Blessings & Beauty

They do say that variety is the spice of life… get ready for a spicy post, because I’m reviewing two very different books.

Resonant, understated, gently humorous… these words describe Martha Woodruff’s 2014 novel, Small Blessings.  The occasionally absurd plot twists make you smile rather than laugh; but what really stands out for me is the narrator’s compassion for human weakness. Set in a small college town in Virginia, the action centers around Tom Putnam, a professor of English who thinks in Shakespeare quotations and has placed duty above personal fulfillment.  Brace yourself; a whole lot of drama is about to unload into Tom’s sleepy existence.  Watching all the craziness unfold in every unexpected way imaginable makes this an engaging read.  Taking in the wisdom and humor which describe the action creates a feel-good glow.

I can think of a whole bunch of other adjectives to describe The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, a novel by Amanda Filipacchi that came out earlier this year. Among them are irreverent, philosophical, and eccentric. This novel has at its center a character named Barb, a drop-dead beautiful woman who is deeply damaged when her best friend falls in love with her, never tells her about it, and takes his own life. Barb hates her own beauty, and finds a completely over-the-top method of coping with her feelings. Another character, Lily, is a talented musician and composer, but her lack of beauty strongly affects her love life. This book is full of snappy dialogue and screwball comedy, all the while asking its readers to think about outward beauty and how it shapes our lives.

Blessings takes place in the world as we know it; Beauty has unsettling elements of magical realism. Both are contemporary novels dealing with themes of connection and the unexpected.

But you couldn’t ask for two more different ways to use humor in the art of novel-writing. And that’s for sure.

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