The Things I Know Best
by Lynne Hinton, contemporary (2002)
Harper, $7.50, ISBN 0-06-104101-7


The Things I Know Best, Lynne Hinton's follow-up to her debut Friendship Cake, is a bit of a shock. Friendship Cake isn't original, but the author weaves a beautiful drama of friendship between women nonetheless. If I try to find any emotional connection with any characters in The Things I Know Best, it's me and a doorknob, getting on a connection, surely.

I don't know how to give a summary, because a summary in this case means giving away the entire story. Almost purely retrospective in nature, The Things I Know Best weaves rather disjointedly back and forth along the time frame. Only towards the late leg of the story, when things like family secrets and love come to a climax, do things happen.

This is the story of the Ivy women. They are like the witches of Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic minus the sex thing, really. The narrator is Tessa, and she can tell fortune using tea leaves and stuff. Her twin sister Liddy is the rebellious one who claims to have an affinity with ghosts, just like Grandmother Big Lucille. Tess and Liddy's mother can tell when someone will die. And so on. But it's basically Tessa's story and how the appearance of a preacher into her life will unfurl a revelation of Buried Family Secrets and Newfound Love or something.

The thing is, while reading this book, I can't help but to think fondly of Alice Hoffman's complex, beautiful, and multifaceted Practical Magic - the movie is kinda blah, but watchable, I guess. Lynne Hinton's Ivy women, however, are so sketchily drawn that they are nothing more than one-dimensional shades. Tessa is a dull narrator, and her thoughts and motivations tend to travel in all directions - how bewildering.

For a pastor whose previous book has some strong, convincing (but not overpowering) Christian overtones, Lynne Hinton seems to have jettisoned the whole deal for some new age mumbo-jumbo kibosh here. Tessa claims to be religious, but Christianity here is a hodgepodge of pagan practices, some vague mentions of "faith", and the use of Jesus Christ's name here and there. Maybe the author is hoping to reach a wider (non-Christian) fan base here, but the paradoxical religious nature of the characters as opposed to no coherent depiction of any actual religion resembling Christianity much - this only makes the book even more unsatisfying.

With badly drawn characters, a rushed few last chapters, and amorphous portrayal of religion in what is supposed to be an "inspirational" fiction, The Things I Know Best is probably more of a rushed job to meet the deadline rather than an illumination of any sort. Now that Ms Hinton has settled down a bit more cozily, maybe she can spend some more time working out the details in her next book?

Rating: 57


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