Saturday, November 7, 2015

The Business of Compassion

The Light of Hidden Flowers by Jennifer Handford


This is one of those books that, if you read it, you'll be glad you didn't overlook it because you judged it by its cover, its title or even its synopsis. Starting with the latter, the publisher's synopsis for this book is as follows:

Book-smart Melissa Fletcher lives a predictable life in her hometown, working behind the scenes for her charismatic father in a financial career that makes perfect sense. But when her dad is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Missy is forced to step up and take over as his primary caregiver and the principal of the firm.

After her father’s death, Missy finds a letter from him in which he praises her for being a dutiful daughter but admonishes her for not taking any risks in life.

Devastated, Missy packs her suitcase and heads for Italy. There she meets a new friend who proposes a radical idea. Soon, Missy finds herself in impoverished India, signing away her inheritance and betting on a risky plan while rekindling a lost love.

First, let's start with the things I didn't like about this book. Much like the above synopsis, half of this book focuses on Missy's learning about and coping with her father's Alzheimer's. While Handford was accurate regarding this part of the book (my own father died from Alzheimer's), and was extremely important to the character development, I felt that it took up too much of the story. This is mostly because, from the very beginning of this book, Handford makes Missy into someone we immediately like. Yes, we realize she's holding herself back but we want her to change, and we know she has it in her. We already know that she is going to break out from that life from the synopsis. That made me anxious to see that escape, but that only began after I had read over half of the book. Personally, I think cutting some of this down would have improved the pace of this novel. I believe the editors left it this way to help heighten the reader's frustration, which made Missy's break very effective.

As for the book cover and title, while neither is bad, they both seem incongruent. A picture of a woman walking down a pastel path, in what we suppose is India seems to evoke more romance than this book includes. While you'll get the significance of the title late in the story, for me, it was touch too poetic for a book about a businesswoman finally letting herself find her true passion in life. However, that's just window-dressing, and easily ignorable.

The meat of this story begins when Missy finally leaves for Italy, that's when the story takes off, and from then on in, I found myself totally hooked. From here, all of the hints regarding the true Missy in the first half of the book start to emerge, mature, and develop. Furthermore, despite the fact that each step is somewhat radical for Missy, nothing feels forced or unnatural. This is partially because Handford sets Missy up as a strong, 35-year-old professional, whose independence and self-reliance are the key pillars to her personality. Even her being fixed up with the tax lawyer nerd, while she's realizing she's still in love with her high school sweetheart work to underscore her growing self-awareness.

Handford does this with a measured style that is straightforward and uncomplicated. This works perfectly with Missy's personality; even when there is romance involved, Handford avoids sentimentality or flowery language that would have felt completely out of place. This doesn't mean that Handford ignores Missy's emotions or deals with them coldly; to the contrary, Missy's heart and feelings become increasingly evident to the reader as the story progresses, which helps us empathize with her even more. Then Handford uses that vulnerability to let Missy wake up and see what was in front of her all along - in every aspect of her life, including her own past. This, of course, is what allows Missy to start building for her own future. In a way, Handford has given us a modern-day heroine; a woman whose determination, despite her weaknesses, helps her overcome obstacles, and find a new way in the world for herself. What's more, she does this without needing validation or support from any of the men in her life. Yes, her father does kick-start the process, but we get the feeling that even if he hadn't, she might have come to the same conclusion on her own.

I truly enjoyed this book, for many reasons, not the least of which included Handford tackling such subjects as disabled veterans, disenfranchised children, and grassroots non-profit organizing. Handford gives us a female protagonist we can be proud of, and admire, whose emotions never overshadow her feminism or her fighting for things that she believes are right and just - both for herself and for others. Although the book isn't perfect, it is a novel written for 21st century women, which some men will probably enjoy as well. I highly recommend this book and can give it a solid four out of five stars. 

"The Light of Hidden Flowers" by Jennifer Handford, published by Lake Union Press (Nov. 10, 2015 release), is available for pre-order from Amazon.com, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this book via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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