2 out of 4 stars
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Right off the bat, Jackie Goldman’s Awakening piques the interest with the visual elements embedded in the narrative. Our protagonist, Tess Shapiro, isn’t only a grade school teacher and a divorced mother of two; she’s also an amateur artist who fantasizes about being a spy. Through Tess’ comic book — several panels of which are strewn across the pages of Awakening — we meet spunky international spy and Tess’ alter ego of sorts, Andrea Chambers. With fiction mirroring reality, Andrea is first shown dealing with her husband’s infidelity — by promptly bashing his head in. In real life, Tess has just divorced her philandering husband, and there’s quite a bit of repressed anger festering beneath the surface.
That aside, Tess has a lot more on her plate. A single father at her school has asked her out, and though the attraction is mutual and he’d be leaving in a year anyway, Tess wonders about the ethical implications. Meanwhile, a series of terrorist attacks has been escalating overseas, striking close to home and threatening the peace of the French community Tess serves. Then Tess’ ex-husband contacts her with more life-changing news, pushing her to the end of her rope. Andrea Chambers can take on anything, but can Tess Shapiro?
There’s never a dull moment in Tess’ story — this much is certain. As we have a protagonist who projects an idealized version of herself through a comic-book alter ego, readers can readily relate to the themes of self-acceptance and self-expression that are prominent throughout. Goldman’s portrayal of a mother trying to do what's best for her children gives the story heart, but the element of Tess’ artistry (which drew me to the book in the first place) isn’t as developed as I'd hoped. Though not outstanding, Noelia Dickson’s illustrations are charming additions to the story, and I wish they are weaved more tightly into the plot.
Awakening kept an even pace as it explored Tess’ internal and external world, but the plot is pulled in far too many directions that proved too much to cover in just over 200 pages (131 in my e-book reader). Tess’ struggles to start anew, to find love, and to get closure with her ex-husband are sufficient materials for one book. Add in the subplots of Tess losing touch with her Jewish heritage and the revelation of a family secret along the way and we’d have a good-enough family drama. Tess playing the sleuth in what is purportedly a mystery of international proportions seems a tad too ambitious for the novel’s length. As a result, the book’s twist — which may have been mind-blowing had the mystery been given more time to take root — comes across as preposterous and far-fetched.
Goldman’s prose has a good dose of lyricism and wry humor, but many portions tend to get bloated with adjectives (e.g., “white candlesticks in their silver holders cast buttery halos on the blue and white linen tablecloth”). The use of interrupters in many of the sentences also tends to disrupt the reading process. Although editing errors are minor (a missing hyphen here, an excess comma there), there are more than enough to warrant another round of proofreading.
As a family drama with a touch of romance, Awakening is a fairly interesting read. As a mystery, however, it's missing the intensity and suspense that you’d expect to find in this genre. Readers who like character-driven books will find someone to root for in Tess, but those who prefer plot-driven narratives may get frustrated with the rather busy and unfocused story. All things considered, I rate Awakening 2 out of 4 stars.
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