Between You and Me
Between You and Me is the latest novel from bestselling author Susan Wiggs. AAR Staffers Lisa Fernandes and Shannon Dyer read it, and are here to share their thoughts.
Caleb Stoltz is of two worlds. Raised Amish, he chose to stay in the modern world and attend college after his rumspringa. Years later the complicated loyalty he feels toward his dead brother John forces him to leave the English behind to take care of John‘s children; mischievous nine-year-old Jonah and grave sixteen-year-old Hannah. Though he has no heart for it, he takes John’s place on the family farm in Middle Springs, Pennsylvania, and works it to support their abusive father Asa. While Caleb is as steady as a rock, his simple life is by no means easy – Asa rarely agrees with Caleb’s more liberal views on life. Caleb is in the midst of an unexciting courtship with a woman named Rebecca when a terrible accident happens – Jonah’s arm is severely mangled in a thresher accident. It’s Caleb who makes the choice to call 911 and have Jonah medflighted to Philadelphia for life-saving surgery over Asa’s protests.
Reese Powell, a dirty mouthed and tough pediatric surgical resident, comes from a privileged but lonely background. When Jonah is admitted to her hospital, she takes control of the situation and assists the team who must amputate Jonah’s arm. Eventually her fascination with the family extends to helping Caleb re-acclimatize to the ways of the modern world while Jonah tries to adjust to life as an amputee. Though she notices Caleb’s handsomeness and begins to develop a crush on him, she knows that he’s Amish and thus off-limits. She stations Caleb with her ex-Amish co-worker Leroy, who proceeds to get him modern clothing and give him room and board during the ordeal.
Inspired by Caleb, Reese considers making her life’s vocation improving medical service conditions in rural communities like his – a move that will surely infuriate her pushy parents, who control her life even in adulthood and had her pegged for a fancy career at a prestigious hospital. Even so, Reese and Caleb’s relationship intensifies as summer turns to fall. Soon Reese feels caught between the fulfilling promise of romance with Caleb and her links to the modern world. When Asa threatens to sue to keep Jonah from wearing a prosthetic limb, Caleb has two choices – give up the fight, knuckle under to his abusive father and keep his brother’s promise to raise the children Amish, or re-embrace the English world for the children’s apparent betterment. Can Reese build a bridge for the family? Or will she be forced to say goodbye to Caleb forever?
Lisa: I found Between You and Me to be quite compulsively readable but flawed; what did you think, Shannon? What did you like/ dislike about the book?
Shannon: I really like the way you worded that. This was a novel I had trouble putting down, but now that I’ve finished it and am thinking about it more critically, I can definitely recognize its failings. It’s a book that wanted to accomplish several things, but didn’t manage to come through with most of them.
Lisa: That’s exactly how I felt about it; the characters, their relationships, and everything involving the central dilemmas were interesting, but the latter portion of the book took a twist that brought on a wave of skepticism in me. What did you wish they’d accomplish that they hadn’t? On my end it was the conflict with Reese’s parents, which ended up being generally underplayed in favor of more focus on Caleb and his family.
Shannon: I would have liked the author to actually resolve some of the plot points she mentioned early on in the story. Caleb’s story gets a lot of attention, but a few key things are just glossed over instead of being explored the way they could have been, and you’re so right about Reese’s conflict. There’s so much more that could have been done there.
Lisa: I liked Caleb’s solidness, his humanity. He was a really compelling hero. How did you feel about him?
Shannon: Caleb was a very relatable hero. I admired his commitment to his niece and nephew; I loved him for going out on a limb for them even though he knew his decisions would not be popular with the rest of the Amish community. He didn’t bow to pressure, even when his father applied quite a bit of it, and I appreciated that. However, I didn’t think he had much of a commitment to Reese. Perhaps that’s how it should have been, given that they didn’t know each other all that well, but I couldn’t help but want more from him where she was concerned.
Lisa: What did you think of Reese? I liked her but sometimes found her to be a little bit too childish and flighty – like mentally dithering about Caleb’s good looks while he’s still processing a huge trauma! I also didn’t buy the idea of a driven career woman with no social life or parental support magically being an expert pie baker, devoted nanny or no! I think much of that emphasis on her characterization was due to her parent’s overstated overprotectiveness, but it also hampered her and made her too immature and socially maligned to become the sort of woman the narrative expects her to be. The answer to her dilemma seemed pretty clear to me.
Shannon: Reese was a lot harder for me to identify with than Caleb. She’s supposed to be very driven and dedicated to the field of medicine, but she blew off her study obligations in favor of a date with Caleb, and later on in the book, she actually makes a very questionable decision that probably should have landed her in a lot of trouble. I sometimes got the impression she liked the idea of being a doctor more than actually being one. You do make a fair point about her parents being incredibly overprotective, and I was pleased to see her assert herself a few times against them. I just didn’t find the conflict she faced to be very believable.
Lisa: I had a few troubles with the speed of the plot; Caleb entrusts a very intimate detail of his life to Reese during their third conversation, which sort of left me shocked, especially since that revelation is so incredibly personal. I also felt like there were too many moments of unnecessary derring do for Caleb to dash into – one emergency would have sufficed instead of several. Still, a lot of the romantic touches and the bits about Jonah’s recovery really worked. What did you think?
Shannon: The speed of the plot was kind of strange for me too. Not only did Caleb share that very personal piece of himself with Reese so early on, but she seemed to open up to him awfully fast, too. This is a woman who claims to have no friends, but she didn’t hesitate at all when it came to Caleb. That just felt a little incongruous to me. Also, I felt like the author glossed over a few things that I would have liked to see get some actual page time. For example, the whole guardianship issue just sort of magically went away and I found that anticlimactic. Why did the author even make it an issue if it could be solved so easily?
Lisa: An excellent point. I didn’t buy that Asa would drop the game of chicken he had going on with Caleb so easily, either. It was almost as if there was a court case side-plot that ended up becoming what we see at the end of the novel.
What of the minor characters? I feel like Hannah and Jonah were well-rounded, and while Jonah is an excellent character, I related to Hannah more; the plot twist in her side of the story was truly unexpected but the resolution far too easy and pat; her interests had been the antithesis of what her character turns into. I’m of two minds on Rebecca’s storyline – on one hand it fit an Amish woman’s mindset fairly well, but on the other I’m terribly tired of seeing female characters reduced to their reproductive organs and what they can and cannot do.
Shannon: Jonah was my favorite of the minor characters, and I enjoyed watching him come into his own. He went through a lot, but he genuinely wanted to get better, and I love the fact that he learned to flourish even though he had to do it differently than he might have wished. Hannah’s story was compelling, but it didn’t reach out and grab me in a personal way. I do understand what you mean about Rebecca. I’m honestly not sure how I feel about her character either other than to say it would have been nice to learn more about her as a person in her own right.
Lisa: What about the romance?
Shannon: Reese and Caleb shared some incredibly sweet moments, and I did end up liking them as a couple once they both decided they actually wanted to be one. There were some road blocks in their way, and, as we mentioned above, not all of them were as believable as I might have liked. Even so, I found certain aspects of their budding relationship pretty irresistible.
Lisa: Definitely; alongside the development of Jonah and Hannah, Reese and Caleb were two generally likable people, and it was nice to see them find a romance that worked to fill the voids in their lives.
What would you give the book as an overall grade? I’m giving it a flat C; a few moments of cliché, some unfortunate statements about biological motherhood and women’s reproductive health, but a solid romance and an innovative plot.
Shannon: I think I’d give it a B-. It definitely had its flaws, but it kept me engaged and I’m glad I read it.