Linda Paulson Adams
D. Michael Martindale
Cornerstone , June 2000. Trade paperback:
Suggested retail price: $14.95 (US)
A First Novel You Can Love--and Hate (for Reasons of Envy)
Five hundred and seventeen pages consumed in a few days. Need I saymore?
Adams has managed to write an LDS character novel that:
- doesn't have a Mormon as the character being studied
- hits the perfect balance between including LDS references andnot beating us over the head with them
- virtually never gets maudlin
- depicts all sorts of wretched behaviors and conditions ofhumanity
- develops the character magnificently
- develops the plot at the correct pace, neither boringly tooslow, nor unbelievably too fast
- crafts a near-future America that is reasonably believable
- has relatively few LDS characters, who actually have someunflattering traits, and don't even try to convert the main character tothe Gospel
- has nifty speculative elements to it
- won't let you put it down
And she does it all in her first -- repeat -- first published novel. Don'tyou hate it when that happens?
Alyssa Stark is an abused teenager. But Adams doesn't tell the readerthat in as crass a way as I just did. The first chapter introduces us tothe concept in a subtle way as Alyssa plays with Peter, a lifelongfriend of the family not quite two years older than her:
& & & "What happened?" he called as he got closer.
& & & "I fell into some kind of hole," she said. "The grass was long and I didn't see it coming."
& & & Peter reached her, panting with the exertion. "How bad is it?"
& & & "I heard it snap." Her voice broke. "It hurts bad." Her lower lip trembled and she tried to blink back tears, but a few spilled out anyway.& .& .& .
& & & "Hey there, don't cry," he said. "We'll have you fixed up soon. It'll be all right." He stood, shifting his weight from foot to foot, scratching his elbow nervously. She still looked at the ground, visibly shaking, but not making a sound.
& & & Finally she sniffed and said, "I ripped my T-shirt too."
& & & "So?" He sat down near her, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. "I think we've got bigger worries than that. Huh?" He tried a small laugh.
& & & She looked up. "You don't understand. This was brand new. I ripped it on this stupid dead branch when I fell." She shoved the branch away angrily, wiping her tears with her hand and sniffing.
& & & "It's just a shirt." He shrugged.& .& .& .
& & & "She'll probably never let me wear a T-shirt again. I finally got her to let me have one. Now I'll be lucky if I ever get to play outside again.".& .& .& .
& & & She smiled, but then a shadow came over her face. "Peter, you have to promise not to tell," she whispered.
& & & "Well, gee, it's obvious you're hurt," he said. "We need to get you some help."
& & & "No, dummy. I mean you can't tell anybody that you saw me .& .& . you know .& .& . cry." Her face flushed red as she said it and she looked away.
& & & "What's the big deal? You're hurt pretty bad."
& & & "Alyssa Stark never cries," she said, straightening herself up as much as possible. She winced. "Never."
Remember, the reader has no clue at this point what kind of a familyAlyssa has. That information is revealed gradually, while remainingcompletely true to Alyssa's point of view. She doesn't think anythingabout her situation that's unbelievable. She takes longer to realizethat her family life is abnormal than the reader does. She deals withher tribulations in believable ways, but ways which are spelled outmatter-of-factly in her own words, without any hint that there'ssomething unnatural about what she does.
But deep down she knows there has to be a better life for her, and shelongs for the day when she can legally escape her abusive mother. Thatday comes when she leaves for college in the ultra-urban andultra-corrupt environment of Central City.
This book is divided into three parts, reflecting three major divisionsin Alyssa's life. Part One is excellent. By now the reader is hooked andis completely immersed in Alyssa's life. Part Two carries the ball wellfrom Part One, until about halfway through. Part One shows very littlesigns of being speculative fiction. But the speculative nature of thebook comes forth with a vengeance in the middle of Part Two. Alyssa,trying to deal with her past and with the death of her weak but kindlyfather, gets involved with drugs. But the drug she chooses is much morethan what it seems. Strange things begin to happen, things which sheassumes are hallucinations, but are clearly more substantial than that.This sudden rush of speculative elements seems to break the carefullycrafted atmosphere of the story, which felt pretty mainstream up to thispoint. A bit more foreshadowing of this would probably have helped keepthe flow smooth through this part of the book.
But it's a minor flaw. It's not like there were no indications thatstrangeness was on its way, especially if you read the foreward and theprologue. More reflective of Adams' novice status as a published authorare the sudden proliferation of references backward in time to thingsAlyssa had done, just at the moment we needed to know them because theywere becoming important to the story. The first one that jumps out atthe reader is the knife:
& & & Walking alone in Central City at night could be dangerous, in spite of computerized surveillance in public areas. She would be in a group, but still, there might be danger. Murder, theft, and outright rape were illegal, of course, even if many of the things that tended to cause them were not. One of the first things Alyssa had purchased on arriving at college was a small pocketknife, a swichblade that was short, sharp and ready to defend her in an instant. She took a weaponry class that first summer and learned how to use it, should she ever have to.
& & & She carried it on the rare occasions when she went out alone.& .& .& . She had never used the blade, but she put it in her pocket anyway, before leaving. She fingered it in her pocket as she went down the apartment stairs, careful not to press the button, slightly apprehensive about what she would find ahead of her.
This is a much more egregious violation of the principle offoreshadowing. This information should have been conveyed when ithappened, not when Adams needed us to know in the story. We should havewatched Alyssa purchase the knife, heard her thoughts as she decided to,witnessed her weaponry class, seen on two or three occasions how shecarried the knife with her, fingering it carefully, feeling apprehensiveabout being out alone in Central City. All these absent scenes would notonly have avoided the "Oh, by the way .& .& ." feeling of being told aboutthe knife after the fact, but they were missed opportunities for greatercharacterization. Adams does this several times with various pieces ofinformation. The book could have used one more draft where theseinstances were identified and woven into their proper position in thetimeline so their revelation to the reader felt natural and notforgotten until needed.
But again, these were defects easily overlooked, because the life ofAlyssa Stark means too much to us by now for us to worry about it.Alyssa learns that, harrowing as her life had been, others have had itmuch worse, and that she is able to sink even lower than she has beenand does. She reaches the point where she can recognize that, even as anabused child, she was a still a rich spoiled kid and had a lot to learnabout life. Whether she will be able to rise above her upbringing andlearn those needed lessons is the question the reader longs to haveanswered.
Friend Peter's family joins the LDS church early on in the story, butthe event is again subtlely handled, so the reader probably wouldn'teven notice it was the LDS church they joined were this not an LDSnovel. Friend and roommate Debra (and a black woman, although the bookmakes no big deal of this fact), is also an LDS member. The clues arethere to discover, but again they are subtle and probably helped by thefact that we are expecting some LDS people to show up. In fact, lots ofthings happen that are significantly LDS, but practically none of it isdirectly named as such. Adams hits the perfect balance in this, as sheshould, since the point of view character knows nothing about thechurch, knows little and cares nothing about religion, and wouldn'tnotice any of this stuff.
There was one scene that I had a lot of trouble with: a brief appearanceby the Savior. Not that I object to having the Savior be a character ina book. But I didn't think the circumstances warranted it. There was amiracle involved, and the miracle was handled at least as well as theone in the film God's Army, but I didn't think any justificationexisted for the Savior to be involved. The scene is a vital plot pointand sets up another vital plot point to come. But something needs to beadjusted for the reader to feel like the scene is one that mightactually happen.
And there was one character I couldn't accept. One relationship,actually, since the character was okay. Peter's fiance is a veryunlikeable, if tragic figure. Too unlikeable, because I found itcompletely unbelievable that Peter would have remained attracted to herlong enough to become engaged to her. Her unlikeable aspects arenecessary to the plot, but she needs to have some positive traitsbrought out as well, so we can accept that the relationship would happenin the first place. Something's got to appeal to Peter besides thatpretty face.
But overall, Prodigal Journey was a wonderful reading experience. Thecharacterization was masterful and moving. The plot was structured withthe confidence of an expert. The book wraps up Alyssa's prodigal journeyboth in a satisfying and a yearning way. No neat, tidy package ending,even for the elements of the story that are supposed to be wrapped up inthis first volume of a series. But the hope of positive outcomes is heldout like an olive branch peace offering, even as many threads are leftdangling in the wind for future volumes to tackle.
If this is Linda Adams first published novel, what wonders do we have instore for us in novels to come?
-- D. Michael Martindale firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2001 D. Michael Martindale < email@example.com >