Monday, August 28, 2006

book review A Hearth in Candlewood

Title: A Hearth in Candlewood
Author: Delia Parr
Publisher: Bethany House, August 2006, Paperback, 317 pages
Type: Historical Fiction
ISBN: 0764200860


A Hearth in Candlewood opens with Emma welcoming an unexpected and elderly guest to her boarding house in the dead of night. In this way author Delia Parr introduces us to the book’s main character, the 51-year-old widowed landlady Emma Garrett and her home, Hill House.

Hill House is located in the fictitious town of Candlewood, a canal settlement near the Erie Canal in the state of New York. The story begins in September of 1841 and encompasses just a bit more than a year. It details Emma’s struggles and triumphs as guests come and go from her boarding house, a developer hounds her to sell the property, she becomes embroiled in a family feud, her own enterprise comes into jeopardy and through it all she invokes God’s presence, help and approval.

The setting seemed authentic. The book did a good job of portraying American small-town life and especially what it was like to run a boarding house in the mid 19th century. The historical events in which the story was set were interesting with the flux and change brought about by improved transportation via canals, the anticipation of the railroad, and the arrival of unscrupulous developers providing a potential for tension. It was also refreshing to have a middle-aged heroine for a change. However, despite all the above, I found this book a hard slog.

One problem I had with it was the main character, Emma. Though she was generous, helpful, hospitable and caring, her inordinate concern about appearances, impetuousness, stubborness and often outright bossiness kept me yo-yoing between like and dislike. In fact, I was more than a little pleased when, from time to time, she got the treatment she regularly dished out.

The plot too left me unsatisfied. It was slow-moving and tangential with detail that often cluttered rather than focused the story. Emma’s concerns were wide-ranging and busy-bodyish, and her actions in relation to other characters didn’t do much to dispel the stereotype of the meddling widow. There were build-ups that led to nothing (e.g. a horse riding episode where a big deal was made of Emma’s need to wear trousers – oh horrors, what would people think?! – and then the actual ride wasn’t described at all). A chicken incident near the end was belabored to unbelievable and ridiculous lengths. Even attempts at humor fell flat, with the characters doing all the laughing.

Themes addressed were family relationships, the role of women, especially as they relate to women being capable of managing their own business affairs (I fear Candlewood didn’t do much to further the cause), and the role that faith in God plays in daily life.

In this latter I was also disappointed. Though the author depicted Emma as breathing prayers and rehearsing comforting sayings in the middle of stressful times, her spirituality seemed superficial and used more like an amulet than entered into as a living relationship. There was little evidence of her gaining insight into her habitual and self-defeating behavior patterns or changing from her headstrong ways. Maybe this happens in the next books.

All that to say, I really can’t recommend this book, though it has been likened to the Mitford Series by Jan Karon – which I enjoyed. For those who do choose to give it a try, keep in mind that this book doesn’t tell the whole story. Books 2 and 3 of the Candlewood Trilogy are still to be released.

Thank you to Bethany House who provided a copy of the book for review.

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