Small Wonders
by Marilyn Pappano, contemporary (2003)
Dell, $6.50, ISBN 0-440-24119-7


Clumsily stradding the boundary between oversweet sentimentalism and beautiful redemption, Marilyn Pappano's latest, Small Wonders, has its plusses and minuses. Plusses? A truly fine hero and a heroine who's decent. Minuses? A plot that advocates redemption even before the hero is willing to be redeemed and the story takes huge leaps of (il)logic for the sake of Touched By An Angel In A Chaste And Pure Way melodrama.

The story of conman Cole Jackson and single mother Leanne Wilson actually started in Cabin Fever and I would strongly suggest readers wanting to read Small Wonders to start with Cabin Fever first. In Cabin Fever, Leanne is a secondary character taken in by the new guy in Bethlehem, Cole, and his son Ryan. She runs a kids boutique, Small Wonders, which gives this book its title. By the end of Cabin Fever, Cole has broken Leanne's heart and conned quarter of a million dollars from the people of Bethlehem. You'd think a town with three guardian angels will be smarter than that, but hey, what is they say in those shows? God works in mysterious ways?

In Small Wonders, Cole is arrested after he's mailed the money to the town attorney (don't laugh) along with the list of names of his victims. Needless to say, it's not that hard to trace everything back to Cole and wham! He's in court now. The judge, however, sentences him to 5,000 hours of community service in Bethlehem under the supervision of a freckled-faced youth. I tell myself, God moves in mysterious ways, even if in this book, all ways seem to lead to Huh. So now he's back. What will Leanne do now? Heh heh heh. Of course, Leah says she's learned her lesson the hard way and she's over him. And of course, she hasn't and she isn't.

This book is very hard on cynics like me. On one hand, Cole is wonderfully written. He really works as a man with a difficult past and his conflicts really tug at the heartstrings. If the story lets Cole work out his problems without having the cast falling over backwards to accommodate him, Small Wonders would be a really good read. But with the constant hammering of the theme of forgiveness and love, the story instead makes me even more cynical. The plot taking some ridiculous turns is bad enough (see the above community service thing), but when everyone seems more willing to forgive Cole even more than he can forgive himself, this is a case of the author milking the sympathy cow until she gets cheese rather than telling me a story of a man's redemption. Cole has a hard time working out his issues, but that's because he's smart - or obtuse - enough to want to be a really good fellow. And even so, the author chooses to make it very easy for him to be forgiven.

More idealistic readers may like this one better than me. Cole is a really nice hero to make the whole book worthwhile, and Leanne is a nice heroine when she's not doing that Carebear forgiveness and love and understanding schtick too thickly. Cynical misanthropes like me, however, have best be prepared to have their eyeballs rolling upwards a little too often.

Rating: 79


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