Marilyn Pappano’s Small Wonders, part of her long-running Bethlehem series, engrosses from start. The story centers around scam artist Cole Jackson and Leanne Wilson, the woman he left behind to raise his son, as well as the citizens of small-town Bethlehem. Cole’s neighbors are hopping mad that he divested them of a quarter of a million dollars before skipping town, even though he returned it a few days later.
Leanne Wilson is a wonderful heroine. She’s a strong woman with a bad romantic history and willingly took on the job of raising Cole’s moody teenage son despite the fact that when he left he broke her heart, and despite also raising her own four-year-old son Danny. When Cole arrives back in Bethlehem in police custody, she’s sure that jail is the only place he’s headed. However, a benevolent judge sees fit to sentence him to 5,000 hours of community service (about two-and-a-half years worth) under a new rehabilitation program run by a mysteriously all-knowing character named Eli.
Yep, that’s right, there’s a paranormal aspect. Eli, the judge, and another character named Sophy are guardian angels looking out for our hero and heroine. For those uninitiated, Bethlehem’s guardian angels stretch the bounds of credulity somewhat, but also provide an additional layer of warmth to this tale of crime, punishment, and eventual redemption.
The novel’s biggest dilemma revolves around unmitigated bad boy Cole Jackson, who dumped his son and scammed the town. How will the author convince us this career criminal with a family history of crime sprees and jail sentences is hero material? Would Pappano resort to the melodramatic bad childhood and abusive parents? In actuality, she does, but with such finesse and realism that I had no trouble accepting his backstory. Cole’s own self-loathing is brought to the fore when he begins his community service, and finally he feels remorse and accepts responsibility for his crimes, something new in his life.
Serial Pappano readers have an ongoing concern for its residents. Two of them, secondary characters from earlier books, Alex and Melissa Thomas, have tried desparately for years to have a child, and after several miscarriages Melissa is finally pregnant. Pappano lends their story a realistic edge when their son is born premature, and with disabilities. This is the first romance novel I’ve read that tackles the issue sensitively and not in a cheesily, overblown fashion. The Thomas’ reactions to the traumatic birth is exquisitely rendered, and though I adored their sub-plot, that it wasn’t the main plotline presented problems. The reader never really gets closure on what happens, which is a pity. Perhaps the author will revisit them in future books – one can only hope.
Small Wonders is a terrific romance concentrating on issues of trust and honesty. The actual “romance” quotient isn’t perhaps as high as I’d have liked; though I came away believing in the mutual attraction and love between Cole and Leanne, it’s not center stage throughout the entire book. But it’s the kind of book I’d love to see made into a good movie.