Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Random Acts of Kindness
by Lisa Verge Higgins
Grand Central Publishing
2014, $15, pb US. ISBN 978-1-4555-7285-4
Random Acts of Kindness is a road trip novel involving three forty-something high school friends, who live on the U.S. west coast. The novel opens with Jenna fleeing her Seattle home with some belongings thrown into a milk crate and her Chihuahua, Lucky, in the passenger seat. She turns up at the rural Oregon home of her high school classmate, Claire, whom she hasn’t seen in sixteen years. Claire, who has breast cancer, is longing for time-out from her ultra-helpful sisters and from an atmosphere of gloom (her mother and one sister died of the disease.)
Soon Jenna and Claire show up at the San Francisco home of another classmate, Nicole, who had once seemed the “girl most likely to succeed.” Like the others, Nicole is in crisis and needs a change of scene. She welcomes their proposal to drive across country to Pine Lake, New York, the small town where they grew up. Claire wants to go there to deal with some unfinished business – running the rapids in the Hudson Valley Gorge The hope of recovering a sense of purpose by returning to one’s roots is a time-honoured theme.
During the trip, the author provides hints, then full disclosure of the women’s troubles. In Jenna’s case it’s career loss, marriage loss and a poor relationship with her teenager. She feels that she has “screwed up” everything she has undertaken and wanted to reconnect with Claire, who was friends with her when she was a “freak” in Pine Lake. Nicole’s problems are a seriously troubled child and lack of a well-paid professional career. Claire, a Buddhist, who has spent her life working for non-profits and seeking enlightenment, finds that her spiritual insights and practice are not enough in dealing with cancer.
“I just couldn’t accept that happiness and suffering are nothing more than states of mind,” she tells Nicole. “I just didn’t believe the idea that if I could control my mind, I would be happy.”
Although the novel starts intriguingly, it offers few deep insights into the human condition. There are some surprises in Jenna’s situation, but an alert reader can anticipate them. The narration relies on dialogue, and much of the advice the women give each other is predictable.
If the author had used the first person for each of the main characters in turn, each might have had her own unique voice and a deeper personality. Third person omniscient narration requires the reader to be jumping constantly from one character’s heart and mind to another. The inclusion of other old schoolmates also keeps the story hopping.
Random Acts of Kindness is for those who like their reading and their insights “lite.” If Higgins had made use of the vast and varied American landscape as a source of atmosphere, solace or inspiration, rather than mere backdrop, the novel would have been stronger.
For information on Ruth Latta’s novels, please visit http://ruthlattabooks.blogspot.com