Alice at Heart

On Bear Mountain

A Place to Call Home

The Stone Flower Garden

Sweet Tea and Jesus Shoes

When Venus Fell

Sweet Hush by Deborah Smith
(Little, Brown, $23.95, PG) ISBN 0-316-80650-1
I was recently trying to explain the definition of the word “savor” to my 8-year old son, who mistakenly thought it was a synonym for “save.” That conversation came back to me as I read Deborah Smith’s latest release, Sweet Hush. This is a novel to savor slowly, like a fine wine or a rich chocolate mousse. Smith isn’t just a good writer, she’s a true storyteller who weaves a spell around the reader within the first chapter that lingers long after the last page.

I’ll admit I was a goner from the first sentence of the novel. I’m the fifth Hush McGillen named after the Sweet Hush apple, but the only one who has thrown a rotten Sweet Hush at the First Lady of these United States. Well! Don’t you want to know how the narrator got to that point? I know I sure did.

Hush McGillen Thackery has devoted her life to restoring the McGillen name to prominence in North Georgia. Starting as a 16 year old orphan, Hush worked tirelessly without complaint to turn the family’s decaying apple orchard into a multi-million dollar business that now includes bakeries, mail order catalogs and of course the world-famous Sweet Hush apple. If there’s a price she had to pay, it was the knowledge that her marriage to reckless Davy Thackery was doomed to fail. Their son Davis, however, never knew the truth about his parents’ troubled relationship. Davy’s sudden death cemented his image as a hero in Davis’ mind.

Five years after being widowed, Hush is secure in the knowledge that Davis is securely tucked away at Harvard, taking advantage of the educational opportunities she was denied. But a frantic phone call from Davis shatters her peaceful existence. He’s on his way home to Georgia with a cavalcade of federal agents in hot pursuit. His crime: he has just eloped with “Eddie” Jacobs, the daughter of the President of the United States.

What happens from this point on is both hilarious and heartbreaking - and it deserves to be savored with few spoilers. While the President, a liberal Democrat named Al Jacobs (don’t I wish!), takes the situation in stride, his wife Edwina is horrified. A smart, overprotective blue-blood with more than a passing resemblance to Hilary Clinton, Edwina is bound and determined to get her daughter back from “Shush’s” clutches (no one outside of Georgia can get Hush’s name right, in one of the novel’s better running gags). But Hush isn’t intimidated by anyone - even the President’s nephew Nick Jakobeck, a tough, battle-scarred top-secret serviceman who is sent to protect Eddie and keep tabs on her unusual new in-laws. At first the conflict is comical, but as the stakes are raised, Edwina and a nasty journalist with a grudge against Nick end up threatening Hush’s livelihood - and the secret she has kept for many years that could destroy her relationship with Davis if revealed.

Within the clash of cultures, several memorable characters emerge. First and foremost is Hush, surely one of the most compelling women I’ve encountered. Her name may sound quiet, but that’s the only thing about this 40-year old dynamo that does, because she is blunt, outspoken and fearless. Too strong a personality for most men, including her late husband, she finally meets her match in Nick, a loner with his own dark past. Their first meeting belongs in the record books as the ultimate in unusual initial encounters - you’ll have to read it to believe it.

President Jacobs and First Lady Edwina are also notable for being fully realized. Edwina could have been a total bitch - much of her behavior is beyond forgiveness - but Smith provides enough background for the reader to sense the humanity that has been squelched by virtue of her unusual position. The scenes between the First Lady of the Apples and the First Lady of the U.S. are the strongest in the book, slightly overshadowing the romance between Hush and Nick.

Smith’s characters always feel a strong sense of connectedness to their family history, and the backstory that results in Hush and Nick’s meeting halfway through the novel is critical to understanding why they are drawn to each other despite the knowledge that they can’t have a future together. Both characters, while respecting their histories, learn that it’s necessary to let go of the past in order to find the happiness they deserve.

The novel is full of homespun wisdom and apple metaphors, and at times the folksy sayings verge on cutesiness. When Hush tells another character, “love is like apples,” I expected Forest Gump to pop up with “and life is like a box of choc’lates too!” That caveat notwithstanding, Sweet Hush easily joins the collection of Deborah Smith novels on my keeper shelf by virtue of its unique plot and unforgettable characters. Yes, I know I’ve given four of her novels 5-heart ratings. What can I say? You don’t have to hit me on the head with a rotten apple to make me see that the woman is a brilliant author.

--Susan Scribner

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