By Anne K. Kaler
Romances deal with character development while mysteries depend on plot development. The hybrid of the two genres is called romantic suspense which often depends on coincidence to make a satisfying read. However, something vital gets lost when coincidence strays into the realm of the unbelievable ending.
Ann Hood’s recent novel The Book That Matters Most is such a hybrid because it involves so much unlikely coincidence of events. In fact, the book itself combines many tempting devices on its journey to a happy ending. Remember that the romance genre usually ends with the restoration of order to a disordered society and the promise of continued order through a marriage and the possibility of new life. On the other hand, the mystery genre ends with the satisfaction of justice being done to restore order. Mystery often has an innocent pair of young lovers to carry out its eventual hope for order in society.
So where does coincidence come into play?
Hood’s novel cleverly uses three narrators alternating their viewpoints to make the novel easy to read. Ava is newly divorced and lonely when a friend initiates her into a book discussion club whose ten members select the book which matters most to them for each of the club’s ten meetings.
This device enables the author to develop each member by using the themes of the book to illuminate each person’s life. For example, the youth who selects The Great Gatsby illustrates his idealistic and unrealistic view of the world. The actress with terminal cancer chooses Anna Karenina. A harried mother of five claims One Hundred Years of Solitude. The other members choose books that hold familiar themes of adultery, satire, tradition, racism etc. as they appear in modern and classical literature.
The narrator and heroine Ava chooses a book from an unknown author, Rosalind Arden, whose existence provides the mystery to be solved. She rashly promises to bring the author to her book discussion in November even though she cannot trace the author down. The title of Ava’s choice “From Clare to Here” is derived from a song by Irishman Ralph McTell about the immigration of the Irish from County Clare. Ironically, the title itself suggests the clue to the convoluted mystery around Ava’s missing author.
Ava feels guilty of not preventing her younger sister’s fall from a tree which caused the girl’s accidental death. Over the years, her guilt is intensified by her aunt’s disappearance, her mother’s suicide, her husband’s infidelity, and now her physical and mental separation from her son Will, who is studying gorillas in Africa, and her troubled daughter.
The second narrator is Ava’s daughter Maggie, who is supposedly on a semester-abroad in Italy studying art while she is actually in Paris trying to live the life of a cool bohemian writer. Maggie’s narrations center on herself and her descent into the drug world. She lives a life of self-deception and sordidness which lead her near to death. Her quick rehab is just one of the coincidences which neatly play into a complex series of coincidences with which the ending is constructed.
The third narrator is Hank, a retired widowed policeman who is determined to use his skills of detection to revisit the circumstances of the death of Ava’s sister many years ago. In doing so, Hank chances on conflicting stories (aka coincidences) which resolve the mystery about the death and bring about the novel’s ending. His persistence means that he must dig into his own dubious past as well as coming to a resolution of his involvement in the death.
Attached to these plotlines, Hood inserts a satiric poke at one of her own writing themes – knitting. The character Delia who has stolen away Ava’s husband is the “yarn-bomber” who dresses local objects in her attempt at public art. “Yarn bombing is a type of graffiti…that uses colorful displays of knitted yarn rather than paint or chalk…[it]is about reclaiming and personalizing sterile or cold public places.” (48) The author does not choose to use yarn-bombing again in the novel, leaving the reader dangling at the end of a false strand of a theme (excuse the pun).
The prevalent theme of books-describing-characters is well done. Working through ten months of the chosen books, the narrator Ava has seen familiar problems in herself through the eyes of the other book discussion members. She is well on her way to contentment with her life after her sudden upsetting divorce.
Then coincidence takes over – big time. This point is where believability sustains its hardest blow to the belief that many coincidences could possibly happen to the narrators all at the same time, in the same place, and with the same set of characters conveniently gathered together. In trying to draw all her themes together, the author forces coincidences of deceitful aunts, non-dead mothers, Parisian booksellers, wandering drugged daughters surviving rehabs, a policeman who admits earlier adultery, and a mother who isolates herself from her daughter.
The ending is too pat with all the characters understanding why everyone else did what they did and forgiving them immediately. Their lives suddenly make sense now that the “mystery” or hidden facts have been revealed and life can only get better.
Mystery is always a puzzle with a missing piece which conveniently falls into place only when a superior mind sees a connection that the others cannot see. That is the role of the detective in mystery whose solution neatly ties up the loose ends of the tale. In this novel’s case, justice and redemption are given to the characters along with understanding and forgiveness. All is well with them and with their society. Mystery has achieved its goal.
For the romance, all of this joy and happiness should exist in the reordered society which the author has created. The mystery is solved and everyone accepts the happy ending.
But at what cost? Excesses of coincidences equal a “forced” ending. One or two coincidences are tolerable but the author forces so many upon the reader that she renders the ending improbable and unbelievable. In my opinion, this puts her novel well beyond the reach of romance deep into the land of fable or fantasy.
Surely a novel which has a yarn bomber in it can do more than knit the many colors of coincidence into a patchwork piece of prose.