4/21/08

Simple Jess (1996)

By Pamela Morsi

The last thing widow Althea Winsloe wanted to do was remarry. Unfortunately, her meddlesome mountain neighbors had other plans. So, one autumn night they banded together and gave Althea a shocking ultimatum: She was to find herself a husband by Christmas...or the town would do it for her! Althea knew she had her choice of any single man in Marrying Stone, Arkansas. Yet the only one she felt truly comfortable with was Simple Jess. Sweet and gentle, Jess wasn't as smart as your average man. But his tender manner stirred Althea's heart in ways she had never dreamed possible.

It would take a miracle to find a husband in Marrying Stone. But sometimes miracles are right under your nose...
I read this book immediately after Beyond Breathless, and I cannot think of a more striking contrast. Sex between two New York financial whiz kids in the back of a Hummer...to backwoods mountain courtship between a widow and a mildly retarded hero. The mind boggles. But such is the genre of romance. We're like "Transformers"--more than meets the eye.

Ann Aguirre recommended this one to me during one of our countless IM discussions. I believe we were talking about favorite authors who no longer write historical novels. She told the story of Pamela Morsi. According to Ann, Morsi had wanted to write this story for a long time and finally convinced her editor following the success of Forrest Gump. But when that editor left, her replacement disliked the story (or perhaps the concept) intensely. The book was released with a generic cover and little fanfare, but to this day Morsi receives innumerable fan letters.

I, for one, am just pleased such a book exists. It's a testament to the strange nature of publishing. Every once in a while, new things are printed. However it did signal the end Morsi's career writing historical novels. She's since moved on, whether by choice or by force--who knows.

On with the story. I very much enjoyed Morsi's descriptions of these mountain people and how they lived. She set the scene and created this community with deft attention to detail, an ear for their language, and a keen sense of what they found important in life. Hunting dogs and lands. Kangaroo courts and tradition. Long feuds and the suspicion of all things new.

Everything about the place felt authentic and real, and even those characters who tried to buck the system did not do so in flashy or out-of-sync ways. Althea, for example, was progressive with regard to how she mothers her child, but she did not want to be the mayor or get a law degree or work the fields. She's a woman. She thought differently than other people on the mountain, but she still took pride old-time womanly things: cooking, keeping house, manners, her reputation.

Jess, too, bucks the system but in a completely unconscious fashion. He simply is. Introspection is not his forte. He works hard, he's loyal, and he makes very practical decisions based on a strong memory--if not on analytical thinking or a knack for cause and effect. His loyalty Althea is very touching. And what could be more romantic? He would literally lay down and die for her. No questions. No thoughts for himself. She is a center of this world.

However, the world building worked against itself for me. While Morsi presented these people in a realistic and sympathetic light, I simply could not relate. Their values, way of life, and worldview were so far removed from me that I found myself looking at them like a sociological study. They seemed interesting, but they were not necessarily characters I could relate to. The whole society, not just Jess, seemed simple--too far removed.

But my main concern was the lack of interaction between Althea and Jess. Two significant subplots crowd the pages and leave little room for growth between the protagonists. I especially wanted to see inside Althea's head as she broke down the internal barriers of prejudice that would've kept most people from falling in love with someone who is mentally challenged. I wanted more of them, as characters, as a couple. I really love the idea of this book, and I'm so glad it found its way into the world, but as a heartfelt, stir-the-blood romance, it fell just a little bit short.

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