by Deborah Fletcher Mello, contemporary (2004)
Arabesque, $5.99, ISBN 1-58314-563-X
The Right Side Of Love, Deborah Fletcher Mello's latest, shows a huge marked improvement from this author in terms of quality. I have a hunch that some people will find this story tad too sweet and sentimental. I probably would too, under other circumstances, because the story involves a mentally handicapped and sick boy, but Ms Mello deftly weaves a story that engages me from page one and has me actually wiping my eyes with some Kleenex several times during my reading. This is a Hallmark story, of course, with its emphasis on family and all, but it's a heartstring-tugging and well-written story that makes the "Hallmark" description in this instance something to be glad about.
The main reason behind Ms Mello's success is the fact that her characters are easily identifiable as real people with real emotions. These characters don't always do the right thing, but this weakness makes them humans rather than annoying people because their motives are understandable even if I don't always agree with them. For the first few chapters, for example, I find myself sniffling as our heroine Jeneva Douglas gets ready to send her mentally-handicapped son Quincy to the Hewitt House Adolescent Care Facility and when she does, her heart breaks as she realizes that she has to be separated from her son from the longest time since he was born. Ms Mello describes Jeneva's emotions in a very real and poignant manner. Jeneva knows that she is doing the right thing since Quincy is now thirteen and she is no longer capable of being there for him on her own, but her heart isn't always so sensible so it breaks. Also adding to Jeneva's emotional turmoil is the fact that she has devoted her life to Quincy after her ex-husband decided that he wasn't ready to be a father to a kid like Quincy, so now she is at loss as to how to live a life where Quincy isn't always the center of her existence.
Our hero Mecan "Rhymes With Pecan But You Can Call Me Mac" Tolliver is the hunky guy who is one of the directors of Hewitt House and he is currently sitting in as the house father while the current house father recuperates from a knee surgery. When he first meets Jeneva, it's attraction and even love at first sight. She is also attracted to him, but muddying things a little is her current emotional state where a part of her is still unwilling to be separated from Quincy and this part reacts badly to Mac when he tells her some very sensible things about why she should back off and allow Quincy to get used to living with the other kids in the House. Still, like I've mentioned earlier, while Jeneva's reaction in this instance isn't pretty, I can understand why she's behaving in that manner. Jeneva realizes quickly enough that Mac isn't her enemy, thus making her a sensible heroine with self-awareness to root for.
But as Quincy blooms while living at the House and Jeneva becomes closer to Mecan as she visits Quincy every week and gets to know Mecan better in the process, her ex-husband Robert shows up. Robert has long moved on, having married another woman and even having two kids with her, so Jeneva is understandably suspicious when he starts asking to see Quincy. Jeneva is also hurt and furious when she realizes that Robert could be a father to his kids with another woman when he didn't even bother about Quincy until now, so when she at first refuses to let Robert see Quincy, I can again understand where she is coming from even when you can argue that Quincy deserves to know his father better. Again, Jeneva quickly realizes that she is taking out her own bitterness on Robert using Quincy and she lets him see Quincy even though she's not too happy about the situation, so once again, Jeneva doesn't let me down when it comes to being a heroine that I can happily root for. But why does Robert come back into Quincy's life after all this while?
Fans of sentimental family dramas won't be too surprised when secrets are inevitably revealed for atonement to be made and peace to be found for all parties involved in the story. But getting to the happy ending is a wonderful and sometimes turbulent ride. It helps that Robert is not a villain but rather someone who wants to do the right thing even if some people like Jeneva believe that it's too late for him to even try. He, like Jeneva, doesn't always do the right thing but, just like when Jeneva doesn't always play nice, I can always see why he behaves the way he does. Robert is not some evil caricature or a foil to Mecan, he's a character in his own right. Likewise, while Roshawn Bradsher and Bridhet Hinton are some of the best friends a woman like Jeneva can have (their sisterly moments are a delight to read), they come off as characters in their own right too rather than sequel-baits or one-dimensional accessories for the heroine. Even Robert's wife Fiona comes off well instead of some one-dimensional The Reason Why Robert Is Evil character that other authors may turn her into. The only obvious sequel-bait seems to be Mecan's twin brother but he never plays a prominent role in the story. Mecan is the most one-dimensional character here in the sense that he's on the too-perfect and so-understanding side, so he comes off like Jeneva's grand jackpot prize in the love-and-sex roulette game. But that's okay for me, really, because the other key players in this story are well-developed characters that make this story a most enjoyable heart-tugging read. As for Quincy, thank goodness that Ms Mello portrays him just as he is: a thirteen-year old kid with the mental capacity of a four-year old. While there are the inevitable "Awww, that's so sweet I'm going to cry, eek-eek-eek!" scenes involving Quincy, they never come off as gratuitous attempts to make me cry as much as they are scenes of natural progression of Quincy's mental and physical therapy at Hewitt House.
There are many other small things to love in this story. The women in this story don't have bizarre hang-ups about sex, for example, with Jeneva coming off as someone who has devoted all her time and energy to Quincy to date much rather than a heroine who thinks that all men are evil because of her ex-husband. When it comes to Robert, Jeneva is no trembling doormat - she gives back as good as she gets. The scene where she deliberately orders the most expensive items on the menu when Robert takes her to dinner to discuss Quincy, for example, is a funny scene as well as a "You go, girlfriend!" moment. While Jeneva and Mecan don't have a very exciting love story since Mecan is the understanding sex machine to soothe all of Jeneva's blues away, Jeneva nonetheless has a very satisfying emotional and character growth in this story. Ms Mello handles Jeneva's coming to terms with living for herself as well as for Quincy to even forgiving Robert very well.
Ms Mello impresses me in this book by displaying an ability to depict Jeneva's emotions very well, even poetically at times, without becoming too melodramatic or contrived. Jeneva's scenes with Roshawn and Bridget are also wonderful as the funny lines flow spontaneously even as the close friendship between the three ladies are apparent. While I find the last chapter a little too much of a happy ending in the sense that I find it unlikely that Jeneva will be suddenly so much at peace with Robert, I'm okay with the saccharine happy ending because for a very long time, Ms Mello doesn't sacrifice the depths of her characters for easy ways out. She could have made Robert evil incarnate, for example, or make Robert a poor misunderstood loser led down the evil path by an evil bitch of a wife, but instead Robert turns out to be have depths while Fiona is actually a sweet and loving character. Of course, how Fiona could fall in love with an irresponsible and flighty man like Robert was back in those days is something I'd love to know but I guess that would be asking for the stars when Ms Mello is already trying so hard to give me the moon in this story!
I love this story for the way Ms Mello tries and succeeds in portraying her characters are complex human beings that I can care for and the way she is willing to let her characters' complexity provide all kinds of shades of gray in a story where there are no clear good or bad guys. The Right Side Of Love is so right in so many ways, I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for a new author to try or a good story to read.
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