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Small Blessings: A Novel by Martha Woodroof

Small Blessings: A Novel (2014)

by Martha Woodroof

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2573167,440 (3.83)4

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Very enjoyable story, as chick lit goes. ( )
  Siubhan | Feb 28, 2018 |
A lot of potential not quite realized. I don't quite remember why I was drawn to 'Small Blessings,' but I got a copy for a bargain price and was excited to start it. A review somewhere compared this to 'The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,' which I adored. So I hoped this would be a somewhat similar book yet tried not to get my hopes up too high.
And that was a wise decision to make. We are introduced to Tom, a professor on a small university campus who has a very fragile wife. He lives with her and his mother-in-law when one day he gets a letter informing him he is the father of a ten year boy named Henry who will be coming to live with him. Throw into the mix a sort-of love triangle, the questions of Henry's parentage and some academic shenanigans and you've got this book.
I wanted to like this. I loved the idea of it being a book about a professor who might seem like a total bumbling father but turns out to be the type of dad who reads 'Harry Potter' every night to his child before bed. And yet...it wasn't that great. There was a lot of places to go with this book, but it the pacing was very uneven (very slow in the beginning, picks up after awhile and then has a very weird thriller-like twist at the end). There are some characters who could have been cut or at least had their roles reduced. A lot of the characters don't get a lot of development (for example, Rose seems a bit Mary Sue-ish for me). There are a couple of plot developments that were just too darned convenient.
It reads like a lesser 'Fikry.' While that book too had its cliches and convenient plot twists, the characters were charming enough and the book was more funny/light-hearted and better-written overall. The book flap to this describes this as heartwarming, which isn't quite so. It all ends well, but there are certainly a few places where the book goes in a dark place (the one towards the end was totally unnecessary and seemed to have no consequences either).
Yet it did keep me reading. Once I managed to get through the first 5-6 chapters (I'll admit I seriously considered giving up) the book picks up in terms of action and plot movement. This wasn't a bad read, but if you're looking for a cast of quirky characters (that are bookish/academic) in a small setting where a child entering the picture changes the course of things, pick up 'Fikry' instead. This wasn't a bad read, but I think I would have preferred borrowing it from the library instead. But if you need a bargain read to kill time while flying, this might not be a bad purchase. Just be prepared to slog through it. ( )
  acciolibros | Feb 11, 2018 |
A light and somewhat unbelievable story about a professor who, after years in an unhappy marriage, meets a woman who steals his heart and finds out he has a ten-year-old son. Due to circumstances beyond his control, Tom's marriage is over and he is free to start a new relationship with Rose Callahan, the breath of fresh air in the close-knit community of the college who has a history of never staying too long in one place. Tom is also faced with the arrival of little Henry. Fortunately, his mother-in-law is supportive and her knowledge of the law proves useful. The novel involves serious issues but deals with them in a light-handed manner. The narrator is competent. ( )
  bookappeal | Nov 28, 2017 |
This was a lovely little escape for a while, but I found the characters too flawless, the romance too quick, and the coincidences too frequent. There wasn't any conflict, given that the only thing that would have produced a realistic conflict was dispatched within the first couple of chapters. Everything was tied up in a neat little bow at the end, which sometimes can be very satisfying... but in this case, it just felt like the main characters were handed everything they wanted without having to actually DO anything to make it happen.

I loved the college town, though. It reminded me of the one I lived in for a few years in the 80s and 90s. I'm not sure towns like that really exist anymore, but it was nice to visit one in a book. ( )
  VintageReader | Jul 9, 2017 |
Small Blessings follows the intertwined lives of academics and their family members in a small Southern college town.

The above synopsis almost made me pass on this novel – sounded slightly mundane and I’m not a fan of academia novels.

Then, one Saturday morning, I heard Ms. Woodroof interviewed on NPR (she is a staff writer for NPR) and I warmed to her voice, attitude and that she’s a debut novelist at 67 years of age. (Approaching said decade myself, I seek any and all such bright, uplifting statistics, if you please)

I remembered I had Small Blessings on my Kindle and turned the first pages that evening — still convinced it would be a predictable read.

Yes, at first this is your average story: In a small, sleepy college town Tom Putnam, an English professor with a mentally troubled wife, is flatly going about his life when suddenly there is Rose, a lovely new employee of the campus bookstore. Tom and his wife are charmed by Rose and make plans for dinner.

Still thinking oh yes, a Lifetime movie plot is about to unwind, I carried on and wham! The story suddenly twists and turns. The characters become wholly unpredictable…and I found myself turning the pages and falling headlong into Ms. Woodroof’s atmospheric story.

Without giving away too much, Tom’s poor wife dies in an auto accident during the first few chapters, his mother-in-law, Agnes (my favorite character) becomes his ally. Tom falls a little bit more in love with Rose each day. At the same time, a past affair brings him Henry, a 10-year old boy, who may (or may not) be his son. Stir all this up with oddball (often drunk) supporting characters, a Southern town that knows everyone’s secrets, some melodrama and you’re in for a journey.

The campus atmosphere is beautifully rendered in an insulated Southern setting, but Ms. Woodroof also slyly lampoons the institution’s pretenses. The front lawns of the faculty housing are beautifully maintained for showing off to prospective students and parents, while the back yards grow weedy dependent on the faculty to tend – which they don’t.

I had my quibbles with Small Blessings. I found Tom Putnam to be almost catatonic in his passiveness, perhaps as an academic, he lives in his head – but at times I found it very irritating – especially in his marriage to Marjory: “Conscience was such a delicate balancing act. There was what he knew was right, what he ought to think was right, and what he wanted to do, all to be considered. It was the ultimate moral chess match, and it was the only game that mismatched married people got to play.”

The mental illness and death of Tom’s wife, Marjory are treated with a light, almost cavalier hand – as in this from Agnes, her mother: “Marjory is, I really do think, better off dead. I don’t know what dead is, of course, but it’s got to be more fun than my daughter’s life was.” and this later quote “the best thing she ever did in life was to give up on it. And that’s a bleak as a life can get.”

In the end, I found this an unpredictably candid and real storyline. Small Blessings teeters on the edge of soap-opera stereotype, but then surprises the reader with realism. The characters are flawed but ultimately loved. This is a story full of tragic events but it overflows with optimism. One of my favorite quotes: “When the going gets tough, the tough suck it up,” Agnes said. “The rest get run over.”

The outline of this novel screams “make me a TV movie!”, but if it is optioned, I hope they capture the story’s quirks and messiness.
See all my book reviews at http://bookbarmy.com ( )
  BookBarmy | Apr 13, 2017 |
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Information from the Russian Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
'Tis the gift to be simple. 'Tis the gift to be free. 'Tis the gift to come down where you want to be. And when you find yourself in the place just right You will be in the Valley of Love and Delight.  --SHAKER HYMN
Decide that you want it more than you are afraid if it.  --ATTRIBUTED TO BILL COSBY
To Charlie and my daughter, Liz Gipson. And to my friend Marcia Robertson because she is, as The Boss puts it, tougher than the rest.
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There she was, as welcome in this insular community as fresh air in a multiplex, a woman who, rumor had it, risked being happy.
Books were the main reason Rose worked in bookstores, for no matter how chaotic and strange the worlds in them might be, it would always be finite chaos, one in which you could safely immerse yourself without getting stuck. It was so different from the low-keyed, never-ending, creeping chaos of real life.
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"Tom Putnam, an English professor at a Virginia women's college, has resigned himself to a quiet and half-fulfilled life. For more than ten years, his wife Marjory has been a shut-in, a fragile and frigid woman whose neuroses have left her fully dependent on Tom and his formidable mother-in-law, Agnes Tattle. Tom considers his unhappy condition self-inflicted, since Marjory's condition was exacerbated by her discovery of Tom's brief and misguided affair with a visiting poetess. But when Tom and Marjory meet Rose Callahan, the campus bookstore's charming new hire, and Marjory invites Rose to dinner, her first social interaction in a decade, Tom wonders if it's a sign that change is on the horizon. And when Tom returns home that evening to a letter from the poetess telling him that he'd fathered her son, Henry, and that Henry, now ten, will arrive by train in a few days, it's clear change is coming whether Tom's ready or not. For readers of Helen Simonson and Anna Quindlen, Small Blessings is funny, heart-warming and poignant, with a charmingly imperfect cast of cinema-ready characters. Readers will fall in love with the novel's wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels like life is veering irrevocably off track, the track changes in ways we never could have imagined"--… (more)

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