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The Forgiving Hour
by Robin Lee Hatcher
(WaterBrook Press, $14.95, G) ISBN 1-57856-150-7
In The Forgiving Hour, established author Robin Lee Hatcher has made a significant shift from writing mainstream historical romances to writing contemporary inspirational fiction. Ms. Hatcher's many romance fans may be somewhat disappointed; her first effort in this new direction is not an unqualified success.

The story begins in present-day Boise, Idaho. Claire Conway is anxiously awaiting the arrival of her son Dakota and his fiancée. Even though Sara is seven years older than he, Dakota is certain that she is the woman that God intends for him. But when the two women meet, they recognize that they have a common past that will ruin the chances for any happiness. Sara Jennings is the woman who destroyed Claire's marriage.

Twelve years earlier, Claire Porter had what she thought was a perfect marriage with her high school sweetheart Dave and was the mother of a darling son, Mike. Sara Jennings was a college freshman. When Dave, a carpenter, was sent to make repairs in her apartment, she struck up a friendship which progressed to dating and intimacy.

When Claire learned of this relationship, Dave abandoned her, and their marriage ended. Claire retook her maiden name, and Mike legally changed his name to Dakota Conway.

A youthful Dakota was convinced by a friend to return to church. There he experienced a sensation of peace and love and is born again. He realized that he needed to forgive his father in order to achieve real peace. Claire accepted his changed attitude but forbid him from mentioning his father again.

Sara Jennings was so devastated by the discovery that her lover was married that she dropped out of college and moved to Denver. Eventually she regained her confidence and continued her education, but she is still distrustful of men. When she accepts a job in Boise, she meets Dakota who is a friend of her family's from church. Dakota is immediately attracted to Sara and overcomes her objections to their relationship. Soon they are in love and become engaged.

When Dakota brings Sara to meet his mother, the injuries of the past are resurrected. It will only be through faith and God's love that Claire and Sara can find the forgiveness that will allow them to accept a painful past and find happiness in the future.

The Forgiving Hour is not a true romance but rather women's fiction with a romantic sub-plot; the main theme of the story is indicated by the title. The execution is unfortunately marred by the frequent abrupt transitions in chapter sections which focus on one of the four main characters, Claire, Sara, Dave, or Dakota. Most sections are short (some are very abbreviated) as the reader is jerked from the actions and thoughts of one character to those of another. At any point in time, the main characters are nearly in lock-step as the narrative plays a literary version of ping-pong. The result is that there's never enough time for one particular character to engage the reader's empathy. Claire, Sara, and Dakota are all sympathetic characters, but all the hopping back and forth creates a distance between the characters and the reader.

It's not possible to designate one character as the heroine. Claire and Sara are of equal importance, and Ms. Hatcher treats the emotional dilemma of each with equal compassion. Claire has experienced the devastating destruction of her marriage and the resulting economic hardship, and her subsequent bitterness is easily understood. Sara has committed a youthful indiscretion and has suffered greatly from her sense of guilt in the succeeding years. Both of them are good women whose lives have been forever changed by their experiences.

Dakota is undeniably the hero. While he, too, suffers from his parents' divorce and his father's desertion, he handles the emotional consequences with relative ease. In fact, it seems too easy. Dakota is one of those heroes who's too perfect. He doesn't drink, smoke, cuss, or entertain sinful thoughts. If he were to suddenly walk on water, it wouldn't be out of character. It's a rare reader who can identify with such a paragon.

Kevin, Claire's love interest, isn't as fully developed as the other major characters, but he, too, seems too good to be true. He is firmly committed in his religious beliefs and is active in encouraging Claire to rediscover hers. His sole (soul?) purpose is to provide a happy ending for Claire, even though the theme of the book is forgiveness through a personal relationship with God – not the standard two-by-two match-up of romance novels.

The story's theme of forgiveness through Christian faith is forcefully articulated. Characters think about it, talk about it, read Scriptures about it. There's an obvious message that forgiveness is only possible through a close personal relationship with God. Readers who are uneasy with a strong Christian viewpoint will probably be uncomfortable with The Forgiving Hour. Religion is an essential part of this story; it's not possible to read the book and skip the religion.

By encouraging established authors in other genres to write inspirational fiction, the religious publishing industry is making an effort to attract a wider segment of the reading public. The potential for retaining that wider readership, however, will depend on the broad appeal and the literary quality of the books. The Forgiving Hour is likely to appeal to present readers of inspirational stories but is unlikely to attract many new readers to the genre.

--Lesley Dunlap

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