I can’t explain why I am sometimes compelled to go into the scary place that is my garage and root around in boxes in search of a specific book. It’s like a chemical reaction that I can’t control — I wake up and nothing will make me happy except for that one specific book (generally that one specific book is also located in a box under a zillion other boxes, meaning I work up a sweat before I get to read. Beats hitting the gym.).
A couple of weekends ago, I woke up with a powerful need to read Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ Dream A Little Dream. It turns out that I get this urge about once a year, give or take. I love this book. I love this book despite the fact that I spend a good three quarters of my reading time in tears. Please do not tell anyone about that — I do not cry easily (what is the old saying? There’s no crying in reviewing?). But this book does me in. Every. Single. Time.
The book opens as widow Rachel Stone (aka the Widow Snopes) sees the last of her luck running out. Her car is billowing black smoke (hint: if you see this, something awful has happened to your car). She has no money. She has no home. She has no job. She does have a five-year old son who has seen so much bad in his life that each time life knocks his mother down, he’s convinced that this time, they’re going to die. You almost think he’s accepted that as his fate.
Rachel’s car shudders to its last stop in front of the drive-in theater being renovated by Gabe Bonner, a man on the cusp of losing his will to live. His beloved (by everyone) wife and perfect son were killed by a drunk driver, and Gabe simply cannot find a reason to keep moving. But he can’t quite pull the trigger on the gun he keeps beside his bed, either. He’s marking time on the planet. Needless to say, when a man is wallowing in misery, the last thing he wants is a woman who is literally giving her last bite of food to her child. Oops, make that the last thing he needs is a living, breathing little boy who reminds him of what he’s lost.
Rachel has returned to Salvation, North Carolina, despite it being the place of her greatest humiliation. Her now-dead husband was a televangelist who ripped off people without a shred of guilt. And when the law closed in on him, he placed the blame for his avarice squarely on Rachel’s shoulders. Everyone believes she was an evil woman manipulating a good man. When she sees a picture of Gabe’s brother (famous football player and hero of Phillips’ Nobody’s Baby But Mine), she also sees a family heirloom that she believes contains the key to finding the money her husband didn’t manage to take with him when he crashed his plane while escaping from the Feds. If she can get her hands on the money, she can pay off his debts and settle down in a nice, quiet, safe neighborhood.
Or, if you will, she can put food on the table without considering the real possibility that she’ll have to sell her body for the meal.
Here is the thing about reviewing backlist favorites: I assume that you all have already read the book. I assume that you totally agree with my every thought about the book. I assume you know this is going to be Spoiler City. And I assume that you’re willing to let me explore some of my favorite concepts until I’ve worked every thought out of my system.
Let us, briefly, review my feelings about kids in romance novels. First, they are always overly cutesy. They in no way resemble real children. They practically glow with goodness. They are like little adults trapped in pint-sized bodies. And they always win the love and admiration of all the adults around them. Nobody can resist a kid.
Except Gabe Bonner. He hates little Edward. Edward is everything that Gabe’s son was not — he’s weak, he’s whiny, he’s terrified of his own shadow, he’s even puny. Even as Gabe lusts after Rachel, he makes it clear that he can’t stand the kid. It’s the kind of dislike that Edward grasps and accepts, to the point that when Rachel simply cannot take living in Salvation any longer and decides to move, Edward makes a pact with Gabe where the two of them will pretend to like each other, just so the Stones won’t have to move again. Gabe can’t even pull that off, making Edward’s charade heartbreaking. The kid just wants a little stability, and Gabe can’t give him a little help. Man, I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
Rachel knows that her son isn’t winning Gabe’s heart, and, as time goes on, she comes to accept that finding the hidden riches won’t happen. She’s not the type to keep tilting at windmills. She’s hard-working, practical, tight-fisted with a dollar, and, despite all of her efforts, not winning the hearts and minds of her dead husband’s former congregants. They blame her for everything — his death, their financial losses, even the closure of his church. And they don’t blame with words alone. Anger turns to violence, and Rachel decides that survival beats great sex with Gabe, especially since she can’t see him accepting Edward on his own terms.
The turning point in this whole mess happens when Cal, Gabe’s brother, has Rachel arrested for trashing the drive-in. He’s got the power and, frankly, the town will convict her without a trial if it comes to that. Please note what I’m saying: a romance novel hero from another book shows up and…does bad stuff. He does ugly stuff. He attempts bribery. He’s unrepentant. This woman spends the night in jail, and he’s convinced he’s done the right thing. Sure, she gets hers in the, sigh, epilogue (or as I like to think of it, the part of the book that I pretend doesn’t exist), but we don’t have a group hug moment. For which I am eternally thankful.
This is a book about faith. Some characters have a lot of it, others have none. Fiction, particularly romance fiction, doesn’t deal well the the subject of religion. Oh sure, there’s that whole sub-genre called “Inspirational”, but in my experience, the books seem to be big on platitudes but short on real faith. Last year, I made it a point to read an inspirational romance as part of the big Paperback Reader holiday romance reads extravaganza. I read two inspirationals, actually. And, as we all recall, I came away from my experiment disappointed. For books about religion, the stories were remarkably devoid of any exploration of faith. It’s like someone’s idea of how bliss should be, not how it really is.
In Dream A Little Dream, Susan Elizabeth Phillips places religion front and center. Rachel, our heroine, is the widow of a crooked televangelist. She was once a true believer, but, over the course of her marriage, lost all of her religious faith. Gabe, his spirit broken, attends church as a matter of course, but doesn’t really seem to have a true bond with his religion. Granted, he’s just about dead on the inside, so attending church is more of a habit than a comfort. Gabe’s brother, Ethan, is a small town preacher in constant communication with God. Even as Ethan doubts his calling and efficacy, God drags him back to the flock. It’s just Ethan’s bad luck that God speaks in different voices — and when Ethan needs the comfort of the Marion Cunningham voice, God decides to make Ethan’s day by sounding like Clint Eastwood.
At least someone’s having fun with the preacher who takes himself a little too seriously.
Where was I? Ah, faith. In the small town of Salvation, it’s a given that everyone goes to church — and once upon a time, most of the town worshipped at the mega-church run by G. Dwayne Snopes. In the manner of true charismatic leaders, Snopes kept the faith of the faithful even after he crashed his plane while running away from the truth. His troubles were all Rachel’s fault, he told his parishioners, she was greedy and he was blinded by her feminine charms. Thus when Rachel returns, it is the people who had the most faith in Snopes who make her life a living hell. They cloak their actions in righteousness, but Rachel is right to wonder what type of Christianity leads to such narrow-minded blind acceptance of one man’s word, despite the evidence.
Their actions contrast nicely with those of Kristy Brown, the woman who has been in love with Ethan her entire life — even though she’s fully aware that he’s always had a weakness for flashy women. Kristy’s straightforward religion allows her to accept Rachel into her home and to see beyond the tall tales. Kristy judges Rachel on the evidence: she’s a good mother, hard worker, true friend, and fearless woman. Rachel is the catalyst that Kristy needs to become her own woman.
This leads Kristy to define herself outside of the context of Ethan. She’s a vibrant, smart, attractive woman who doesn’t really want to be the man’s secretary/nursemaid. She wants to work with children, and finding her faith in herself allows her to pursue her dreams. Of course, once Kristy realizes there is more to life than unrequited love, Ethan sees her differently. Ethan and Kristy are both religious people, but, hallelujah!, they are also human. They lust after each other. Now in my personal circle of friends, preachers are a minority, but I like to think that happily married feverends have physical desire for their spouses. It’s not all G-rated conversation and spiritual purity. I really love that Phillips gave these two characters such humanity. See, you can be religious in fiction without being saccharine-sweet.
The difference between the characters in this book and those of other so-called inspirational romances is that Phillips’ characters interact with their religion and beliefs. Ethan talks to God; God answers. Maybe that’s weird, but since I’ve been hearing voices in my head my whole life, I think it’s just fine. Gabe attends church, but doesn’t seem particularly motivated one way or the other. Rather than creating the impression that all people of faith move in lockstep, Phillips lets her characters interact with the god they worship on various levels. If only all inspirational romance allowed such varying degrees of faith into the stories — the books would certainly come off as more believable and, yes, intelligent. Picture-perfect communities in picture-perfect worlds are simply boring.
It is important in the course of this story that Rachel find her faith. She has given up hope in the same way that Gabe has abandoned his will to live. Yet they both keep clinging to life. Gabe is tethered to this world by his family, and heals in his own way. Rachel dreams of that one lucky moment when things will turn out right for her. Sure, she’s been fooled before — and paid the price that was G. Dwayne Snopes — but she keeps clinging to her vision of a future that includes happiness.
And find faith she does. It’s not harps and angels. It’s not a recommitment to the religion of her childhood. It’s not a decision to follow a particular church’s ideology. Love is the thing that she discovers, love great and small. Once she understands the importance of love in her life, she finds her own inner strength. This is not an easy journey for her, and she falls down so often, you think, “Honey, just let it go. You can’t fight forever.”
And yeah, I realize that’s because Phillips has done such a great job of tugging my emotional strings. I need a break. I need to stop crying. I can’t take it any more. Of course, I know that all I have to do is put the book down. Walk away. Turn on the television.
But I don’t. Because I love reading this book right up the epilogue. Which I should discuss. Three primary female characters. Three brothers. Three pregnancies. Need I say more?
You can find Susan Elizabeth Phillips here. You can buy Dream A Little Dream here or here.