Monday, July 02, 2007

Letter Perfect

Hake, Cathy Marie. 2006. Letter Perfect.

Ruth Caldwell, a clumsy tomboy, travels west to ultimately find love and danger in California, 1859. Grieving the loss of her mother, Ruth travels west alone to meet the father she never knew. Unfortunately, her father has died. Fortunately, her father's partner Josh McCain, Sr. and Josh McCain, Jr., offer her their home. There is also a sister. Laney, Elaine Louise, McCain. Ruth becomes best friends with Laney, and though Josh at first finds her more than a little frustrating to be around, he soon becomes smitten. But in this "Wild West" setting, little is as it appears. And danger may be closer than they'd ever think.

This week has been an odd week at best, full of many discouragements and bouts of plain disillusionment. So if you're Cathy Marie Hake, and you happen to be reading this, keep that in mind. I was mostly puzzled by Letter Perfect. Greatly puzzled if I'm honest. It's not that the writing is bad. It's not. It's just confusing in a few small ways that end up all in one big mess by the end. The book begins with Ruth Caldwell being introduced as a tomboyish miss who is clumsy both physically and socially. She's always making a mess of things. Always getting in and out of trouble. Just a real handful. You never know what to expect. That is how this character is set up. And it's true for the first chapter. We see Ruth Caldwell out of her element at a ladies' school...a charm school. She ends up making a calamity at a dinner and getting thrown out of school for being unladylike. But once she's out of that environment, that label doesn't really fit anymore. Yet Ruth refers this way about herself over and over and over again. Which I suppose I can see as possible. Certainly we as humans have a way of seeing what we think are our flaws and magnifying them above and beyond what an outside observer would note. So I'm not being over critical there. Not necessarily. But this one thing kept working with a larger theme: I never knew quite what to expect next. This story wasn't predictable at all...not remotely. You might think that was a good thing. It might even be a good thing to another reader. But I wanted to know where I was going. I knew it was a romance. I knew it was set in California. But everything else was like a thousand different plots being juggled in the air and randomly caught and pieced together. First there was a big deal made about the pony express. Then there was a great deal of focus spent on the transcontinental railroad. Then there was a chapter or two where I thought the author was leading the reader in the direction of a Native-American (Indian) versus whites/government/soldier. There was some talk of Indians attacking forts and settlements. Some talk of how unsafe it was to travel. How Indians would murder you. And whatnot. And there were a few chapters were there was a big emphasis on slavery and Abe Lincoln and how the North and South couldn't continue on in peace...that something was brewing. (The book is set in 1859). And then there were bits and pieces about a women's suffrage movement. All those plot elements thrown in and jumbled together. They'd talk about a thing for a chapter or two and then either not mention it again for the rest of the book, OR they'd wait five or ten chapters to bring it back up. Regardless, all of these little indicators were adding up to false advertisement.

The main thread of the novel seems to be a mystery of sorts. But again the clues are all over the place and the reader has no clue they're even supposed to be looking for clues until you're well over halfway through the novel. Up until that point where you learn that

S
P
O
I
L
E
R

one of the characters is embezzling funds from the ranch, you have no clue that there is a mystery to be solved and a villain to be caught and dealt with.

What adds to this confusing "mystery" is the fact that the author whether purposefully or accidentally uses names interchangeably. What do I mean? I mean for two thirds of the book, perhaps except for one scene of introduction, this character is called "Dad." He is the father of the man Ruth eventually marries. Even after the reader learns that he is behind the embezzlement and that he most definitely is a drunk. And he could have other vices as well. He is still referred to as "Dad." Not unusual, right? But then out of the blue, "McCain" shows up. If you're like me, you're going McCain who???? Where did this guy come from??? Who is he??? What's going on???? But then you either flip to the beginning or read a paragraph or two further and discover that Dad and McCain are the same person. From that time on, she refers to "Dad" as "McCain" about 75 or 80% of the time. All the characters by this point know him to be a villain. Yet there is one chapter close to the end, and after about ten or twenty chapters after "Dad" has only been called "McCain" in the text that he all of a sudden--out of the blue--is "Dad" again. Why this switch back again? Why? Why the switch at all? Why use them interchangeably if it's a stylistic thing???? If McCain is a cold, calculating, distant man who is a murderer, then why refer to him as Dad again once the reader is aware of his true nature. His own daughter now knows him essentially to be an immoral criminal who would not stop short of murder. His son knows the same and is trying to protect the woman he loves. Yet he's "Dad" again. But only for that one chapter. I believe the next chapter sees him as "McCain" again.

So while I don't feel Letter Perfect is a bad book by any means, it left me just a wee bit puzzled. Especially this whole McCain/Dad thing. I tend to think that you should pick a name and stick with it. To bounce back and forth seemingly at random is just confusing. Grant you, I thought it odd that this book told almost 99% through her eyes would have this man, this stranger, be "Dad." So in some ways, it was almost a relief for him to be called something else. But he does make a good villain, I suppose. He was bad to the core and he didn't repent.