Calling a book ‘an academic novel’ is often a kiss of death, but in the case of Martha Woodroof’s Small Blessings, it is a breath of life. Yes, her English department is just as dysfunctional as any I myself might have known, but her professors, their students, and their families are absolutely charming. Every one of their foibles, the most foolish and the most winsome, made me smile.
Rose Callahan, in her late thirties, has taken a new job at a small college bookstore. Her assignment is to build community, to entice more people into the bookstore and to turn it into an academic and social focal point. As the novel opens, Rose is contemplating her new position, one of a long line of such jobs that she apparently has held. She seems to be a transient employee, someone who moves frequently from job to job, always looking for change, always working in a bookstore. Books, for Rose, are safe, always “a finite chaos, one in which you could safely immerse yourself without getting stuck. It was so different from the low-keyed, never-ending, creeping chaos of real life.” Immediately, then, the chaos of real life in this circumscribed college town engulfs Rose and most of her new acquaintances.
Everyone knows everyone else’s secrets, or thinks they do. Tom Putnam’s wife, Marjory, is odd, neurotic, reclusive. Her mother, Agnes Tattle, lives with her daughter and son-in-law. Agnes’ role is to keep an eye on Marjory. Given his family situation, with a bipolar wife and an overseer mother-in-law, everyone agrees that Shakespearean scholar Tom is a saint. The Putnam dynamics quickly take center stage as the focal point for all the Small Blessings’ activities. Two other English professors play key roles, as well. Russell Jacobs, an eighteenth-century man, and Iris Benson, a women’s studies advocate who is up for tenure, are part of the strong supporting cast. Then into the mix steps Henry, a precocious little boy whose precise role I can’t explain without giving away some of this novel’s delicious plot. Thrown together, these wildly distinct characters somehow bring out the best in each other.
Woodroof has written a remarkably sane romantic comedy, with a moral undertone that never seems heavy-handed. Woodroof’s intention is to point out how much very different human beings have in common, and how much better off everyone would be if they all accepted their need of each other. I’m reminded of another social satirist, E. M. Forster, who finished Howard’s End with his most famous phrase: “Only connect.” That is precisely what the Small Blessings’ characters need to do, “only connect.” How they connect, and why, makes the magic of this wonderful tale.
As I write this review, I realize I’m sounding a little sappy. Perhaps that’s just how I feel, reading between the lines and falling in love with the Putnam family’s world. Sweet as it may be, Small Blessings also includes profound inner truths about human beings. And, trust me, those human beings who inhabit Small Blessings are much more enticing than are the ordinary members of your average college department (equally neurotic, perhaps, but worth getting to know). Even Rose turns out to be a love. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Martha Woodroof: How to Stop Screwing Up.