As a reviewer, it's a pleasure to see an author release a book that is a significant improvement over her previous work. A few years ago, I gave Tina Wainscott's Dreams of You a lackluster 3-heart rating, citing clichéd dialogue and implausible character behavior as my reasons for not endorsing it more strongly. Happily, Back in Baby's Arms is much stronger, with a heroine who makes a heartening and believable transition from annoying to admirable.
Judging from the book's back cover (which a good reviewer should never do, mind you), I thought I had this book figured out before I started reading. Husband of madly-in-love couple dies tragically, wife mourns and waits for an angel. Angel appears as predicted and saves her, then turns out to be husband in another man's body. Right? Wrong!
Maddie "Baby" Danbury was a frail and sickly child who never questioned her family's over-protectiveness. Her Mom ruled the roost, her Dad never finished his own sentences, and her older sister Colleen resented all the attention Maddie received. As a young woman, Maddie couldn't believe her luck when the dashing Wayne Schaeffer courted and married her. When he died, as a result of his own reckless behavior, she retreated to her parents' house, where her mother was only too happy to resume coddling her.
Maddie has been moping around the house for a year now, waiting in vain for the angel that Wayne, with his dying breath, promised he'd send her. When she hears that a stranger has come to their small Florida town of Sugar Bay, she's convinced that he's the answer to her prayers. But the alleged angel, Chase, knows nothing of saving other people's souls. He's just barely managing to hold on to his own sanity, ever since he was rescued from the ocean with no memory of his identity or his past. Unlike everyone else in Maddie's life, Chase doesn't try to hide the truth from her or treat her like an emotional invalid. He encourages her to stand up for herself, even against the sugar-coated tyranny of her family's dysfunctional behavior.
Maddie starts out as a true baby, willing to let everyone else make decisions for her while she wallows in sorrow. The strength of the novel is her transformation from Wayne's "Baby" to her own person. She realizes that the perfect marriage she thought she had with Wayne was, in fact, perfect for him; she was so grateful to him for rescuing her from the almost sure prospect of spinsterhood that she let him control the relationship. She also comes to understand that her Mom's tendency to brush unpleasantness under the rug is not an adaptive response to conflict. And she learns that the new, adult Maddie wants a future with Chase, even if it means sticking by him while he uncovers the difficult truth about his identity.
The first 200 pages of Back in Baby's Arms are the strongest, as Maddie gradually becomes a character the reader likes instead one that needs a good shaking. The last third falters a bit, as Wainscott throws in a murder mystery tied to Chase's shadowy past. This gives Maddie a chance to show how fearless she has become, but it takes the focus away from her personal growth and the changing dynamics within her family.
The paranormal aspects of the novel are much lighter than in previous books by this author. She even leaves a tiny shred of doubt that there was any angelic intervention at all. I'd like to see Tina Wainscott do more in this vein - she's a good enough writer now that she doesn't need any paranormal gimmicks to hook readers. Her characters are ready to speak for themselves.