Passing Through Paradise
I’ve read and enjoyed several of Susan Wiggs’ historical romances; I’ve marveled at how she can bring periods and locations as diverse as Renaissance Venice and Gilded Age Chicago to life, and people them with vivid, believable characters. Passing Through Paradise is her second contemporary and the first I’ve read. While there was a lot I liked about it, I never connected with the characters as deeply as I’d have liked to, and a major plot point severely undermined my enjoyment of the story.
Sandra Babcock Winslow is one of the most wounded, traumatized heroines I’ve seen in a long time. After a painfully shy and isolated childhood and adolescence, Sandra married Victor Winslow, the local golden boy. As the wife of a rising political star, Sandra learned to move in society, doing everything required of a political wife to further her husband’s career. Then comes one tragic night, a bridge, a car, and a patch of ice. Sandra is rescued, but Victor is never found and is presumed dead. Because of some suspicious circumstances around the accident, most of the town believes Sandra was somehow responsible, and she is isolated once again, reviled as the “Black Widow” of Paradise, Rhode Island.
Mike Malloy is pretty wounded himself. The end of his marriage also meant his ejection from the very successful historical restoration business he’d founded with his wife’s father. Starting over as a basic handyman, Mike gets his first chance at a really good restoration project when Sandra needs someone to fix up her Victorian beach house so she can sell it and move away from Paradise for good. As the house slowly comes back to life, Sandra and Mike find themselves more and more drawn to each other, and Mike becomes more curious about Sandra’s secrets.
Susan Wiggs writes beautifully, and just as she made me feel as though I were in Venice or the Chicago fire, I could feel and smell the air of the beach town, and see the gorgeous beach house or Mike’s comfortable boat. However, while I liked Mike and Sandra very much, I felt oddly distant from them, particularly Sandra. Her passivity in the face of obvious injustice was very frustrating to me; I often felt like shaking her as she moped around while people vandalized her property or did scurrilous news stories about her.
I think part of this is because the book is positioned as somewhere between a romance and “women’s fiction”, with the extra focus on secondary characters that the latter implies. I don’t think this was a bad thing in this case, because the secondary characters were interesting in their own right. Wiggs does an outstanding job of showing the effects of divorce’s upheaval and confusion on Mike’s two children, and Sandra’s parents have their own marital crisis.
This would have been a B to B+ book for me if not for the central question of what happened the night Victor died, and the secret that Sandra has been hiding about their marriage. I correctly guessed this secret early on, and it irritated me throughout the book. Wiggs handles it as sympathetically as possible, and though aspects of the situation were believable, it nevertheless uses and reinforces stereotypical assumptions that, given a choice, I prefer not to see in my pleasure reading.
Unfortunately, that situation diluted my pleasure in Passing Through Paradise to the point that if I were not reading it for review, I would have passed by Paradise rather than passing through it. As it is, I’m glad I did read it, but I’m still left with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.