Lisa Samson's best novel to date is QUAKER SUMMER, which examines the emptiness of what most women consider successful, the gut-wrenching possibilities of change, the need for undeserved grace and the importance of finding purpose outside themselves.
Heather's husband Jace works overtime as a surgeon to pay her shopping bills and help her keep up appearances. But nothing really satisfies the gnawing sense of emptiness in Heather's soul --- not the new pool, the suburban Baltimore private school for their only son, Will, or the shopping bags full of "stuff" she brings home each day. "Who could have told me that more, more, more isn't ever enough, enough, enough?" moans Heather.
She and her family no longer go to church; it's as empty for them as the success. "We're just tired of doing all this stuff and feeling as fractious and unhappy as ever before." Deep inside, Heather feels that she doesn't deserve her handsome, successful husband or the affluent lifestyle they've attained. The extra pounds she puts on and her regrets over the hurts she inflicted on two neighborhood kids in her childhood nag at her and make her insecure. Conflicted about her past, Heather weeps over injustice and poverty --- then writes a check or gives away some possessions, replacing them with something newer and better. But nothing erases the poverty in her spirit. "We have it all, don't we? We get along, live comfortably. But what's it all for, really, in the long run?" Heather muses.
Over at "The Hotel," Sister Jerusha is working with the down-and-out druggies, the very dregs of society. A check isn't going to get her off Heather's mind. But it takes a direct sign from God (in this case, a kangaroo crossing the road) and the friendship of two delightful elderly women, one a Quaker, to get her life moving again in the right direction. As Anna wisely tells Heather: "…You'll find if you open yourself up to the possibility God is found in locales you've never imagined, you'll meet Him in all sorts of faces and places you never thought possible."
Some of the faces and places are downright dangerous. Heather discovers that it's one thing to risk your own life pursuing the things of God, but how far will she trust God with the child she loves the most?
Samson has a knack for interesting descriptions: a laugh that "sparkles like a sequined scarf" (she loves the word "sparkle") or Heather's friend Lark who "lives inside her anxiety like other people would live inside their underwear if it were made of fiberglass insulation but somehow can't imagine wearing anything else." Little nuggets of wisdom can be mined throughout. One of my favorites: "I once heard someone say that we only change when staying the same becomes even more frightening." Or this quote from Ghandi: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."
Laudably, Heather's changes don't happen overnight; rather, she takes baby steps to discover who she is meant to be. Samson's competent writing shines on every page, and her trademark quirky characters (who are nevertheless believable and not overdrawn) will delight readers. She also eschews the easy cliché, such as the over-performing mothers of Will's schoolmates who, on closer examination, may not be callous, just clueless.
And just as in her previous novel, STRAIGHT UP, Samson doesn't feel the need to tie up everything in a feel-good, happily-ever-after sort of ending. Life is messy, and as Heather discovers, even your best intentions and true remorse can't always change the past. "Sometimes life must remain fragile, and forgiveness, while always sought, cannot be achieved." In this, she learns her own need for grace and that she must extend it to others, even when undeserved. Readers will discover plenty to ruminate on in this absorbing novel.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on February 6, 2007