Eleanor and Abel by Annette Sanford
(Counterpoint, $22, G) ISBN 1-58243-273-2
If Jeanne Ray is to be commended for creating love stories about people in their fifties, Annette Sanford should receive even higher praise for penning a romance between two lonely septuagenarians. Eleanor and Abel is a delicate lace doily of a novel that will appeal to readers who can appreciate the things that are left unsaid. Only a bit too much waspishness on the part of its heroine prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly.

Former schoolteacher and self-proclaimed spinster Eleanor Bannister lives a quiet, orderly life in the small town of Grover, Texas. When handyman drifter Abel Brown arrives in town and inquires about renting the small, dilapidated honeymoon cottage that she owns, she immediately sends him away, then calls her best friend and neighbor Grace to warn her that there is a strange man lurking around. But Abel isn’t so easily discouraged. He pesters Eleanor until she reluctantly agrees to let him stay in the cottage temporarily while he renovates it. Abel is a charmer, and for the first time in 69 years, Eleanor finds herself intrigued and unnerved by a man. But for each wanton thought that draws her towards Abel, there are at least two others that remind her that she is too set in her spinster ways to fall for a man with an “unsavory past” as well as a history of picking up and moving on whenever the urge calls to him. But Abel’s flirtatious manner and his skilled kisses inspire “Miss El” to make some surprising changes in her long-established routine.

In a brief 200 pages, Annette Sanford brings to glorious life Eleanor Bannister, who believes the spinster path that she has consciously chosen is the only option for her few remaining years, only to realize that she could find greater happiness if she’s brave enough to take a chance. It’s sometimes difficult to see why Abel continues to pursue the strict, cool and prissy Eleanor, especially when she keeps accusing him of “playing on her emotions and using her for his own gratification” like a melodramatic adolescent. But through her relationship with Abel, Eleanor mellows and opens up, until the reader comes to care for her like a slightly intimidating but respected maiden aunt. Eleanor isn’t the only one who changes; Abel, too, has to decide if he can commit to staying in Grover and trust that his wandering days are behind him. Having seen more of the world, he’s a more complex character in some ways than Eleanor; life has tested him and while he hasn’t always passed with flying colors, his good deeds far outnumber the bad.

The novel’s comic relief comes largely in the form of Grace, Eleanor’s nosy and excitable neighbor. While she may seem to personify the “silly goose” stereotype, she proves to have hidden depths that reveal her to be a true friend. Another secondary character who unexpectedly finds a temporary home with Eleanor allows the aging spinster additional opportunity to explore new roles, and injects a healthy dose of youthfulness into the plot.

While the book earns its G rating, the issue of sex is very much central to the story. Eleanor confesses to Abel that she is scared to death of the idea, and while she quickly becomes addicted to “necking” with him, she isn’t ready to accept the ultimate act of intimacy. Sanford addresses this topic with tenderness, honesty and just a little bit of humor.

If you read between the lines of the novel’s understated prose, you’ll come away charmed and uplifted by Eleanor and Abel. Without being inappropriately emotional, it’s very romantic.

--Susan Scribner

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