Melody Carlson, who launched the first book in the Tales from Grace Chapel Inn multiple-author series, returns to write this sweet, homespun third installment, which picks up seamlessly from the two previous novels.
In BACK HOME AGAIN, Carlson began the story with an account of three middle-aged sisters --- Alice, Louise and Jane -- who return to Acorn Hill, PA, after the death of their adored father, a minister. Together, they reinvent their old Victorian family home as a bed and breakfast. Author Judy Baer wrote book two, RECIPES AND WOODEN SPOONS, which centered on Jane finding an old cookbook full of notations from her mother who died when Jane was born. As the narrative of the three aging sisters unfolded, readers cheered them on as they discovered new gifts, forged a closer relationship and found a deeper faith in God.
In the third installment, Alice discovers her father's old journal dating back from his teen years in an old hatbox. As the three sisters gather in the evenings, taking turns reading aloud from the journal, they discover secrets about their father that illuminate how he became the man of faith they remember. "To think he once considered himself an atheist," exclaims Jane. As the journal details his difficulties at home, what they discover also helps them understand their cantankerous Aunt Ethel, a perennial although beloved thorn in the side of the sisters. "So it doesn't bother you to think that we may have some skeletons in the closet?" Jane asks her sisters. "Goodness, Jane, it is not as if anyone committed murder," retorts Louise. "Not that we know of," Jane says.
As the story progresses, Alice gets a makeover and fashion update when an old flame comes back into her life. Although she has embraced the many changes she has made over the past few years, deciding whether to welcome the attentions of the handsome veterinarian who once disappointed her may involve a bigger revamping of her life than she has anticipated. What will she do?
A more somber theme concerns a friend of the sisters who is suffering from a mysterious ailment. Alice consoles her by saying, "We're going to get you through this, Vera. Now, remember what you're always telling me. Instead of worrying, go to God. Ask Him to lead you through this and to make you well. That's what I'm doing." In the end, it is Alice who discovers the cause of Vera's ailment and saves the day. The way she stumbles across the diagnosis is contrived enough that even Christian readers may have trouble believing it. But it does give Vera back her health and show the small community of Acorn Hill that God is in charge of the smallest details of their lives, which is part of the point of the series.
This is a light read, which requires some suspension of disbelief. The "finding an old journal" is a stock element in inspirational fiction (and was used in a different way in the previous novel). The back-to-back dialogue keeps the plot moving along but doesn't allow for as much introspection as might be hoped. The absence of contractions makes the dialogue stiff and formal at times, something that easily could have been fixed. ("Does Alice think it is fun? I am not sure that she actually does.")
Touches of humor are sprinkled throughout. (Of Alice's old dog, her sister Louise notes, "Stupid as stone. Why, that dog used to chase parked cars.") A humorous thread throughout the story is a friend who buys a Vietnamese potbellied pig and treats it as a baby. It isn't long before Louise is knitting the pig a pink baby ensemble.
The novel's message that excitement, change and new adventures are possible for women in mid-life is appealing, and the three sisters are noteworthy for their independence, faith and courage. Readers who enjoyed the first two books in the Tales from Grace Chapel Inn series won't be disappointed.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on February 1, 2007