt like I was being lectured to!

I am not as conflicted about the genre on this story - this is really women's fiction. The actual romance between Griffin and Poppy is no more important that the relationship between Micah and Heather, and there are other threads in the story that overwhelm these as well. But still, it was a wonderful, relaxing, satisfying and heart-wrenching read.

5 stars!

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