Barbara Samuel makes middle age look sexy, and for that alone I have to admire (and thank) her. She also writes beautiful love stories about flawed but admirable characters who deserve the happiness they struggle to achieve. A Piece of Heaven, Samuel’s second hardcover Women’s Fiction novel, reaches the same high standard she set in No Place Like Home.
The New Mexico full moon awakens Luna McGraw from an uneasy sleep. Tomorrow her fifteen-year-old daughter Joy will be arriving from Atlanta. Although Luna’s ex-husband has had custody for the past eight years, he has finally agreed to let Joy return to her mother because he can no longer deal with the teenager’s rebellious behaviors. An alcoholic who has been sober for four years, Luna is grateful for the second chance to be a good mother. She doesn’t need any more complications in her life, but when she smells smoke during that sleepless night and rescues an elderly neighbor from a house fire, she runs smack into the biggest complication of them all.
The neighbor’s grandson is Thomas Coyote, an adobe layer whom Luna has quietly admired from afar for months. Learning that the object of her crush is just as sexy in reality as in her fantasies is a mixed blessing. Thomas is twice-divorced and possibly still in love with his second ex-wife, who is now married to his younger brother. Luna is trying to put her life together and needs all of her energy to care for Joy. But their attraction won’t be denied, and Luna has to decide if she is ready to move past the hurt she has experienced and the mistakes she has made to take one more chance on a relationship.
Samuel’s portrayal of Luna is so perfectly composed that you would swear she is sitting next to you in the flesh. Once an overachieving professional with a master’s degree in counseling, Luna starting drinking as her marriage collapsed and hit rock bottom when she lost her daughter, her career and her driver’s license. Now underemployed as a grocery store florist, she’s at a crossroads where she must make peace with her past, forgive herself and decide how she will move ahead. She has the help of her best friend, her mother and the voices of the Barbie dolls of her youth who both encourage and criticize her. This quirky habit of hearing the inner voices of “Therapist Barbie” and “Best Friend Barbie,” along with Luna’s very palpable yearning for a cigarette, endear her to the reader (Note: the only people who might want to stay away from this novel are those who have just quit smoking. Even a non-smoker like myself wanted a cigarette after reading the vivid descriptions of Luna’s nicotine cravings).
Thomas doesn’t have quite as many demons chasing him as Luna does, but he has his own scars as well, both literal and figurative. His frail and now homeless grandmother, Placida, lives with him, and he also rents a room to Tiny, a member of his adobe crew who has a volatile, dangerous relationship with his wife. Thomas feels responsible for Tiny and Placida, and he is still hurting from his ex-wife’s betrayal, but he likes what he sees in Luna and doesn’t believe in waiting. With long hair and a slightly rounded stomach that somehow makes him even more sexy, it’s easy to see why Luna was fixated on him for so long. After a particularly hot necking session, he tells Luna, “When I look at you, I can breathe…it’s been a long time since I could.” Luna manages to think, “it this was a line, it was the best one she had ever heard,” and I could only echo that sentiment, while fanning myself frantically. Luna and Thomas’ scenes together are passionate and earthy, showing that two middle-aged people with imperfect bodies can still cause a hell of a spark when they’re together.
Two additional characters add complexity to the plot. Luna’s daughter, Joy, arrives from Atlanta with Kool-Aid-red dyed hair and body piercings galore, but she isn’t as troubled as she looks. Other than fairly normal adolescent griping, she’s eager to stay with Joy and re-establish a relationship with her mother. She befriends Maggie, a young Latino who has been in a tailspin since the sudden death of her father. Maggie’s poignant entries in a journal she dedicates to the dead rapper Tupac Shakur provide the means for Luna to eventually rediscover her calling to help other people.
I’m not a visual person, but A Piece of Heaven offers one of the prettiest front covers I’ve seen, and Southwest native Samuel paints a colorful picture inside of the New Mexico mountains, along with little snippets of Taos, Indian, Mexican and Catholic heritage that give the novel a very strong sense of place.
Although the middle third of the novel sags a bit, overall this is a very strong follow-up to Samuel’s successful hardcover debut, with equal parts laughter and tears. Any novel that can make middle-aged passion look so good is more than a piece of heaven, it’s a blessing.