A review of Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof

Reviewed by Ruth Latta

Small Blessings
by Martha Woodoof
St. Martin’s Press
2014, ISBN 978-10250-04052-7, $25.99 US hc

Martha Woodroof’s first novel, Small Blessings, will appeal to readers who enjoy romantic comedies set in academia. The novel opens on the campus of a southern women’s college where middle aged English professor Tom Putnam leads a life of quiet desperation. He and his wife of twenty years, Marjory, are at an event at the college book store, organized by the new assistant director of the store, Rose Callahan.

Tom is instantly attracted to Rose for her relaxed air. He is pleased when she greets his wife warmly, and astonished when Marjory invites Rose to join them for Friday dinner. All her life, Marjory has been nervous and fragile; in recent years, so much so that her mother, Agnes, a retired lawyer, moved in to help take care of her. Rose, who has commitment issues, likes Tom instantly: “Something about this man, about the way he made no effort to distance himself from his wife’s noticeably odd behaviour, pinged her well-defended heart.”

The book store event also introduces two other characters, colleagues of Tom’s. The fact that both have drinking problems seems over-the-top, though the alcoholism of one is necessary for the plot.

Later, Tom, alone in his study, opens an unexpected letter with an old flame’s name above a New Orleans return address. Eleven years earlier, “desperate for a meaningful connection with another human being,” he had a brief affair with Retesia, a poet temporarily in residence at the college. The letter informs him that he has a ten year old son, Henry, who will be arriving by train a few days hence, to stay with Tom while Retesia is away. Tom decides to go to class as usual the following day, then afterwards, to “dump the whole mess in Agnes’s capable hands.” The scene ends with his thoughts of Rose, who has “beamed herself into the centre of his heart.”

Tom’s unquestioning acceptance of paternity doesn’t ring true. Surely it would occur to any man that the woman in question might be lying. Tom’s fantasies about Rose so soon after the shock of the letter, shows an ability to compartmentalize which doesn’t quite fit into his characterization as a “nice guy.” When he strolls across campus the following day, hoping to meet her, it is as if he does not realize the effect that the existence of his love child will have on his unstable wife. Yet, we are told, “My God, he felt happy!” Clearly the author wants to show that both Rose and the unknown son are a breath of much needed fresh air in Tom’s life. Yet the caring person he is supposed to be would not be so exhilarated.

Next, the deus ex machina intervenes. Tom arrives home to learn from Agnes that Marjory took the car out and got killed in an accident. In the ancient Greek theatre, when gods appeared, they were lowered to the stage from the “machine” or stage structure above, and then proceeded to clear away obstacles and vanquish the villain. The deus ex machina, or “god in the machine”, in literary terms, is the employment of some unexpected and improbably incident in a story or play to make things turn out right.

“Reliance on the deus ex machina,” write H. Hugh Holman and William Harmon in A Handbook to Literature (NY, MacMillan, many editions) “is commonly recognized as evidence of deficient skill in plot-making or an uncritical willingness to disregard the probabilities. Though it is sometimes employed by good authors, it is found most frequently in melodrama.”

Marjory’s convenient death is obviously contrived to clear the way for Tom’s eventual union with Rose. In dealing with her alcoholic characters, Woodroof shows that the route to sobriety is filled with false starts and relapses, but when it comes to Marjory’s unspecified mental illness, she is less convincing. Marjory deserves better treatment.

Tom’s first reaction to her death is to reflect that there is now no chance of an enjoyable dinner party with “healing elixir of Rose Callahan’s presence”. Subsequently, he thinks: “Their twenty years of married life had done neither of them any good and now it was over. There was no chance of redemption.” His grief and guilt could have been a reason to keep the lovers apart until the author is ready for their love to blossom, but instead, Woodroof employs other plot complications.

When Henry arrives, he looks younger than ten, and other aspects of his physical appearance make it clear that Tom is not his biological father. Even so, Rose, Tom and Agnes fall in love with the child, who fits in astonishingly well. This mystery of his origins is eventually solved. By coincidence, an acholic professor who has concealed his drinking problem from his colleagues, went secretly and unsuccessfully to rehab, where he had an affair with another recovering addict. There, he told the woman all about his colleague Tom’s affair with Retesia. Seeing Tom enjoying fatherhood with the amazingly precocious Henry, the tippling professor becomes envious and resorts to an extreme act which is the climax of the novel.

Comparisons will undoubtedly be made between Woodroof’s Small Blessings and another “village romance”, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson. In Major Pettigrew, the themes of racism and religious differences run through the novel, making readers realize that the question of Ernest Pettigrew and Jasmina Ali’s happiness is part of a bigger picture with broader social implications. Small Blessings touches on issues like the consquences of adultery, along with alcoholism and drug abuse, but uses them as devices rather than serious themes. At the end of Small Blessings, we find Rose crossing her fingers, “hoping against hope that life really might be that simple.” Unfortunately, real life isn’t as simple as it is presented in this feel-good romance.

Ruth Latta’s three adult “literary” novels, An Amethyst Remembrance, Spelling Bee, and The Old Love and the New Love, are available from baico@bellnet.ca or ruthlatta1@gmail.com