|I hate it when a jacket blurb enthusiastically raves that its book is for “every woman who has loved and lost,” “every woman who still remembers that first love” or some other similar drivel. I don’t want to read a book that is for “every woman,” I want a book that speaks to me. Reading is a very personal experience and I want my books to reflect that. Snowed In promises that it is for “any woman (is any better than every?) who has ever been in the wrong place at the right time” but I don’t think that Christina Bartolomeo’s third novel is going to have that wide an appeal. Only readers with a lot of patience will be able to appreciate the heroine’s excruciatingly slow metamorphosis from a shy, passive and lonely doormat to a slightly less timid woman who can quietly stand up for herself.
Sophie Quinn introduces herself by confessing that “Courage is not my leading virtue.” After just a year of marriage to a man she readily admits is “safe,” Sophie finds herself uprooted from her familiar Washington D.C. surroundings and transplanted to the wilds of Portland, Maine so that husband Paul can take on a new job assignment. At first she is lonely and isolated. The daily conversations with the landlord are the highlight of her day even if they consist of Sophie timidly asking Donald to fix the heat and then making him coffee and breakfast so he won’t get mad. Although she’s concerned that her young marriage may be at risk from the thinly-disguised pursuit of Paul’s efficient co-worker, Sophie is reluctant to rock the boat by discussing her insecurities and unhappiness with Paul. Frequent calls and visits from her severely critical mother-in-law provide additional stress to the troubled relationship.
Eventually Sophie, a free-lance graphic artist and proofreader, realizes she will never survive the year if she doesn’t take some action. She’s fortunate to strike up a conversation at a coffee shop with a friendly house renovator who invites Sophie to join his daily walking group, comprised mostly of gays and lesbians (they call themselves “Happy Trails”). Through her interactions with the group, Sophie slowly begins to feel more comfortable in Portland. With the help of her new friends, as well as long-distance support from her best friend Marta and older sister Delia, Sophie is able to take an objective look at relationships past, present and possibly even future. She may never be a pushy loud person, but in her own way Sophie learns how to stand up for what she needs and wants.
Reading Snowed In reminded me of a snowy day spent indoors; it’s peaceful but there’s not much activity and after a while I start to feel restless. Bartolomeo’s previous novels were primarily character-driven too, but the details about the major characters’ intriguing jobs, such as the union representative hero and public relations heroine of The Side of the Angels, gave them more depth and intensity. Since Sophie free-lances, she doesn’t mingle with co-workers and her two best friends live far away. The only action is the slow death of a marriage that probably never should have happened in the first place.
Bartolomeo is notable for giving her characters unusual and interesting professions – Sophie’s husband works for a organization that works to improve science education in the public schools, her ex-lover travels abroad for the Foundation for Overseas Democracy and best friend Marta is a lobbyist for the cosmetic industry – but their jobs don’t figure prominently enough in the story to counteract the plot’s slow pace. Other than Sophie’s walking buddies and Paul’s annoyingly perky assistant, the biggest presence is Sophie’s mother-in-law, who of course thinks no one is good enough for her precious son. This is the second novel I’ve read in the past month with the stereotypical Mother-in-Law from Hell character (along with Jennifer Weiner’s Little Earthquakes) and it’s extremely annoying. Not only is it a cop out to utilize such an easy target for the heroine’s difficulties, but in both cases the mother-in-law characters are too exaggerated to be believable.
On the plus side, Bartolomeo is a skilled observer of human behavior, and while I became frustrated with Sophie for not wising up sooner to reality, I feel like I knew her and understood what she had been through to reach this point. The author has a subtle, sly sense of humor that, while not conducive to laugh-out-loud moments, can elicit a few wry smiles now and then. When Sophie finally takes a stand in the novel’s last 50 pages, she does so in a way that stays true to her character yet is forceful enough to make a strong statement of her newly found confidence.
Christina Bartolomeo reminds me of a more upbeat, romantic Anne Tyler. While Snowed In is my least favorite of her three novels to date, it’s worth checking out if you like intelligent albeit slow-moving fiction with a hopeful ending.