Following the devastating loss of their young daughter, Sam and Annie separate and try to create new lives for themselves, 2,000 or so miles apart. But five years later, circumstances bring them both back to the same North Carolina town where they once lived and loved each other, and where both of their families have been praying for their reconciliation for half a decade.
But that's not all. Sam and Annie's last name is Truelove. Neither seems to have been involved in any kind of close relationship in those intervening years, though Sam's career as a surgeon and Annie's as a journalist wouldn't exactly have kept them cloistered. The home they shared when they were married is exactly as it was the day Annie took off in Sam's truck, seemingly for good. Their clothes still hang in the closets, and all of their belongings appear to be intact --- no mildew or damage from hungry insects or rodents, no interruption of electrical service, pretty much everything still in pristine condition. And every year, Sam goes to the same restaurant on the same date at the same time, hoping that Annie, his...um...true love, will appear and give him a second chance.
If none of that bothers you, then the rest of the book won't either. Not even the fact that these two people are so utterly obsessed with each other that every little thing they do seems to remind them of each other. I half expected Annie to take a breath and suddenly remember that she also used to take a breath when she lived with Sam. Still, they take precious little action toward reconciliation even though the constant flood of memories seems to rule their lives. (In a moment of clarity and decided understatement, Annie realizes that "the memories of her life were all entwined with Sam.")
Despite all that, the basic plotline is believable and even compelling. A poor decision on Sam's part during heart surgery has left a young patient on life support for five years, and the girl's time is running out. The story of the battle between the state and the girl's family becomes national news, and Sam takes a leave of absence from his practice to prevent negative publicity from hurting the Tennessee hospital he is affiliated with. When Annie, who is between newspaper jobs on the West Coast, learns of the worsening situation, she takes advantage of her time off to return to the Asheville area --- which is exactly where Sam plans to spend his leave of absence and sort out his future. There they are reunited, but the reunion is less than cordial --- just days earlier, Annie filed for divorce. There's a lovely twist at the very end that makes for a pleasant surprise.
Nichols's writing, for the most part, is fairly straightforward, though there are some nice touches here and there, along with moments of genuine insight and honesty. After a seasoned believer tries to answer Sam's questions about why God had allowed the surgery to go wrong and his marriage to fail, Sam doesn't want to hear the usual "God loves you" speech: "Sam shook his head. The answer wasn't satisfactory. And he realized then that it wasn't an explanation he wanted from God as much as an apology." That's honesty.
Here's another nice passage, in which Annie realizes that her hopes for a perfect life with Sam are unrealistic: "The bright, shining life she had imagined with him vanished. Reality took its place. Not the flawless, backlit reality of fantasy, but the real, bumpy, scarred, beautiful, breathing, warm-skinned life she knew she was meant to have."
At its essence, this is a book about hope, written for Christians rather than for unbelievers. AT THE SCENT OF WATER offers readers a reason to believe that the God they know --- or once knew --- is able to give them "beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning."
Reviewed by Marcia Ford on October 1, 2004