Will you marry me?
No other group of four words followed by a question mark wields the life-changing potential of this inquiry. Whatever words or actions preceded the question must finally give way to its answer --- yes or no --- and lives converge or divide forever.
Of course the converging and the dividing are never as simple as one would hope --- especially when the "yes" or "no" is less a decision and more a way to avoid a decision. Such is the case in IF I GAINED THE WORLD when Daniel Monroe's girlfriend of six years and mother of his son "pops" the question. He doesn't have to say "no" after several days of not saying "yes." And so their lives begin to divide.
In Lenore Vine, the jilted lover, author Linda Nichols has created a complex character with whom it is easy to identify. The fact that she is "plain" and Daniel has the looks of a movie star (literally, he becomes a movie star) could oh-so-easily make the story painfully contrived. Instead, Lenore is a bundle of strengths and weaknesses that make her uniquely tragic and heroic at the same time.
Lenore's insecurities are palpable, but you know she loves her life with Daniel. It's when she is swept up in a vision of growing old with this man, doing it on purpose as husband and wife rather than by default as lovers, that she asks the question that grinds her happiness to dust. And the bond that was growing between the reader and Lenore is sealed in by this pain and the ache that would follow:
"Lenore held her pale hand in front of her, rotated her wrist, looked at the pink palm with its faint lines, then turned it. It looked familiar but seemed as though it belonged to someone else. She looked down at her denim legs and felt the same way. Disconnected. They were someone else's legs.
There. She felt better. If it wasn't her body, then she could be here for a while. If it wasn't her life, she could stand it. She was just taking care of it for a bit, making a few decisions until the owner could come back. She heard herself give a little laugh and wondered if she was going insane.
She couldn't go insane. She didn't even have a telephone number for Daniel, and there was no one to take care of Scott if he went insane right now. She could go insane later. Maybe tomorrow."
The narrative splits between Seattle, where Lenore and Scott make a new home, and L.A., where Daniel becomes a successful actor. For 15 years the story follows the lives of the former lovers forever hinged by their son and their six years together. Their two worlds become a study in contrast. Even in the midst of their sometimes hardscrabble existence, Lenore and Scott's lives eventually fill up with people, and hope and faith. They build a new family --- a motley crew that includes a former drunk, a Southern Baptist grandma, and a brat of a little girl --- that sustains them through sickness, anger and rebellion.
Meanwhile, Daniel's career hits the big time. But ensconced in luxury and surrounded by "the beautiful people," Daniel becomes increasingly isolated. Nichols does an excellent job of portraying how a person can deceive himself about what it is that he really wants and needs, and Daniel slips further and further into a malaise lubricated by alcohol and women.
I do think that IF I GAINED THE WORLD would be a better book if it were about two-thirds its current size. There is a lot of loose writing and internal dialogue that seems superfluous, especially in contrast with some underdeveloped supporting characters. Nevertheless, this story about the redemptive power of grace pulls the reader into a web of relationships and regret from which it's impossible to extricate oneself without gaining insight and a bit of hope.
Reviewed by Lisa Ann Cockrel on November 13, 2011