Seasoned Christian novelist Cindy McCormick Martinusen combines elements from so many fine genres, reminiscent of so many fine secular authors in her new novel, THE SALT GARDEN: seaside mystery elements like Victoria Holt, historical intrigue like M.M. Kaye, gentle romantic spirit like Rosamond Pilcher, and family interaction like Jodi Picoult. In this book, three characters (two living, one dead) alternate telling the story.
San Francisco reporter Claire O'Rourke is a young woman who has returned to her hometown of Harper's Bay ostensibly for a visit, but winds up staying and taking a job at The Tidal Post when family circumstances change. As she settles into what turns out to be a much-needed change of pace, her path crosses with that of Sophia Fleming, a once-lauded and now-reclusive author in her seventies who lives on a small island off the coast. The character of Josephine Vanderook speaks from the pages of a saltwater-encrusted diary that Sophia finds in a rock pool on her morning walk.
Soon the voices of these three women are creating a sort of call-and-response in their alternating pages. Although Claire, Sophia and Josephine have many differences, their common threads of loving words and writing as well as their devotion to God begin to bind them together and lessen differences of time, age and circumstance. Sophia, who has been hoarding the diary to herself rather than give it to the town museum, finds that the new young woman on the scene seems very familiar to her, and when she allows Claire in to her home and read the diary pages, the faith of the two modern women is contrasted with their historical counterpart.
Martinusen's central message seems to be that everyone's path to faith --- Claire's, Sophia's, Josephine's --- takes a different course. Some of the "big city, little city" contrast is overdone, and some of the characters, like the latte-brewing "Cap'n Charlie," seem a little too quaint. But the friendship between Sophia and Ben that blossoms into romance, despite some very real present-day and past obstacles, is beautifully drawn, as is the "romance" of working at an old-fashioned, slow-going but industrious newspaper for Claire. As Claire begins a relationship with town artist Griffin and her family faces a crisis surrounding her brother and a little girl he is protecting, Ben is facing a tough choice about retirement and Sophia seems almost lost in her solitude.
Yet the strongest element of this book has less to do with character details and plot points than it does with the author's own spiritual grace. On her Web site, when asked what she hopes to accomplish through her writing, Cindy says, "I definitely always want to glorify God in my writing. I don't want to lose touch with that --- to get so into the writing that I lose the fact that this is God's calling. I want to be able to balance both of those so it's like seeking God through the story." Martinusen's sensibility to the different spiritual stages of her characters sets this book apart from other Christian novels.
Reviewed by Bethanne Kelly Patrick on May 1, 2004