Enchanted Afternoon
by Susan Wiggs, historical (2002)
MIRA, $6.99, ISBN 1-55166-938-2


Susan Wiggs' latest, Enchanted Afternoon is a mess. The plot runs in all directions, the main characters have no chemistry at all, and all in all, this book seems to be cobbled together one sunny afternoon when Ms Wiggs is staring at the deadline circled on her calender and remembering how MIRA threatens to sue for the advance they paid her if she doesn't deliver on time.

But I still like this book, only because of the pretty good characterizations of Helena Cabot Barnes and Michael Rowan. They grow as characters, and in the end, they have evolved and changed. That's good. What's not good? I don't think these two like each other much.

Helena Cabot Barnes is married to an abusive man called Troy. Troy is a snivelling Daddy's little female cat who beats his wife because of his nasty nature and also because the son she bore, William, wasn't his. See, she was pregnant with Michael's baby when she married Troy, because she doesn't want to trap Michael into marriage. (Don't worry - Ms Wiggs is well aware of the irony of what Helena did - making another man, ie Troy, do the very thing she doesn't want Michael to do for her.) Now she wants to ask Michael to help her get a divorce.

Then that plot point seems to be resolved in a quickie manner so that Helena can now run a hospice for abused women in her new lodge. Along the way, Ms Wiggs preach that Loonybin Folks are just misunderstood, they are gifted artists and lovely people, really! Although I wouldn't recommend you new believers do what Helena did - hire a loonybin woman to arrange her divorce with her husband. Yeah, yeah, special people are touched by God, et cetera, but I don't think we should be letting them run nuclear power stations or drive buses anytime soon. Where was I? Oh yeah, the book. So now we have the Unity of Women thing, as Helena drills a land she is actually renting to find some thermal springs (what will the landowner think?) while the women teach her how to read. Michael does the digging and bonding with his son, while Troy shows up for some hysterical baddie antics.

Along the way, this book also delivers some interesting messages we should all take to heart: the Special People Should Run Your Lives thing mentioned above, Your Daddy Will Always Love The Illegitimate Brat Better Because Legitimate Brats Are Always Snivelling Weaklings (Michael is illegitimate and he is loved more by Troy's father - Troy is his half-brother - because Michael is a better man, and Michael loves his bastard kid more and vice versa than Troy and Will ever love each other) So Let's Sire Kiddies Out Of Wedlock, Women Keep Saying That They Don't Need Men For Anything Except To Feed Them And Repair Their Things And Become Their Kids' Daddy And Give Them Money And... Oh Wait A Minute, and my favorite (only because it's the only one that makes sense), You Die If You Believe That Your Abusive Man Can Change Without Therapy and Medication (He May Love You But That Won't Stop Him From Beating You, Stupid).

But here's the thing: the story is a mess, true, but I like how Michael isn't a complete good guy. He's a jerk, and later he will feel remorse about it. He and Helena broke up because it isn't just a big misunderstanding - he really wasn't ready to commit himself to Helena then. Helena isn't a stupid woman. In fact, she's accurate with regards to how she perceived Michael even back then when she was a star-struck besotted girl. She's just a woman who does the best she can under the restrictions her life as a society wife (be pretty, be silent, be dumb) impose on her. Michael and William bond in a nice, sweet (maybe too sweet) way. And while Helena and Michael for the most part of the story don't even act like friends, much less lovers, they do click together in the end, even if I'm still convinced that these two will drift apart once William grows up and be his own man and lives his own life.

So here's the irony: Enchanted Afternoon is the worst-plotted Susan Wiggs book I've read, but in it, I also find the characters much more memorable than any of those in her last few books. Helena and Michael are flawed but human, and I find that the most - maybe only - memorable thing about this shoddily-plotted book. A book that makes me ponder over it the way I pondered over Enchanted Afternoon can't be that bad.

Rating: 80


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