Okay, this book is enough of a departure for me that it’s going to be hard for me to write a review. I’ll provide the conclusion first: I really, really liked it. A lot.
Now, let me see, where to actually start.
Okay, first, a mild disclaimer: I don’t know the author personally, but I do know via Facebook that that she likes my books. If you happen to be working on your debut novel yourself, then let me say: I won’t deliberately trade reviews or anything, but I will feel, if you love my books, your literary taste probably matches mine in some important ways, so if your book comes to my attention, I may read it no matter what genre it falls into. I’ll hope to love it. If I do, I’ll say so, while if I don’t, I’ll never mention that.
Now, Jennilee’s Light.
What is this novel? What genre? I sorta kinda skimmed the Amazon description, which for me fell solidly into tl;dr territory. I didn’t care that much about the description; I was trying the book purely based on the author liking mine. I believe a shorter, pithier description is generally better than one as long and involved as this. I probably read about three sentences of the Amazon description, shrugged, and tossed the book on my Kindle.
Now that I’ve read the whole novel, let me try to describe it. I believe the easiest way is to start by telling you what it isn’t.
It starts with a murder in the way lots of murder mysteries do, but it’s not a murder mystery, though the mystery is threaded through the story. It begins in 1968 and stretches out over the next sixteen years or so; that’s not long enough ago to count as a historical, but too long ago to count as exactly contemporary. The heart of the story is an extremely intense relationship that in due course becomes an intense romance, but the book doesn’t follow the customary beats for a romance novel. There is a small fantasy element, but not enough to set the story in the fantasy genre. Only the one fantasy element, which is only noticed by a few characters, so probably not magical realism. It’s not a fairy tale retelling, but Cinderella will probably come forcefully to mind if you read it. Some aspects of the story would almost certainly appeal to readers of Christian literature, but there are almost no specific references to religion, other than people celebrating Christmas from time to time. What is that, seven genres this story sort of but doesn’t quite fit?
I’m going with . . . bright literary. Can I use that term, bright? Does that work? I mean, upbeat literary. Well, I don’t mean upbeat in the sense of perky. Perhaps I should say, optimistic literary. Hmm. Of these types of terms, I believe I do like “bright literary” best. This is a story about, well, a lot of things, but its essence is a single relationship shown in slice-of-life, over a sixteen-year span, in a contemporary-ish setting. That strikes me as pretty literary. But so much literary has such negative, even nihilistic subtext. I’m thinking of The Lacuna by Kingsolver, if you want to know where I’m coming from when I say that. The underlying message of that one struck me as, essentially, “You just can’t win against the forces of human ignorance and bigotry.” The basic underlying subtext of Jennilee’s Light is “You absolutely can.”
Let me see. I said the description on Amazon struck me as much too long. Let me try to give you a short, pithy version.
After her mother is murdered when she is four years old, Jennilee is raised by an aunt who hates her. Her refuge is her relationship with Charlie, also orphaned, and with Charlie’s grandmother. Charlie is Jennilee’s champion and protector. More than that, he is her light and her hope of happiness. Both know they are destined to grow up together, that one day they will marry, that they are meant to live happily ever after . . . unless Jennilee’s aunt can ruin their chance for joy and destroy their lives.
Something like that pretty well evokes the novel, I think. It’s not entirely accurate – Charlie is not literally an orphan – but it’s essentially true.
The soulmate thing is a very, very strong element in the story. Ordinarily I think that would have struck me as too over the top, but there are a lot of over-the-top elements here and somehow they work. Jennilee is way too good to be true; so is Charlie. But the author isn’t making the slightest attempt to pretend they’re ordinary kids or ordinary teens or ordinary young adults. She is deliberately pouring a golden glow over them both, and everyone around them reacts to that glow. I found it remarkably easy to just relax and go with it.
Almost all of the story is slow-paced (slice-of-life, remember). Half the book, roughly, takes place before Jennilee’s eighteenth birthday, when she becomes legally free of her aunt. I want to tell you, the scene when Jennilee turns eighteen and shakes the dust of her aunt’s house off her feet is stellar. After the slow build, watching Jennilee and Charlie walk together into joy while the evil aunt crashes into thoroughly deserved disaster is enormously satisfying. However, though this novel is self-contained, threads do reach forward into the future, suggesting a possible sequel.
Who would like this novel:
I don’t quite know what to tell you, since the novel is so unusual compared to most of the fiction I read. If the above makes you think you might enjoy this book, by all means give it a try; it’s only $2.99 for the Kindle version, so why not? But I do think:
You might love this book if you like slice-of-life stories, but find modern literature too dreary.
You might love this book if you enjoyed Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series, but would prefer less mayhem and death, or fewer specifically religious underpinnings, or both.
Oh, here’s one I think works: if you love Rumer Godden, sure, try this book. It’s not the same, but you may well love it.
You know what, if you loved Little Women, give this one a try. That just occurred to me, but I think it’s true.
And, specifically, I hope Linda S. tries this one and lets me know what she thinks.