by Deborah Smith, contemporary (2004)
Warner, $5.99, ISBN 0-446-61140-9
One of the toughest things for me to do is to put down in writing why I find a certain book so good to read. It is really hard to describe the emotional roller-coaster I experience while turning the pages of a wonderful book. For instance, it is very hard to describe how I get this excited feeling that the book is It when the author's voice seizes hold of me from page one and doesn't let go until the last page is over and I collapse against the back of chair, feeling drained because the author has wrung every positive emotion I can feel out of me. The excitement that increases with each turning of the pages because the author hasn't let me down yet, the way I get all bubbly and excited because I am really enjoying myself, and the way I close the book thinking, "Damn, this is why I love to read in the first place!" - how do I put all this down in words anyway?
And when it comes to Sweet Hush, I really don't know how to actually convey my feelings about it adequately, because a simple "very good" isn't descriptive enough. Let me try to explain: this book simultaneously exasperates and thrills me to the core. I love it, I cringe at some parts of it, I get exasperated with it. I want to turn back time to when I first read page one so that I can re-experience the whole spectrum of emotions I felt during the initial reading, but I also wish that this book could have been better in so many ways.
One thing I love about Sweet Hush is that instead of alternating between first and third person narrations like the way she did in her previous books, Deborah Smith sticks to first person narration throughout, offering me an insight into the psyche both the hero and the heroine as they take turns telling their story. I find the flow of the story therefore smoother and the intimacy afforded by the first-person narration is not interrupted by abrupt transitions to third person narration. Also, this book sees Deborah Smith actually letting her hair down and cranking out one-liners to make Sweet Hush easily her most comedic book to date.
Anyway, the story. Hush McGillen Thackery is the iron-willed forty-year old matriarch who is a prominent person in Chocinow County, Georgia because she is the president of the Sweet Hush Farms, the apple orchard equivalent to those fine vineyards that make a lot of money selling overpriced fruits as gourment delicacies. In the case of Sweet Hush Farms, they grow and sell the famed Sweet Hush apples, apples that are so good that people drive all the way from Atlanta to buy boxes of them. But it hasn't always been easy for Hush: the family business had crashed during the Depression and when Hush was born, the McGillens were poor. She single-handedly began to rebuild and develop the business to where it stands today when she was only in her teens. She had to juggle between being a young mother and a wife to a husband in a marriage that was slowly but surely breaking down along the way.
Today, life is good, isn't it? The Sweet Hush Farms rake in two million dollars in turnover every year, Hush's son Davis is a prodigy that is flying high in Harvard, so what can go wrong? Well, how about Davis coming home one day with a pregnant wife? Oh, and surprise, Mom, Eddie here is Edwina Jacobs, the only daughter of the current President of the United States! Hush isn't the only one with objections to this relationship, because the President and the First Lady are not happy too. Hush now has to deal with her new daughter-in-law, the spotlight on her once agreeable routine, and Nick Jakobek, the President's nephew that is sent to bring back Eddie to Washington.
Hush doesn't become who she is today by being a sweet and demure Southern belle, and boy, don't I love this woman indeed! She's a bitch in a really good way as she doesn't let anyone bully her. She takes control and she doesn't afraid to stand up for herself or for the people she loves. Hush does have her vulnerabilities, but she never lets her baggage get in the way of her ambitions. The downside of this is that she can demand too much from herself as well as from the people around her, but Hush isn't a stupid woman. When she hits a brick wall, she's the type of person that will stand back, survey the wall, and get someone to bulldozer the wall down after negotiating a marked-down price for the bulldozer service. If you love reading about successful women that don't make apologies for the way they break the outdated stereotypes about "feminine propriety", you'd probably enjoy reading Hush's story. Hush isn't always a nice person, but Ms Smith has crafted Hush's character so carefully and painstakingly that Hush comes off like a real person, a compelling and likeable real person, warts and all. (Actually, Hush sometimes reminds me of my mother, which I can say here without any reservations because I know my mother won't be reading this, heh.)
It is hard for me to describe the plot of this story because this is one of those books where the pleasure comes from following the characters' lives instead of merely muddling from Plot Point A to Plot Point B. There is a theme here as opposed to a plot, and that theme encompasses family, love, and healing. Ms Smith isn't as successful in making Jakobek real compared to her success with Hush (he's a little too perfect to be real), but Jakobek must be one of the most romantic heroes this author has ever created. His childhood is a tough one. The subsequent paths he takes in his life that leads him to become a shadow agency serviceman cause him to be so world-weary, cynical, and jaded that he all but screams, "Take me, heal me, I'm so tortured, how can you resist?" It is hard for me to resist because Jakobek is one of those tortured guys that have inner demons but they always stand up to fight for the ones they love. Hush calls him her hero, and in a way, Jakobek is indeed the perfect romantic hero - wounded, in need of healing and love, and so noble. Jakobek is the kind of guy that loves and protects his loved ones without hesitation that this lack of hesitation is like an instinct to him, so for this reader, he's a dream; a wonderful fantasy guy that makes me almost forget to breathe.
The mantel clock slowly struck ten in the darkness above our fire. I stood, touched his face, then went to the bath, did not turn on any light, and waited in the shadows with a Chattanooga midnight gleaming through a stained glass transom, lighting us with ancient star shine over the old southern river that bound the city. I twisted the knobby faucets of the shower, adjusted the heat, and let the water flow over my hands as if the river itself, warm with comfort, had come inside. I heard Jakobek's footsteps. I felt the depth of his body before he put the careful grip of his hands on my shoulders. Both of is needed to come clean.
"Yes, I knew you'd follow me," I said quietly. "And yes, I wanted you to."
"I've been following you all my life," he whispered.
Jakobek's initial bewilderment and cynicism at the perfect little haven that is the Sweet Hush Farms soon thaw away to make way for slow healing of his soul as he falls in love with Hush. Hush loves him, not just because he is the rare man that isn't intimidated by her personality or success or always trying to run the business for her, but because... well, it's really hard to describe why these two fall in love in merely one sentence when Ms Smith does a better job at making me believe in her characters. It's all there, the emotional connection, the sexual attraction, and the way each person helps the other person heal and be whole, that sort of thing. Hush and Jakobek's scenes together are romantic, funny, and sometimes even whimsical and quirky, such as the first time they meet.
Ms Smith also takes the opportunity to make some political soapbox statements in this story, although she does this in a way that I am never jarred out of the organic flow of the story. This book has a moderate liberal slant in the politics and Jakobek makes a dramatic case for pacifism in this story. The First Lady, Edwina Habersham Jacob, definitely has parallels to Hillary Clinton in that both are ambitious women who would be lauded and praised were they men. Because she is a woman, Edwina has to publicly bake cookies to prove her "worth" and earn the approval of the middle-class suburban electorate for the sake of her husband (who does not exhibit the infamous tendencies of Bill Clinton, in case you're wondering), and over the years, her idealism slowly erodes until all that's left is a hard, hard shell. But while she could have been easily the Mother-In-Law from Hell, Edwina is given enough depths to make her a wonderful nemesis for Hush - she goes too far at times, but Ms Smith also allows Edwina to display enough softer and positive sides to allow readers to make up their own mind about her. Hush though recognizes Edwina as a worthy rival and even admires her and both women actually get along very well in their own way at the end of the story.
Now, let's get to the bad. Ms Smith writes in a lush style that works very well. In Sweet Hush, there are times however when I feel overdosed on the overabundance of "apple" metaphors and homespun wisdom. Every character seems to speak in the same way, using similes, imagery, and arch turn of phrases that rob the story of any sense of spontaneity. It is one thing if Hush speaks in this manner - I can assume that it's just one of her personality quirks. The fact that everyone speaks in a same overflowery manner causes the story to feel stilted, as if the author is carried away by the whole greeting card slogan creation thing that she forgets to give her characters individual voices. Likewise, sometimes the author hits bullseye in some really wonderfully crafted scenes that come off as very romantic, but sometimes she makes me cringe. Everything about that little girl nicknamed Hush Puppy (Hush's niece) makes me cringe because Hush Puppy is sooooooooo cute that I want to borrow that apple birch from Hush and go swat me some ghastly monsters of cute. I never imagine that I will find a Deborah Smith novel overly sentimental - until now. Sweet Hush has a few scenes that should carry a hazard warning. The story also becomes more implausible as I turn the pages, especially with the family secret coming off as a little too trivial to warrant the hand-wringing and tears that ensue over its revelation. I understand why Hush the control freak will want to keep the secret hidden, but the thing is, I don't find the secret that earth-shatteringly shocking that it must remain hidden at all costs.
But the problems I have with this book never affect my enjoyment of the story. Sweet Hush isn't just a good book that I enjoy - it is a book that actually succeeds in making me emote and feel. There are some keeper books that make me laugh and go, "This is fun! I love it! Keeper!" but Sweet Hush makes me laugh, cry, groan, curse, and sigh from the start to finish. Sometimes when I've read so many so-so to downright horrible books that I need to be reminded as to why I read in the first place. Sweet Hush not only reminds me of the reason why but also inspires me to keep reading.
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