|When looking for ways to describe The Prodigal’s Return, I think of “touching,” “full of angst” and “figuring out how to survive after falling into the depths of despair,” While interesting at times, there was a little too much sentimentality and gloom for me to fully endorse this story.
Neal Cain and Jennifer Gardner were a loving couple in high school, who were almost certain to end up married. They had everything going for them, including college and bright futures. Then one night following the Homecoming Dance, Jennifer left and met up (by accident) with Neal’s friend Bobby Compton, who was a little drunk. He came on to Jennifer and Neal discovered them. During the fight, Bobby was knocked down and struck his head on the curb of the street. He died. Neal was charged in his death and in the middle of the trial, he changed his plea to guilty. He felt he had to take responsibility for his actions and he refused to see everyone go through the horror of reliving that night in a trial.
That one decision adversely affected everyone he knew. The Comptons never felt that they saw justice being done, even though Neal went to prison. Neal and his father, Nathan, who was a very good lawyer, essentially split over their disagreement about what Neal did. And Jennifer suffered through her guilt by becoming a wild woman, doing drugs and having sex with everyone. Her father, the local pastor, almost lost his job when Jennifer showed up on his doorstep pregnant with some guy’s kid, a nameless one of many.
Jennifer left town, eking out an existence and getting help from a clinic in Raleigh. She had her daughter, Mandy; worked her way to getting a degree in social work and then started working at clinics to help girls like she had been. Now it is ten years later. Her father has had some heart surgery and she has returned to the little town of Rivermist, Georgia. She is still seen as the local girl gone bad, and is out to prove she has changed. She wants her daughter to grow up in this small town.
Neal, too, has apparently moved on. He got out of prison and with his knowledge of law, opened a law clinic in Atlanta. Because he is a felon, he can’t practice law, but he can help get people who need good legal advice to the right type of attorney, who will help them and make sure they get the best they can get, even if they have no money. Neal is good at what he does, be he is shut off emotionally. He shut himself off from his father. He didn’t return any of Jennifer’s letters because he knew she could do better than him and he has not made any commitments to anyone other than the people he is trying to help.
Now, Neal gets word that his father is sick and letting himself and the house go to pot. Felling guilty, he returns to Rivermist to try to see if there is anything he can do. Jennifer had just discovered that Nathan was sick and she too decides to try to help.
Neal and Jennifer are so riddled with guilt, they have allowed this to rule their lives. Now they are confronted with the past, their mortality, their search for ease through helping others and their continued attraction now that they see each other again. Both are complicated. It is difficult to identify with their thinking, but they are so entrenched, the reader feels their angst. With the added issue of Nathan and everyone trying to find their way, there were times when the tears flowed. But it was so predictable that I resented that very sentimentality.
The question is, can the reader feel good enough about them while empathizing with their horrible pasts and root for them to come out into the light on the other side? I found this to be a rather inconsistent task and thus could not fully embrace their romance. It is at times too gloomy for a romance, yet it held some fascination that kept me reading. This is probably attributable to the author’s skill. But the story is so depressing at times; it is hard to say I liked it.
The Prodigal’s Return is not your normal cheery romantic tale. It has some depth, however and that helps make it an acceptable reading experience.