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Can faith be found again?

Fourth novel aimed at women brims with substance, depth

By Beverly Meyer

ONCE AGAIN, the companionship of a sentient dog underpins the story in  Barbara O’Neal’s new novel, as a black rescue dog provides a grounding influence for characters whose emotional conflicts struggle to find closure.

“The Garden of Happy Endings” centers on Elsa Montgomery, a not-beautiful  but sincere and energetic nondenominational reverend who is suffering a crisis of faith.

Following the shocking murder of a sweet teenage girl in her congregation, Elsa finds herself unable to lead her church, and takes a sabbatical from Seattle to go to her old hometown, Pueblo, Colo. She and Charlie, her devoted dog, take up residence in the small home

she and her beautiful sister, Tamsin,  lived in during their youth.

Pueblo also is  where her former fiancé, now a priest, and Tamsin and her  husband still reside.

Elsa throws herself into volunteer work in the community soup kitchen, while renewing her deep and unbroken friendship with Joaquin, her former lover whose calling to the Catholic Church broke their engagement.

That broken trust and the horror of her young friend’s death in Seattle have wrought a crisis of faith Elsa is unable to resolve.

As luck would have it,  Tamsin also is faced with a crisis, this one familial and financial.

The two sisters must look to each other for support as they search for answers to their separate problems.

At the same time they turn their talents to helping  desperately poor residents—young and old—by creating a community garden in a deserted lot frequented by gang members and “ghosts.”

This book shows the power of  “good energy,”  the healing power of community, the comfort of healthful food and the value of giving.

I found myself moved to tears frequently as I read about Elsa’s rebellion against her formerly devout Catholic faith.  Her painful introspection juxtaposed with her generous goodness and tolerance   struck a strong emotional chord in this reader. And while I’m usually fairly skeptical about talk of the spirit world and psychic energy, O’Neal’s deft weaving of these themes was powerful and effective.

Countering evil with goodness, rudeness with understanding and danger with forgiveness—these behaviors direct  a meaningful story many readers will not soon forget.

O’Neal offers her best work yet.

Beverly Meyer is a copy editor with The Free Lance–Star.

THE GARDEN OF HAPPY ENDINGS     

By Barbara O’Neal

(Bantam, $15, 398 pp.)

Permalink: http://news.fredericksburg.com/books/2012/05/13/can-faith-be-found-again/

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