Quilts have formed the backbone of many a novel, but perhaps no author has used the motif as well as Emilie Richards in ENDLESS CHAIN, her follow-up to WEDDING RING and Book Two in the Shenandoah Album Series, a proposed trilogy of novels exploring relationships, families, and faith.
At Shenandoah Community Church, the idealistic Reverend Sam Kinkade has his hands full with quirky parishioners and a checkered past he still has not completely come to terms with. A church outreach program to the Hispanic community has several members outraged, and the youth of the town see the outreach as an excuse to vandalize church property. To complicate things further, Sam's rather lethargic engagement to the svelte, wealthy Christine Fletcher (who doesn't like Sam's dogs, country residence, or his little congregation) has dragged on and on, with no wedding looming on the horizon. "Christine Fletcher is a hothouse gardenia, and we're a wilted bunch of black-eyed Susans. That's a fact," states church member and quilter Dovey Lanning matter-of-factly.
When Elisa Martinez, a gorgeous Hispanic woman, applies to be the church sexton, things really begin to heat up. When Sam hires her, Christine sees more than a new employee --- she sees a potential rival. "Sex-ton? Are we getting right to the heart of the matter, honey?" she asks. It's not difficult to see the direction the plot is heading.
What is surprising is that Elisa has a mysterious past, which Richards unfolds in bits and pieces. Other themes arise: The widow Adoncia Garcia longs to marry the good-natured, intelligent Diego Moreno, but a difference over birth control causes a deep rift between them. The elderly quilter Helen Henry is, as her daughter Nancy Whitlock says, "a stubborn old coot," with her chickens and her penchant for stacks of newspapers and rags, and she needs someone to live-in with her. Elisa seems to fit the bill perfectly --- but first, she'll have to win her way into Helen's heart.
As Helen teaches Elisa to quilt, Elisa bonds to her and the little congregation. Meanwhile, Sam finds that certain details Elisa has told him about her life don't add up to the truth, even as he finds his affection for her growing. Richards ratchets up the tension, which reaches its peak when one of Elisa's pregnant friends goes into a difficult labor unexpectedly. Elisa discovers she can't run from her past forever, and must choose between revealing her true identity or allowing her friend and her baby to die.
Richards is a competent writer, and the story effortlessly flows from page to page. Unusual flourishes, like Sam's penchant for odd sandwiches, make this book a delight to read. (Leftover chicken, fried egg, ketchup and hash browns with American cheese make up one concoction; broccoli, hummus, blue cheese and ham make up another.) It's not a flawless story. One subplot is difficult to believe, and there are some clichéd lines in the love scenes ("They were two, separated by a world gone crazy, by people who wanted to destroy her, by court decrees and dread. And then they were one.") It's a credit to Richards's overall good writing, however, that the reader is immersed enough in the story to suspend disbelief and overlook a few overwrought lines.
The reader will be best served by reading WEDDING RING first, although ENDLESS CHAIN easily can be read as a stand-alone novel. Either way, engaging, well-developed characters of all ages, an interesting plot, and faith themes with some real-life grit in them make ENDLESS CHAIN a page-turning read that's difficult to put down.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on July 1, 2005