I am very excited about the book I am reviewing today, Small Blessings. It really is a fantastic novel and I highly recommend you pick up a copy when it comes out on 8/12. Read my full review and scroll down for a Q&A with the talented and gracious author, Martha Woodroof.
If I were to make a list of my favorite books this year SMALL BLESSINGS by Martha Woodroof would be at the top. This is saying a lot for me because, according to Goodreads, I have read more than 90 books so far this year.
Tom has been muddling his way through life, without thinking and without feeling, just trying to get through one day at a time. He, along with his mother-in-law Agnes, is trying to take care of his mentally unstable wife. Marjory, who is paranoid and incapable of going outside of the house on her own, has been Tom’s responsibility for the past twenty years.
One day an encounter with a cheerful and optimistic new employee at the local college bookstore changes all of their lives. During the same week, Tom receives a letter from a past lover saying that he is the father of a 10 year-old boy named Henry who is being sent to live with him. How can this much change possibly happen to a person who was leading such a quiet and unassuming life?
This book is rich with well-rounded characters with whom you cannot help but admire. Although Tom is clearly caught in a loveless marriage, he has made the ultimate sacrifice by never abandoning his wife. Marjory’s mother Ages, who became a widow and a single mother at a very young age, has a resilience that many of us would envy. Henry is a 10 year-old boy that is sweet and kind and flourishes in a home where he is loved and wanted. Even the lesser characters, such as Russell and Iris who are also on the university faculty, have their own problems and struggles that enrich the storyline.
Sometimes a book begins slowly but has a strong ending. Sometimes a book beings strongly but the ending is weak. Sometimes a book has both a strong beginning and ending but the middle lags. That is absolutely not the case with SMALL BLESSINGS. There are twists and turns and unexpected surprises that one encounters throughout all of the wonderfully written prose. I loved every single page of this book, which is a very rare thing to say. Martha Woodroof has written a book that everyone needs to include SMALL BLESSINGS on their must read list.
*Thanks so much to NetGalley and the publisher for giving me an advanced copy of this book.
1. I really enjoy books with university/academic settings. Did you have a particular experience at a university that made you use this setting?
My mother taught English at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and used to regale me with stories of departmental meetings. As an adult, I’ve managed to live mostly in college towns, and I enjoy hanging out on campus and people-watching. To me, the campus of a small college functions as a societal bell jar in that it’s a closed community where people can’t escape each other’s company. Setting a novel on such a campus was the ideal way for me to examine all sorts of human relationships, from the petty and adversarial, to the loyal and loving.
About the bookstore in Small Blessings: My own life is pretty much divided into the years before and after I got sober. My first real job in sobriety was at the Sweet Briar College Book Shop, working for the wondrous Roscoe (Skipper) Fitts, who was, to quote a late member of the English Department, “a real book man.” My job was Rose’s job; I ran the Espresso machine and did event programming. It was while working there that I developed a wish to write about a college whose heart beat in its bookstore.
2. Tom’s wife seems to have symptoms that would suggest she is on the autism spectrum. Did you have a particular diagnosis in mind for her?
I did not, other than that she is irreparably damaged. And I wanted explore what happens in a relationship between two loyal, well-meaning people that can never, ever be a happy one.
3. Your first attempt, in my opinion, at novel writing is nothing short of amazing. What was the most exciting part in the entire process of having your first novel published?
Why thank-you so much, Melissa. Really, really, really!
The most exciting part is really that it’s happening. Period. I’m old enough and have done enough National Public Radio stories on publishing to be terribly, terribly grateful to my agent Kate Garrick and my editor at St. Martins, Hilary Teeman, for taking me on. And I’m completely tickled that they did. My only plan right now is to enjoy the adventure. I feel as though I’m up on a surfboard, riding a gigantic and exhilarating wave.
4. What is the best book, fiction or non-fiction that you have read so far this year?
I think in terms of can’t-put-it-down, cracking good story, probably The Son by Philipp Meyer. The characters in it are still with me, and I finished it a month ago.
5. Since Small Blessings has been such a success, do you have any plans for writing another novel?
First draft is done. Second draft is being cranky, but I’ll get there.
About The Author:
MARTHA WOODROOF was born in the South, went to boarding school and college in New England, ran away to Texas for a while, then fetched up in Virginia. She has written for NPR, npr.org, Marketplace and Weekend America, and for the Virginia Foundation for Humanities Radio Feature Bureau. Her print essays have appeared in such newspapers as the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Small Blessings is her debut novel. She lives with her husband in the Shenandoah Valley. Their closest neighbors are cows.
Special thanks to Martha for being so kind and answering my questions.