L is for Lighthearted (Letts)

What I read: Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

Where the Heart Is is an Oprah's Bookclub book. Oprah specializes in saga tales--or at least, it always seems as if the books I see with Oprah's stamp on them are saga tales--and I usually avoid saga tales. By "saga tales," I mean books that take you through all the tragedy, heart-aches, trials, and tribulations of a person's life.

Most of Oprah's books (if not all) are about surviving the tragedy, heart-ache, trials, tribulations. Still, there's all that tragertribution to get through, and it makes me tired. There's something to be said for "escapism" as the purpose of literature.

However, Where the Heart Is--although it has its share of tragertribution--is so lovely, the tragertribution takes a back seat. The book is, really, singingly optimistic. What a nice change from so many other Americana tales!

Part of this singing optimism is due to the tone/style. In some ways, Letts' style reminds me of McCall Smith's style in the Ladies Detective Agency books. There's this sense of wide-open space filled with the gentle current of humanity. People are just so everyday nice: not nice in a sycophantic, sticky-sweet way but rather nice, and quirky, in the way people really can be. I mean, there are people like this in the world! Even Forneys!

Part of this singing optimism is Novalee who grows from a clueless, but still resilient, seventeen-year-old to a strong, compassionate, wise twenty-five-year old in the course of the book. We don't ever see her faults, but that's not the point of the book. We are so much on her side, her faults hardly matter, and her growth from naive teenager-with-baby to Renaissance woman-with-seven-year-old is completely believable.

The only part of the book where the singing optimism falters is when Lexie (Novalee's best friend) gets beat up by her pedophile boyfriend. It isn't the tragedy that kills the mood; the book can afford a few tragedies. It is, unfortunately, the platitudes that Novalee dumps on Lexie. Lexie blames herself, and . . . Lexie should. She has continually dated guys who get her pregnant and dump her. After number five, yeah, Lexie should have learned to be more savvy or, at least, get the guy vetted, or, at the risk of sounding Puritanical, just stopped dating. At some point, the thought, "I'm not doing my kids any good" should have crossed this woman's mind, and it annoyed me that Novalee swept it all away with a "bad things happen, but we look for the good in life and move on" speech. As far as I'm concerned, Novalee's reaction should have been, "Yes, and I was a lousy friend for not telling you to be more careful about the jerks you date." At the very least, I would have liked some recognition by Novalee that her friend may be a wonderful human being (and should be helped, whatever her accountability) but doesn't have enough commonsense to fill a teacup and should never be allowed to take care of Novalee's own daughter.

Especially since Novalee herself does make tough commonsense choices for the sake of her daughter. Like Lexie, she messes up after Americus is born, but the event acts as a traffic signal in her life: slow down! think! The reader sees the woman Novalee is going to become, a person who has her feet firmly planted on the ground.

However, this shift from singing optimism to Pollyanna-erk is fairly brief and pretty far into the book. I'm not even sure why Letts put it in other than to add 1000 more words. Otherwise, the book's overall positive viewpoint is not saccharine or wishy-washy or uneven. It's gentle, plausible, and pleasant and makes the book one of my recommendations, saga tale or not.

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