Please Give Me Characters I Can Believe


I am willing to invite into my Kindle or bookshelf fictional characters I would not invite to dine at my table. I don’t have to like them to read their stories to the end. But I do have to believe they are authentic in order to give them a place in my life and time. I downloaded Tears at Night (Book 1, Praise Him Anyhow) by Vanessa Miller as a free book on my Kindle a few days ago. When I got around to reading it, I simply couldn’t believe the characters.

Carmella Marshall has been married to Nelson, a prominent judge, for over twenty years. After they married, she put him through law school and then he wanted her to be a stay-at-home mom to their two children, Joy and Dontae, after they were born. He also expected her to be the perfect hostess for his fundraising events in their home. She gained a reputation for her cooking and baking. Nothing unbelievable about that so far.

As the book opens, Carmella is taking Nelson’s favorite sweet potato souffle out of the oven when Nelson says, ‘I’m leaving you.’ Carmella had her Christian praise music on so loud she hadn’t heard him. So he repeats his statement. She thinks he’s just leaving on a business trip, but he clears up that misconception by telling her he’s leaving for good, wants a divorce, and will leave papers on the table for her to sign in a couple of days. She says she won’t sign them.

Up until this time, Carmella has assumed they were a happy Christian couple. Their son, Dontae, a senior, is away at football camp. He expects to be admitted to Harvard, his father’s alma mater, the next year. Their daughter Joy, who is in law school, works in Nelson’s law office. When Carmella asks what she should tell the children about Nelson’s wanting a divorce, he says the children are old enough to handle it.

It doesn’t work out that way. Joy and Jasmine are roommates and when we meet Joy, she is helping Jasmine move to a new house where she will live with her mystery man whom she has been seeing somewhat secretly for some time. They are relaxing in the large and elegant home waiting for Jasmine’s new boyfriend to arrive so Joy can finally meet him.

Joy has long suspected this man was married since he never picked up Jasmine for dates and the two were sneaking around. Joy couldn’t condone this behavior because she grew up with Christian parents who had gone to church every Sunday. Her father had run for judge on a platform of the family values he had tried to instill in his children. But Joy and Jasmine had been roommates since college, now attended law school, and both worked in Judge Nelson Marshall’s law office.

They were planning to open their own law firm when they graduated. For the sake of their friendship, Joy had gone ahead and helped Joy move her things, teasing her that her boyfriend should have helped with the heavy lifting. Joy herself is engaged to Troy, someone honorable — like her father.

The girls have had pizza delivered and are sitting around eating it and recovering from unloading the moving truck. Jasmine went into the kitchen to get some drinks when the doorbell rang again. So Joy answered the door, and I probably don’t need to tell you that she opened it to see her father. Since Joy hasn’t heard about his leaving her mother yet, she assumes he’s heard where she was and was intending to pick her up and take her home. Joy figures things out quickly when Jasmine comes out of the kitchen and gives Nelson a big kiss. Joy prepares to leave as Jasmine gloats. Nelson says to Jasmine, ‘This isn’t how I wanted to tell her….You had no right bringing Joy here without letting me know.’

Joy is confused and no longer trusts men. She breaks her engagement because she thought her father was honorable and he turned out not to be, so she’s now not sure if Troy is as honorable as she always thought. Poor Troy doesn’t understand why Joy suddenly thinks he’s going to cheat on her after he’s always treated her well.

Meanwhile. Carmella is trying to adjust. She really has convinced herself that Nelson is just going through midlife crisis and will be back after a few more months. So she’s back in the kitchen, listening to her praise music when Joy enters and asks why no one told her about her dad leaving? Joy tells her mother about her father and Jasmine living together and her mother won’t believe it at first. When she finally does, she begins laughing hysterically and can’t stop.

Joy calls Rose, her mother’s best friend to come and offer support. They discuss a few emotionally charged options like baking Nelson and Jasmine a cake full of poo, but Carmella doesn’t want to ruin one of her beautiful cakes.

When Rose encourages her to fight, Carmella admits she doesn’t know how. She tells Rose, ‘All I’ve ever done is be Nelson’s obedient pup, run his errands, and take care of his house. I haven’t even put the degree I worked so hard to get to use in over twenty years.’ Then she started to cry “like tears were rain and she was doing her part to end an all-consuming drought. “Carmella retires to her bedroom and Joy brings her something to eat, even though Carmella has no appetite.

A call from the bank wakes Carmella the next morning. The mortgage payment hadn’t been made. The next call tells her the payment on her car is delinquent.  She calls Nelson at the office and screams at him about the bills. She expresses anger when Nelson tells her, ‘No one is belittling what you did for our family. But don’t you think it’s time for you to get a job and handle your own bills?’

She replies he’s the one who left after she had put him through law school and then taken care of his house, raised their children and entertained his business associates for over twenty years. It was his idea that she not have a career outside the home. If he wants to “live a double life he’d better find the money to pay for it.” He tells her to sign the divorce papers and he’ll give her a ‘decent settlement.’

She hangs up in fury and is about to throw the phone against the wall when Joy appears with Dontae, whom she just picked up at the airport. He has no idea what is going on. Joy takes him into another room and explains everything. He says he’s going to see their father and takes off in his Mustang. Carmella takes to her bed and Joy begins to question the direction of her own life. She has already broken the relationships with both Jasmine and her father. She also decides to quit law school and to resign from her job in her father’s office.

About this time Troy calls to find out why he hasn’t heard from her in a couple of days. She projects her anger and disillusionment with her father onto Troy rather unfairly and insinuates he can’t be trusted either.

After she hangs up, she’s about to return to her apartment when the phone rings again. Dontae is calling to say he’s in jail for vandalizing his father and Jasmine’s house by throwing rocks through their window. Jasmine had called the police. Nobody in the family has enough money on hand to bail him out except Nelson, and he won’t since he wants Dontae to learn that actions have consequences.

Carmella and Joy find this statement ironic, in light of Nelson’s own actions. Carmella finally gets an advance on her credit card to go bail Dontae out.

Joy finds out about the unpaid mortgage and car payment. Dontae says he no longer wants to go to Harvard, his dad’s alma mater. Carmella goes to the kitchen to fix dinner and discovers the faucet is still leaking after she had asked Nelson several times to fix it.

 She grabs a pair of pliers and her car keys and tells Joy she’s going to get Nelson. Joy isn’t able to stop her and Carmella says, ‘Girl, get out of my way.’ Carmella’s eyes are wild as she plows her way out the door, ready to go confront Nelson.

It doesn’t go well. She gets to the house, rings the bell, and sees someone peek through the blinds. No one answers the door. She starts screaming that she wants her husband to come out, to no avail. So she starts shouting in the direction of the neighbors’ houses, screaming ‘That’s right everybody. You’ve got an adultery-committing judge and his slimy teen-aged slut living in this house right here.’

She pointed to their house. She airs all their dirty laundry about how Jasmine had stolen her husband and warns the other women to keep an eye on their own husbands.

That brought Nelson out. They had quite a shouting match, much enjoyed by the neighbors. He finally asks what she wants and she hands him the pliers and almost begs him to come home and fix the faucet. Jasmine insults her, and Carmella attacks Jasmine. 

They get into a physical fight and the neighbors egg them on. Nelson can’t separate them so he finally turns on the sprinkler. Jasmine was then able to escape, but Carmella kept pounding the ground. Finally, someone called the police and they restrained her.

By this time it is evident to all that Carmella has had a breakdown. We see her laughing hysterically and the author says…” her mind had taken her to a happy place…a place of peace. A place where she, Nelson and the kids frolicked on the sandy beach and Jasmine was nowhere in sight.’

At this point in the book, I saw the list of other books by the author that normally comes at the end of the book. My first thought was that was a very strange ending. Then I noticed that on the bottom it said I was only 26% through the book, but I couldn’t get any further in it. I got offers to put other books on my wish list, etc., but no more pages for this story. I finally called Amazon and three tech support calls later I was able to access the rest of the book in a very roundabout way. By the time I got there, I thought I might be reading a different book. 

I would suggest that if you want to read this book, you get it in paper because one other review I read of the Kindle edition indicated the same problem in downloading a complete book. I thought Carmella would wind up in jail, but they had taken her to the hospital and sedated her, instead. Rose and the children sat with her for two days until she woke up.

She decided then to trust God and praise him and see how he would handle her life. She found a good lawyer to help her get a decent divorce settlement. She got the idea of starting a baking business. She rediscovers the man she almost married whose wife has just died and they go out to dinner. She is once again on the road to being able to handle her life. I did not find these characters true to life.

I personally have never known people who acted this way in these situations. I had two neighbors whose husbands left them the same week. I had many conversations with both of them. One simply couldn’t handle it and she killed herself a few months later.

The other one walked with me almost every day and her teen children had a very tough time adjusting. Her thirteen-year-old daughter eventually left school, shacked up with someone, and got pregnant. Then she got a job as a manager of a fast food restaurant. The son, who was older, was still very upset with his dad but showed maturity in finishing school and going into a successful career in real estate. The jilted wife went back to school so she could take up her nursing career again. She eventually found a new boyfriend.

All this took years. Neither woman made a public scene anywhere. They played the hands they were dealt, each in her own way. Both were believable.

If the one had suddenly started handling her life like a new person after listening to a few praise songs on the radio following her release from the hospital after her first suicide attempt, it would not have been believable. Neither was Carmello’s transformation when she was released realistic. The kind of healing she experienced just doesn’t happen that fast. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s highly improbable.

As a Christian who has seen many Christian women struggle in their marriages and seen their responses when their husbands left them, I have never seen any reaction similar to Carmella’s. I have seen shock or surprise when the men left the women who did not suspect their marriage was in trouble. These women have shared their feelings with me. Their faith did help them through their sadness when their marriages fell apart and their husbands moved in with other women.

It seems to me Carmella was in denial when she put the praise album on after Nelson first left. She believed he would come back. She wasn’t believing God was still there for her even if Nelson was gone for good. When she learned Nelson really was leaving to live with a woman she had always trusted in her home, she suddenly had a complete breakdown. She went from denial to complete breakdown in a short time, with seemingly no in between.

I think it was the extremes that seemed most unrealistic to me and made this book unbelievable. Joy’s sudden projection of her feelings about her father onto Troy was irrational. I can see where she might have had doubts and wanted to explore them, but she went way beyond that. The author has little to write that is good about Nelson, though he states he wants his children to be happy. He has an unrealistic view of what a marriage break-up can do to even adult children, even though he is a judge.

Both Carmella and Nelson seem like cardboard characters, not real people. It seems the characters are there to fit the plot rather than the plot evolving from actions consistent with well-developed characters. I suppose that’s why I didn’t see any growth in the characters. I only saw things happen in the plot.

The end of the book seemed quite unrealistic considering what the characters had been through. I didn’t see anyone genuinely walking by faith in what I suppose was intended to be a Christian novel. Faith acts, not just reacts. Faith is not determined by circumstances. It transforms our view of our circumstances, helping us see God in the midst of the bad things that happen.

The theme of this book — handling adversity through God’s strength, had great potential. In my opinion, the author took shortcuts that did not do justice to that theme. In my opinion, we are still left hanging at the end. All the good things fall into place for Carmella unrealistically and far too quickly to be believable. Yes, God answers our prayers, but these answers didn’t seem consistent with God’s usual way of working.

Many who reviewed this book on the Amazon site loved it and found it inspiring.  Maybe I’m the one who just can’t buy into the plot. You may want to read this for yourself to make up your own mind. It’s on a list of best-selling Christian fiction. Maybe I’m just not tuned into the same wavelength as others, but I will not be reading any more in this series, even though I’m a bit curious to see if Carmella will finally marry her rediscovered first love.

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