Lauren K. Denton’s book was one of those that popped up as “recommended for you by Amazon” while I was shopping for other things (velcro fasteners and washi tape, so go figure), but it sounded appealing and I love “discovering” debut authors, so I bought it for my Kindle.
It was pleasant, well written, and ever so slightly generic. The story is about two women from the same family in different time periods, experiencing revelations about their lives while ensconced at The Hideaway, a large, rambling old Victorian bed and breakfast in the deep South.
Mags was the grandmother, recently deceased, who ran away
(as a young woman) from her upscale Mobile, Alabama debutante lifestyle to a tiny town by the shore when she realized that her cheating husband was never going to change. Sara is the granddaughter, owner of a smart antique shop in New Orleans, who left her past in that tiny town behind, but now inherits the B&B from her grandmother and is left with the task of rehabbing it and bringing it back to life. The Hideaway is inhabited by an eccentric crew of seniors who arrived when they and Mags were young and ended up staying until they were old.
Each of the women is also given the opportunity of a life-changing relationship and has to decide whether to choose true love or solitude.
The story is told from the two women’s viewpoints, although in the third person, and jumps back and forth between the 1960s and the present. The characterizations are good, and there are some details (such as the wood-working suitor who engraves a key somewhere on every piece of furniture he makes as a symbol of his love) that are engaging. But there is a vagueness about some of the details that makes the story less than credible, and though none of it goes so far as to be ridiculous, the lack of explanation keeps the story from having as much impact as it could have had.
For instance, the original owner of the B&B walks away, leaving it in the hands of the youthful Mags, but there is never a detail about deeding it over. Likewise, with all the people who move in and never move out, it’s nebulous how Mags manages to make a living and keep the house together, since she’s not bringing in regular profits from turning over B&B guests. Likewise, Sara is left the house with the expectation that she will rehab it, yet we don’t learn how she is supposed to meet this expense—did Mags leave plenty of money to do so? because Sara’s small business in New Orleans certainly can’t support that kind of project; but again, we don’t know and are not told where Mags would have found the resources to leave.
I mildly enjoyed the book; it falls into that “new” category of relationship fiction that is my coined term to avoid using the to-me-perjorative “women’s fiction” label. As Liz Kay says in her excellent essay, “What Do We Mean When We Say Women’s Fiction?”: “We get stories about how to be better mothers, or how to understand our own mothers, or how important the bond between sisters is. We get romantic comedies that remind us that we too can be chosen if we just fix whatever it is that’s broken—our workaholic tendencies? Our distrustful independence? Our slutty ways? Something is broken in us, and if we fix it, we’ll be rewarded with the love that tells us, yes, we have value.” Denton’s book definitely falls squarely in the center of this description. But Kay maintains that if we as women desire to read books about mothers and sisters and lovers, they should include those whose flaws never get fixed.
“Fiction, all fiction, should challenge and expand our empathies, not simply reinforce the same assumptions, the same rules.”
Her ultimate conclusion about so-called women’s fiction is, “I don’t want to talk about how to be a woman in the world. I want to talk about the world we’re being women in.” I would have to agree.
One of Denton’s recommenders says, “…the perfect book for an afternoon on the back porch with a glass of sweet tea.” Although this presents an image that’s a little cloying, it’s not all wrong. I wouldn’t go so far as to denigrate this book, but it’s not stepping up in the manner that Kay advocates. I did love all the detail about the house itself, and the descriptions of the furniture carved by William. Sometimes, although reading the story doesn’t do it for you, the small details of the daily life being depicted are nonetheless seductive!
Afterthought: One curious point about The Hideaway is that it was published by the Christian house Thomas Nelson Zondervan; yet there was virtually no overtly religious message anywhere in the book. At one point, one of the inhabitants of the B&B persuades Mags to attend her Baptist church, which Mags describes somewhat derogatorily as “just what she expected,” which is to say singing, praying, and a fire-and-brimstone-wielding minister. You think she is going to have a moment when the minister calls for silent prayer and Mags wonders if she is finally ready to give up the past, but just as she is descending into her first-ever communication with God, the minister breaks into the silent prayer time, and Mags concludes to herself, “Just as well, I wasn’t ready to give it up anyway.” That, and a nod to God in the author’s acknowledgements, was it. One cynically wonders if this tidbit was added simply to qualify for publication?