Circle of Three
When Patricia Gaffney moved from writing historical romance last year into hardcover women’s fiction, many of her fans bemoaned the loss of another terrific romance author into the mainstream. While I’m one of those readers who doesn’t like to lose a romance writer to straight suspense or romantic suspense, I enjoy women’s fiction and looked forward to reading Circle of Three. Knowing that author Gaffney has a propensity for creating complex characters whom many would consider “difficult” in real life, I hoped for a richly layered and creative story. My wish was granted; Gaffney’s romance roots served her well in this book, which captured the nuances of her characters and story in a thoughtful manner.
Grandmother, mother, and daughter form a circle of three, each affecting the other in ways only women can. The book is told in the first-person narrative of each of these three characters, chapter by chapter, although the main character is Carrie Van Allen, a widow in her early 40s living with her teen-age daughter Ruth in the small college town where she grew up. Carrie is lost in a miasma of pain and guilt after the recent loss of her husband. Carrie is in danger of losing her house, but is unable to shake off her depression. It is Carrie’s socially conscious mother Dana, with whom she has a difficult relationship, who arranges a job for her, which eventually brings her back into the “real world.”
Though Carrie had never gotten over her first love to Jess Deeping, her mother’s fears and biases had led to her moving on and moving away from him and the small Virginia town where her emotionally distant father, a college professor, taught. She married Stephen, also a college professor, who proved to be as emotionally distant as her father had been. After Stephen failed to get tenure, Carrie’s father arranged for Stephen to take a teaching position at the college where he taught, and they moved back to the town of Carrie’s childhood. One sad and exquisitely rendered paragraph describes Carrie’s eventual relationship with her husband:
Something funny about Stephen. He always came up from behind to hold me or touch me. He would hardly ever put his arms around me from the front, kiss me on my mouth, my face. It was always from behind, pressing against my back, nuzzling my neck, my cheek. Sex was different – he could and did make love in the face-to-face position – but for everyday, standing-up, fully clothed affection, he literally couldn’t face me.
Since Stephen’s death, Jess has come back into their lives, being an uncle of sorts to Ruth. Jess had been a passionate and sensitive boy who suffered through his mother’s mental illness and the stigma that followed him because of it. Because of his farming heritage, Dana, whose fear of a social misstep forms her moral code, never thought Jess was good enough for her daughter. When Jess asks the artistic Carrie to help him carry out the final wish of an old man who wants to recreate Noah’s ark before he dies, Dana goes into high gear. But Carrie becomes involved in the project, and becomes involved once more with Jess, who has become a sensitive, patient, and wonderful man. Their relationship is the catalyst for the eventual dramatic turn of events that sets Ruth at center stage.
Readers of Circle of Three will come to know all of these characters, will like some more than others, but will understand them all. Dana in particular is a difficult woman, the sort of woman we may not wish to be, but a woman whose fears and biases are nonetheless real. Author Gaffney captures the adolescent angst of Ruth, whose youthful self-centeredness vie with realities no 15-year-old should have to face. As for Carrie, the relationships she forms after moving from her cocoon of grief transform her into the woman she’d failed to become in her earlier marriage. Though her growing relationship with Jess is lovely and the ark storyline is inventive, poignant, and heartwarming, Carrie makes tremendous blunders involving her daughter that create a very exciting last several chapters of the book.
Circle of Three is character-driven, filled with very complex people. Because the characters are true to themselves, they can be difficult and prickly and unpleasant. But this richness of character is what makes this book seem real and what makes it a worthwhile read. If you spend a weekend with this circle of three, it won’t be the easiest weekend you spend, but it will have been a memorable one.