Three strangers --- Willy, Ozena and Shaq --- have all but lost their last shreds of hope amidst the challenges they face. With no plausible reason for their lives to cross paths, the trio comes together amidst a combination of unusual circumstances. Faith, love and friendship intertwine throughout RETURN POLICY to reveal that with God, there is always hope.
Willy Finneran enjoyed a short run as a genre novelist while living with his girlfriend, Lucy. But five years have passed since Lucy walked out on him, and his heart still aches for her. Lucy, however, is not the only thing affecting his heart, which he received via transplant at age 14. According to Willy’s calculations, he probably doesn’t have more than a year or two to go. In the meantime, his writing career has plummeted and his “Things to do before I die” list has only two items checked off. “Find Jesus again” is not one of them, nor is “Kill the espresso maker,” despite his best efforts. Willy sees the espresso maker as a constant reminder of Lucy and has repeatedly tried in vain to break it. In desperation, he calls the customer service department to request they break it for him.
Answering Willy’s peculiar call is Ozena Webb, the single mother of a mentally crippled 12-year-old boy obsessed with playing board games. The boy’s mental problem is the result of an early childhood accident in which Ozena’s husband failed to watch the toddler in the bathtub. The near drowning depleted the boy’s brain of oxygen, resulting in permanent damage. Her husband fled, leaving Ozena to raise the boy alone. Much as she loves him, she is desperate to have something more in her life. Ozena is intrigued by Willy’s strange request, while Willy finds some level of comfort in talking to Ozena. His initial call becomes the first of many conversations. Little by little, the two go beyond the boundaries of discussing the diehard espresso maker.
When Willy is involved in a bizarre car accident, he is sentenced to community service and must temporarily live at a homeless shelter. It is there he meets Shaq, someone who, under normal circumstances, would not have played a role in his life. Shaq has his own variety of demons to battle. Unsure of his own identity, Shaq is tortured by blank spots in his memory, which he fills in with a conglomeration of fact and fiction. He feels sure that Willy played a key part in his past, but his Swiss cheese memories can’t figure out any details. What he doesn’t know is that Willy, instead, will play a significant role in his future.
Willy’s perspective on life is turned upside down by his new life at the homeless shelter, but that’s nothing compared to what Lucy has in store for him. When she re-enters the picture after a five-year absence, she discloses a secret that rocks Willy’s world.
In the meantime, Ozena becomes more than a customer service agent. Getting to know each other in bits and snippets, she and Willy decide to meet face-to-face. One day, Ozena shows up at the homeless shelter. Before the night is over, the consequences of that brief visit will dramatically change the course of several lives. For some, this will lead to the emergence of faith long buried.
RETURN POLICY is cleverly written and distinct in the voices of its colorful characters. At times the storyline feels a bit far-fetched, but the writing is consistently good. Drama, humor and plenty of quirkiness flow together throughout the pages to keep the novel intriguing.
Reviewed by Susan Miura on May 12, 2009