by Jodi Thomas, contemporary (2003)
MIRA, $6.50, ISBN 1-55166-715-0
Jodi Thomas' foray into mainstream women's fiction is actually a familiar story of smalltown silly women trying to cope during hard times. If Jodi Thomas isn't good at what she does - writing realistic characters that could be people I know coping in situations that can happen to me any day - The Widows Of Wichita County will be a cautionary fast forward stories of When Stupid Smalltown Contemporary Romance Heroines Outlive Their Husbands And Just Cannot Cope. But since Jodi Thomas is always an underrated author who knows how to play my heartstrings like a virtuoso violinist, this book turns out to be a very good read.
In Clifton Creek, Texas, where oil fields are its lifeblood, five women find themselves forming an unlikely friendship when an oil rig explosion kills four of their husbands and left one barely alive.
Randi Howard is leaving her husband the day the explosion happened. A tough gal who dreams of being a country star even as she never lets anyone get close to her, she finds herself wishing her husband is dead so that she can be free. But like they always said, she should have been careful with what she wished for.
Anna Montano is a timid woman who has been living under the thumb of her abusive father all her life until she married her husband, upon which she then lives under the thumbs of her negligent husband and abusive brother. You'd think she'd be jumping in joy when the husband dies, but alas, spineless brown cows don't do things like that. Lucky for her a neighbor rancher can provide a second chance at her being a barnacle once more, this time to a kinder person.
Meredith Allen, the wife of a banker and a grade school teacher, copes with her bereavement by taking a hachet to a toaster. Falling in love with a sheriff who has a thing about people not touching him is only a little less harder on her nerves.
Crystal Howard, Randi's friend and sister-in-law, is the lucky one whose husband is not dead but a badly burned vegetable whose chances of survival seems slim. She's a doormat sort that have lived so hard trying to please her hubby. Now that her husband needs her and she's in the perfect Jane Eyre position, will she find her happy ending? That is... if her husband is really her husband in the first place. (The bodies are badly burned and near unrecognizable, after all.) And that is if her much-older husband's kids don't throw her out of the house first.
Rounding up the group is Helena Whitworth, the token elderly sort, whose role as the emotional anchor in the ladies' time of grief and confusion hides the fact that deep inside, she is more affected by the death of her beloved husband than it seems. Helena's role in this story is the same as that of every Elderly Strong Woman in this type of story.
Don't let my flippant tone ruin the book for you though. The first half of The Widows Of Wichita County is like a detailed anatomy of grief. It is very difficult to read about the grief, guilt, and confusion that permeate the pages, because the author knows how to make everything seem so real and painful. How do you grief for a husband you aren't sure you love anymore? How do you accept the realization that the beloved husband isn't just away for a short while, but he's never coming back? Meredith takes a hachet to the toaster her husband never get around to fixing, and it's a bittersweet form of catharsis. Randi could have been the most cruel and selfish of them all as she has already said her goodbyes and she doesn't know what else to say or feel anymore, but she instead comes off as vulnerably human in Ms Thomas' hands. Helena, apparently the strongest of them all, deals with her bereavement in the most heartbreaking manner of them all, though.
Not everything is gloom and doom though. The women slowly begin to heal in their own ways as the story progresses. For Anna, Crystal, and Meredith, it's love the second time around. Randi's story is left hanging, although I'm sure she'll eventually find her way. Helena, well, just think Elderly Strong Woman in Female Friendship Stories.
Unfortunately, when I am more than ready to assign this book a keeper grade, the lovey-dovey portions of the book become more and more formulaic, and after the poignant first half, these lovey-dovey scenes just don't measure up in comparison. I'm quite annoyed that Crystal doesn't actually grow as a person. She's still the same old doormat, only this time she's in the Jane Eyre position to show her Mr Rochester what a wonderful woman she is to stand by him in his time of need after all the crap he puts her through, so it's love, baby. Oh please. But the worst has to be Anna, whom the author ruins totally for the sake of an "exciting" climax that sees Anna growing only in the sense that she grows from a moron to outright imbecile, not to mention unbelievably spineless. Not to give anything away, let's just say Anna is the kind of woman that lets her man deal with a big problem on his own while she runs away and hides, wailing that everything is her fault. There are times when I wonder whether Anna is suffering from some grave trauma in her past, because it's hard to comprehend why this woman can be so indescribably spineless and cowardly. And of course, she learns nothing. Her new boyfriend loves her because she's a helpless wide-eyed porcelein Barbie.
By the time I finish the book, The Widows Of Wichita County has turned entirely predictable and even average on me. I can't help thinking that if the author hasn't resorted to one-dimensional villains and more formulaic damsel-in-distress elements in her story, this book could have been a much better read. Still, there's no denying the hard-hitting and very real emotions swirling from the pages. In a way, this book is not a typical romance novel in that it doesn't follow the "boy meets girl, boy lies to girl, boy screws girl, boy saves girl, boy marries girl" formula and it also doesn't shy away from matters like the loss of one's loved ones. But that's not a bad thing - there's more honest drama and human emotions in this book than most of the more conventional romance novels out there. The dip into mundanity towards the later portions of the book aside, The Widows Of Wichita County will be a worthwhile book to check out if readers are looking for a book sometimes bitter, sometimes uplifting, but always fulfilling for an afternoon read.
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