I learned a lot about the maple sugaring process and the daily life of a paraplegic in Barbara Delinsky’s latest novel. What was missing, however, was that sense of engagement that I usually feel for her keenly portrayed characters. An Accidental Woman, like all Delinskys, is well-written, descriptive and insightful, but it is not the author’s best work.
The novel returns to the picturesque New Hampshire town where 1999’s Lake News was set. Poppy Blake lost the use of her legs a dozen years ago in a snowmobile accident, but the thirty-two year old woman has made an independent life for herself. She lives alone, gets around in her lightweight, turquoise wheelchair, drives a specially-equipped car, and runs an answering service for the busy citizens of Lake News. Everyone knows and admires her, and her job connects her to almost everyone in town.
Which is why the shocking news about Heather Malone, one of Poppy’s best friends, hits her so hard. Heather lives with widower Micah Smith and his two young daughters, helping him run the maple sugaring business that has been in Micah’s family for generations. One morning, Poppy receives a frantic call from Micah. Heather has been taken to jail by several FBI agents, who claim that fifteen years ago she was responsible for the death of a young man from a prominent California family. Micah is sure there has been a terrible mistake, but strangely, Heather refuses to say anything in her own defense. Poppy urges him to hire Cassie Byrnes, Lake News’ best attorney. But without Heather’s cooperation, there’s little Cassie can do to protect her client.
As the case hits the national news, free-lance writer Griffin Hughes gets wind of the story and starts to feel very uncomfortable. He visited Lake News recently, first because of a major news event involving Poppy’s sister, Lily, and later because he found himself romantically interested in Poppy. A chance comment he made to his brother, an FBI agent, has led to Heather’s arrest. Now Griffin feels guilty and wants to use his connections to help Heather. And if his help softens the heart of Poppy, who has kept him at a distance, that’s an added benefit.
Delinsky frequently writes about heroines who are facing a crisis - a husband’s betrayal, the unwelcome attention of the media, a parent’s illness - and as the heroine resolves the problem, we watch her grow stronger. An Accidental Woman also features a woman in crisis, but unfortunately we never experience Heather Malone’s point of view. She’s the mystery around which the story’s other characters revolve, which gives the novel a less intimate feel. Poppy, who bears the weight of the book’s focus, is actually rather tangential to the central plot until the last 75 pages, although she does have her own compelling story. She struggles to move past her fears and guilt regarding the accident that caused her paralysis, because only then can she accept Griffin’s love. But that relationship in itself is problematic.
By the time An Accidental Woman takes place, Griffin and Poppy have already met and Poppy has already tried to tell Griffin that he shouldn’t pursue her because of her many limitations. The reader doesn’t see their first flirtatious phone interactions and the initial rush of attraction - those took place in Lake News - but instead is thrust into the middle of an already troubled relationship. It’s difficult to become involved in their love story because it’s already so full of angst. I had to borrow a copy of Lake News from the library to review their first encounters, and then it became much easier to root for them. But readers shouldn’t have to hunt down a 3-year old book to fully appreciate a new one.
Surprisingly, the character I felt most connected to was the laconic Micah. He is a rugged, straightforward man who doesn’t express emotions easily. He’s stuck in a situation that is out of his control, and to make matters worse, it’s all happening during the critical period of late winter when the sap begins to run and the maple syrup harvest takes place. He has no time to wallow in grief over Heather’s absence or wonder why she has kept her past a secret for so long - the sap waits for no one, and he has two daughters to care for as well. A typically independent New Englander, he hates being the center of attention and resents having to ask others for help, but he learns that the residents of Lake News care for each other through good times and bad.
If you’re a Women’s Fiction fan, you know that you can’t go wrong with this author, and An Acciental Woman is better than the inferior products on bookstore shelves claiming to be “in the Delinsky tradition”. However, while a few surprises strengthened the book’s conclusion, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had read a Delinsky Lite instead of the full-bodied version.