I wrote a TRR Forum lamenting the scarcity of older heroines in romance novels (“It’s Never Too Late”). I thought that along with the years came wisdom, experience, commitment, compassion, depth of feeling. The narrator of Doing Good is not what I had in mind.
Yes, she’s 40-ish, but her character is so shallow it could be measured in microns. If plastic surgery, tacit acceptance of spousal adultery, separate bedrooms, constant conflict with one’s daughter, dedicated social climbing, obsession with the superficial trappings of success, and catty gossip with one’s equally shallow friends is what the romance publishing industry sees as the corollary to middle-aged heroines, I think I’ll stick with the eighteen-year-olds. At least they have an excuse.
Jane Lofton is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who achieved country club society status the old-fashioned way: she married it. Bright with a state university education, she’s been married to the golf-obsessed David for twenty years. He spends much of his spare time on the golf course and the rest with Mikki, his blond, twenty-something hairstylist girlfriend. They have a college student daughter Brynn who’s been in therapy for years because of her resentment at what she sees as her controlling mother. Jane embarked on a highly successful career as a real estate agent when she found herself with too much time on her hands. Her biggest concern is arranging the plastic surgery which will keep the inevitable march of time at bay. The opening line of the book reveals Jane’s satisfaction with her life. “If anyone had asked me that morning how my life was going, I would have told them that I was doing good.”
One night when driving her Bimmer (“True afficionados know that the nickname Beemer actually refers to the BMW motorcycle.”), she’s involved in a near-fatal accident. Trapped in her car, she promises God she will be a better person if he spares her life. Chester Durbin, a resident in a nearby nursing home, witnesses her plight, rushes to her rescue, and slits open the convertible top with a knife he’s had the foresight to pick up in the kitchen.
Since she escaped with minor injuries, her family and friends expect her to resume her life unaffected. Jane, however, cannot pretend her life is the same. She soon finds that writing checks to charities doesn’t fulfill her vow to do good. She begins to visit Chester regularly and reevaluate her priorities.
Soon Jane’s life swerves off in ways she could never have foreseen.
It’s something of a misnomer to call Doing Good a romance because there’s little loving in it. Jane recognizes her marriage is in critical care and thinks she ought to end it but she’ll lose all the social status that is the be-all, end-all of her existence. Her marriage may be ultimately killed by infidelity, but it’s apparent that her detached neglect has been a key factor in its demise. Her relationship with her daughter is, amazingly, even worse than her relationship with her husband. Brynn may take the prize as the year’s most obnoxious fictional teenager - “Honor thy mother” is a meaningless concept to her, and her therapist seems to be an enabler in this acrimonious conflict. Jane’s passivity in the face of her disintegrating family is troubling. Rather than fight to keep her husband and to reestablish a loving relationship with her daughter, Jane seems willing to discard everyone and everything in her search for her new objective of doing good. Yes, she gets a new love interest, but he’s more a lucky side benefit than a passionate love.
The best thing about Doing Good is Chester Durbin. He’s the kind of fictional character we see too seldom: elderly, insightful, generous. The best scenes in the book are Jane’s visits with Chester as she evaluates her life. It will be obvious to most readers early on what his health problem is. Typically, Jane is oblivious.
Jane and her family members - husband, daughter, in-laws - and friends are much less admirable. Their goals, their values, their relationships are focused on social standing. Jane’s personal journey is one of discovery as she recognizes that even the poorest citizens can have worth.
Author Pamela Morsi is known for her sweet, old-fashioned Americana historical romances. Doing Good is a major departure for her, and I expect a lot of her fans are going to be disappointed with her foray into screwed-up-chick lit. I will admit that I didn’t like this book. I disliked the narrator (I can’t call her the heroine) and thought her motives and actions were frequently misguided. Time after time I wanted to kick her out of the book and put in a heroine who could act in a mature, rational way. I don’t doubt there are women who are this egocentric with families just this dysfunctional and social sets where marital fidelity is the exception not the rule, but I’ve never cared to read about them. Any character who inspires antipathy rather than admiration isn’t a heroine in my eyes.
Nevertheless, I’m giving Doing Good a three-heart acceptable rating because it’s a generally well-written book, and there may be some readers who will think it worth their time. I’m just not one of them.