|I don’t know who the heck the five young white women pictured on the cover of this book are, but they’re definitely not the culturally diverse characters of varying ages who are featured in Barbara Samuel’s latest novel. Maybe they’re discussing this engaging story, which sees Samuel moving further away from her romance novel roots as she explores several pivotal months in the lives of four friends who live in the same Pueblo, Colorado neighborhood.
At the core of the novel is 46 year old Trudy Marino, who has recently separated from her husband of more than twenty years after discovering his infidelity. Although they had experienced several key losses, Trudy and Rick raised three children together, and she thought they had a strong, happy marriage. She is devastated by its breakup but determined to establish a new life for herself as a single woman. At the same time, however, she is also intrigued by Angel Santiago, a young Spanish photographer who has temporarily moved next door. His courtly language and gentle attentiveness are balm to Trudy’s wounded heart, but Angel too has his own shadows.
Trudy’s neighbor Roberta Williams is an elderly African-American widow whose beloved husband has recently died. Her granddaughter Jade has just arrived from Sacramento for an extended visit to help ease Roberta’s initial grief and loneliness. Jade is also trying to put some distance between herself and her ex-husband, a sweet-talking con man who is now in prison. In her quest for inner strength, Jade has taken up an unusual hobby – boxing. She’s excited when she hears of a coach willing to work with a woman, but she’s both intimidated by and attracted to gorgeous but distant trainer Rueben Perry.
Jade and Trudy find strength in each other’s friendship as they mourn the exes in their lives and commiserate about the difficulties of moving on from men they know are bad for them. They also provide support for Shannelle Pacheco, a young mother across the street whose dreams of becoming a writer are perceived as a threat by her loving but traditional Latino husband. What will the women of Kitchen Avenue do to find and keep love, and what will it mean to their other dreams?
At baseline, Goddesses of Kitchen Avenue is fairly standard women-on-the-verge fiction, but Samuel’s warm, emotional writing keeps the reader turning the pages. Trudy’s devotion to her collection of mythical goddesses is a little too New Age-y for me, but the honesty with which Samuel portrays Trudy’s and Jade’s emotional pain and recovery is hard to ignore. Trudy’s initial despair, and her confusion about why her marriage failed, felt so real that I started thinking seriously about my own long-term marriage. Even the young, naďve Shannelle, whose story is told almost entirely through an e-mail correspondence with her literary mentor, encouraged me to revisit my own professional dreams and wonder what I was willing to sacrifice to achieve them. A book that hits home on so many levels may not be a romantic fantasy, but it’s a memorable experience.
Samuel’s inclusion of several poems by Spanish poet Frederica Garcia Lorca give the book a romantic, exotic flavor, as do the scenes with the mysterious Angel, who is almost too good to be real. Who wouldn’t want to meet a sexy younger man who can make a woman feel beautiful again in a relationship that never has to deal with the issue of whether or not he leaves the toilet seat down?
While I easily identified with Trudy’s dilemma, the most interesting character in the book is Jade Kingman, the mixed-race social worker who yearns to be strong in a way that few woman can be, despite the disapproval of her family and coworkers. I find boxing to be disturbing more than exciting, but Jade’s passion, along with the snippets of female boxing history that Samuel throws in, made me admire her ambition.
Traditional romance readers may balk at the possibility that a marriage can survive infidelity, and they may be frustrated by the book’s hopeful-not-necessarily-happily-ever-after ending. But after spending time with these four women, I can only wish them happiness and long-lasting friendships. I’m sure the five hip chicks sitting on the front cover, whoever they are, would agree with me.