ANGEL FALLS (2000)
Crown, 288 pages
Discovering a new novelist who thrills you is sublime. Of course, unless it’s a debut novel, they’re not “new” at all—just new-to-you. Once I find one, though, I like to mine that writer’s backlist to see if other treasures lurk. Sometimes they do; Jess Walter’s 2012 Beautiful Ruins is the strongest of his works, but all of them are worth reading. On the other hand, I have come to suspect that Like Water for Elephants might be the only good book Sara Gruen will ever write; and that Don Tillman needs an idea beyond endless sequels to The Rosie Project.
I was enthralled to “discover” Kristin Hannah through The Nightingale, which should be on everyone’s short list for the best book of 2015. I was actually surprised to learn that The Nightingale is Hannah’s 22nd novel, the first of which appeared in 1991. I was further surprised to find out that her prior reputation lay in categories—not my terms—often labeled as “sentimental” and “chick lit.” So I decided to pick a book somewhere in the middle between her debut and The Nightingale and settled on Angel Falls for no good reason other than the fact that Book Bub was offering it for 99 cents.
Wow! I can only say that we must applaud Hannah’s enormous growth over the past 15 years? Angel Falls moves at such a crisp pace that one could consume it in a single sitting, but it certainly lives down to the “sentimental” tag. It takes place in a namesake Washington town that’s like Lake Woebegone in the Pacific Cascades, where Dr. Liam Campbell lives in salt-of-the-earth decency and dullness with his wife, Mikaela, and two children: sixteen-year-old Jacey and nine-year-old Bret. The Campbell world is rocked when Mikaela is thrown from her horse and suffers head injuries that put her into a deep coma.
The rest of the novel plays out like a tissue-box drama from the Lifetime Channel. Doctors are baffled as to why “Mike” won’t wake up and Liam must try to keep his wits and his family together, especially Bret, who blames himself for his mother’s accident. And, of course, family ‘secrets’ leak out. Mikaela, we learn, is part Mexican. Her mother appears to help out, and we learn that Mike was born out of wedlock. (So?) The bigger secret is that Jacey isn’t Liam’s child; Mikaela was once known as “Kayla” and was the wife of heart throb Hollywood bad boy Julian True. Liam calls upon Julian to see if his voice can bring Mike back among the living, though he knows Mike never got over Julian and his presence could wreck the Campbell marriage.
Good grief! There are enough clichés in what I’ve written already to send a college writing teacher into a coma of his or her own! If you think no more can be slathered onto this tale, you’d be wrong—very wrong. Only those gullible enough to see the collected, rational, and saintly Jacey as emblematic of any sixteen-year-old on this planet will be able to swallow all of this without choking. Much of the book plays out like a preacher’s homily of the sort that provides nostrums rather than instruction. It’s all too sweet, too pat, and too unbelievable. Do not put this book on your holiday wish list.
So how does one get from here to The Nightingale? Hard effort and maturity, I suspect. I look forward to future work from Ms. Hannah, but unless I get recommendations from some reliable sources, I think I won’t return to her backlist. Rob Weir