by Mary Jo Putney, contemporary (2003)
Jove, $7.50, ISBN 0-515-13545-3
I really have mixed feelings about Mary Jo Putney's latest contemporary romance Twist Of Fate. I applaud this author for tackling deep and heavy issues in her romance novels when other authors will be churning out insubstantial feel-good formulaic comedies or romantic suspenses. While this book sees the author slipping into contemporary mode most comfortably, it is also the author at her preachiest. The theme today is capital punishment, and the author is against it, and my, she hits me in the head again and again and again.
Capital punishment is one of the issues I am still unable to make a decision on, and I am cowardly enough to hope that I will never have to choose which side to be on. Still, it doesn't matter which side of the fence I am on. A really good storyteller will draw me into the story even if everything about the story goes against my beliefs. One amazing thing about the award-winning movie about capital punishment, the Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn vehicle Dead Man Walking, is that the movie simultaneously presents views of both sides of the fences even when Sarandon and Robbins are determinedly anti-capital punishment. What the movie succeeds is to allow the viewers to think deeply and hard and to examine his or her own stand on the issue. Regardless of whether I am against or for capital punishment, Dead Man Walking makes me think more about the issue because the movie affects me powerfully.
Twist Of Fate doesn't allow me the luxury of independent thought. From the get go, capital punishment is described as a barbaric practice. The hero is determined to go on saving the man on death row even if the man is proven to be a murderer, because as he says, he doesn't believe in capital punishment. Then the author goes on to use the Beautiful And Sympathetic Wise People Of Color stereotypes to drive home her point, and I feel as if I'm attending Mary Jo Putney's Revival Tent instead of reading a good romance novel. And don't expect a liberal, atheistic approach to the author's preachings: she incorporates the theme of faith (Quakerism) to support her issues. Unfortunately, the neither subtle nor effective approach the author takes in doing it sabotages her story.
My disappointment is keen because Val Covington is the most likeable of the trio of friends that star in Miss Putney's contemporary romances. Val isn't a doormat or sad Daddy's little girl like her friends - she's determined, smart, and she doesn't let love compromise her career. Indeed, I can argue that in this book, she plays the lead role and the hero Rob Smith is playing her worthy assistant. In Twist Of Fate, corporate lawyer Val decides that her work is taking too much a toll on her social life and to get some breathing room back in her life, she decides to leave her firm and start up her own practice. When she rents a remodeled church for her office, she meets Rob, the man that remodeled the place. When Val's assistant begs her to take on a case of a man on dead row - this assistant Kendra's boyfriend Daniel - Rob reveals himself to be an ex-marine police that can help Val in her investigations. As the story progresses, Val will learn that Rob has a vested interest in helping her. Rob doesn't have any personal interest in Daniel, but his past experience that drove him into hiding makes him a staunch opponent of capital punishment. In a way, his helping Val is his way to making peace with himself.
Val and Rob fall into bed quickly in a "let's have an affair" way. But I have to give Ms Putney credit in this: she manages to slowly peel back the layers of Rob's personality to give him some intriguing depths. While Val can fit the stereotypical do-gooder mould, she's also a determined and passionate woman with principles. I like both characters, and I especially enjoy how Ms Putney slowly show me - and Val and Rob - that their affair may not be as shallow and perfunctory as the characters would like to imagine it to be. Val and Rob may not display a bond as intense as some of Ms Putney's couples in the past, but for me, they have enough.
But it is very hard for me to keep reading because the author is not at all subtle in her preaching. I don't have an opinion on capital punishment, and if I feel this way, I don't know how pro-capital punishment readers will be able to stomach the way the book degenerates into oversweet, almost hysterical melodrama towards the end. Kendra and Daniel are African American characters, and unfortunately, they end up like all the typical token characters of color in mainstream fiction: Daniel is so sage and sensitive and all-knowing, of course he's innocent. He all but has a "Martyr" tattoo on his forehead. Kendra suddenly reveals that she has some sixth sense where people's relationships are concerned. Towards the end of the book, Val is "sending lights" to Daniel and Kendra and Rob and every good man and woman in this book in a way that make me cringe at the whole melodrama of it all.
The dialogues are often stilted and coming close to being condescending as well. Daniel comforts Kendra by giving this speech:
"There's lots of arguments against capital punishment, but one that gets missed is how hard it is on the friends and family of the man who's executed. You're being made to suffer like Malloy's family did, and you don't deserve it any more than they did."
Who on earth, when wrongly condemned to die and confronted with a weeping girlfriend when the time is nigh, will speak like that? Ms Putney, please, show me, don't hit me in the head with very obvious PSAs masquerading as tender scenes. The irony here is that if she lets Daniel scream, cry, or rant at the injustice - in short, act like a human being instead of an unrealistic martyr - I will be more open to Ms Putney's views. But Ms Putney goes the heavy and high-handed road instead, never letting me form my opinion and always force-feeding me her points of views, and I resent being treated as if I'm incapable of forming my own opinion.
And come to think of it, the author doesn't actually add anything new to the long-going arguments against capital punishment.
A little subtlety and elegance, a little more humanizing of the soapbox pretending to be characters, and a little less patronizing of her readers will earn Ms Putney a better reception and make Twist Of Fate a better book. As it is, it has a decent romance floundering in a sea of anvillic heavy-handed soapbox filled to the brim with corny melodrama.
This book at Amazon.com
This book at Amazon UK
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