Susan Wiggs’ second contemporary novel may not be Paradise, but it’s a decent drama hampered primarily by a passive heroine and a disappointing climax.
Sandra Winslow lived like a princess for a short time as the wife of Victor Winslow, Paradise’s favorite son and rising local politician. But when Victor died after a suspicious car accident, the people of Paradise branded Sandra as a murderer, despite the medical examiner’s ruling that the death was accidental. Without Victor’s income, children’s novelist Sandra is left to fend for herself in a ramshackle beach house inherited from her grandparents. She has no choice but to sell it and start over in a new town, but the house needs extensive repair before it can be put on the market. Enter Mike Malloy, who has returned to his hometown of Paradise after losing his construction firm in a messy divorce. Despite Sandra’s notoriety, he agrees to work on her house because renovation jobs are hard to come by in the middle of a Rhode Island winter.
Although Sandra continues to claim she did not cause Victor’s death, she knows a devastating secret about the events of that fateful night. She and Victor argued, and a bullet hole was found in the car. What did Victor disclose that changed Sandra’s life forever? She won’t let anyone know the full truth, even Mike, whom she comes to rely upon and care for deeply. But their relationship is tenuous at best. Victor’s vengeful parents plan to file a wrongful death civil suit against Sandra, and Mike could lose visitation rights to his two beloved children for consorting with the “Black Widow of Paradise.” And the bottom line is, the couple are going in opposite directions: Mike has come to Paradise to make a new home for himself, while Sandra only wants to get away from the site of so much tragedy and disgrace.
The first half of Passing Through Paradise shows great promise. From Sandra’s poignant recollections of a lonely childhood, set apart from other children because of a paralyzing stutter, to her endearing habit of writing Top 10 lists, the heroine makes a memorable first impression. Mike Malloy is a hunk as well as a dedicated father who struggles to carve a meaningful role in his children’s life as a non-custodial parent. His ability to fix things is a metaphor for everything he offers to Sandra, and therein lies the problem. His assertive intervention into Sandra’s problems leaves her clinging perilously close to doormat status. Despite his claim at the novel’s conclusion that she has become more outspoken and independent, he is the ultimate rescuer, Prince Charming with a tool belt.
The beginning of the novel also provides a suspenseful buildup to the secret Sandra insists on keeping about Victor’s death. Unfortunately, the answer, when it is finally revealed, lacks originality and feels like a major let-down.
Still, there’s a lot to appreciate about Passing Through Paradise. Wiggs’ gentle narrative has a wonderful sense of place, bringing the Rhode Island coast alive for the reader and providing justification for Sandra’s reluctance to leave, despite her problems. A few of the secondary characters shine, notably a unrepentant shark of a lawyer who, thank goodness, is on Sandra’s side. Mike and Sandra’s chemistry builds slowly but surely with an appropriately sizzling consummation.
Passing Through Paradise gets a passing grade from me. Readers who need a spunkier heroine should look elsewhere, though.