Queen Esther and the Second Graders of Doom
I found this book to be disappointing; my sense was that because it falls under the Inspirational Fiction umbrella, the message was supposed to compensate for the flimsy plot and static characters. However, the message wasn’t even that strong, particularly not if it had to carry the whole book.
New mother Esther Walker recently moved to San Francisco from New Jersey with her husband and five month old son in order to be closer to her parents and her brother. She agreed to teach the second grade boys’ Sunday School class at the church where her brother is pastor, both to help out where it’s most needed, but also to become more familiar with the phenomenon that is boyhood, so she will be prepared for when her son Josh gets older. Teaching the class in addition to balancing the other obligations of motherhood, caring for her aging parents, and being a supportive wife, soon have Essie afraid that she’s bitten off much more than she can chew. She and her husband Doug must learn to get by in expensive California on a single income and she must figure out how to handle the other church mothers – especially during excessive preparations for the annual children’s pageant. Her parents’ health fluctuates and she is unable to find time to communicate with her husband. She also misses the coaching job she left behind in New Jersey during her pre-motherhood life. Throughout the course of the book, Essie uses her faith to help get her through daily life, as well as to help guide her through important decisions, and to help her overcome her biggest shortcoming: being judgmental.
Doug is a really good guy and a software engineer – he was able to find a good job on the West Coast. His job takes up an increasing amount of time, so we don’t get to see him much except as a vehicle for Essie’s guilt about not knowing what is going on his life.
We also meet the mothers of the second grade boys, many of whom are wealthy and seem to have it all together, but we see into their lives only superficially. One mother, Cece, befriends Essie, but the relationship seems awfully one-sided, with Cece continually helping Essie, giving advice, and so on, that it’s hard to see what Cece gets out of it apart from the satisfaction of helping another.
Essie’s parents are elderly and need a great deal of help from Essie and her brother. Essie is sad to see them aging before her eyes, and she also feels like her brother is shirking his fair share of the work. He is a busy pastor, described as being a good leader and very charismatic, but he’s not in very many scenes so it’s hard to see proof of this. His name is Mark, but apparently he still goes by his childhood name of Mark-o. For some reason I found this absolutely jarring, and the most annoying part of the book. Essie will be having a conversation with him, and then she will come out with the awkward “Mark-o!” Even when she’s yelling at him, she still says it. Mark is a perfectly fine, grown-up name, but for some reason Pleiter felt it necessary to add a dash and an “o” to this character’s name.
The story is told entirely from Essie’s point of view, so there is no opportunity to see any other characters or their perspectives. This also means that we see only Esther’s side of any conflict, most of which are internal anyway, though she has problems with her family and with other church members. This also leaves Doug looking like a saint. He works endless hours in high-stress situations in addition to his family responsibilities, and I find it unrealistic that he never becomes slightly short-tempered or shows external signs of stress. It would at least serve to humanize him a little; maybe make him more interesting.
In the end, Essie resolves to curb her judgmental impulses, and while she will probably be happier with life if she accomplishes this, nothing really happens during the book to illustrate why this is so important. The problem is that since her opinions are based on her snap judgments, rather than her decisions, Essie’s flaw doesn’t affect her outward life that much; there’s no negative outcome that would demonstrate why it’s so important for her to change, especially as she was always willing to change her opinions without a fight when she was proven wrong.
I am unable to go so far as to call Queen Esther and the Second Graders of Doom inspirational, apart from the fact that the heroine prays regularly and goes to church. Basically, I found this book to be unremarkable. There is nothing terribly wrong with it, but it has nothing to really recommend it, either.