Like Fifty Shades of anything, there are titles you just don’t carry around, even to a doctor’s waiting room, lest you be judged by the cover of your book. Joseph Monninger’s latest falls into this category. Its coy cover photograph of a kiss between faceless lovers screams “fluffy romance novel for bored housewives.”
But Margaret From Maine is a better book than its cover suggests. It’s the 17th offering by Monninger, who lives in New Hampshire and teaches at Plymouth State, and sheer output promises workmanlike prose, at the very least. Monninger delivers that, and occasional transcendence, in this solid, if somewhat predictable, story of an unconventional love triangle.
The namesake of the title is Margaret Kennedy, a 31-year-old mother and wife who runs a dairy farm in Maine after her Guardsman husband is catastrophically wounded in Afghanistan. Thomas Kennedy is now in a coma in a Bangor hospital, not expected to recover from his vegetative state. Because he was injured while trying to protect a younger colleague, Thomas was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and his wife has been invited to the White House for the signing of a bill that will improve care for veterans in comas.
Enter Charlie King, who is assigned to escort Margaret to Washington, conveniently sans her 6-year-old son and live-in father-in-law. King is gentle, thoughtful, handsome, dashing, and understands the brutalities of war, having lost a leg for his country. He is smitten with Margaret, and much angst-filled kissing ensues. They are in bed by page 88. A lapsed Catholic, Margaret is torn between her duty to her husband, however unconscious, and her responsibilities to her 6-year-old son and the farm. But it’s been six years since Tom’s injury, and with no hope of his recovery, shouldn’t Margaret from Maine allow herself the chance to experience love again while chasing rhododendron on the Blue Ridge Parkway?
As plots go, this does not have quite the tension of, say, the advance of a pack of bloodthirsty zombies at the edge of Atlanta. Margaret’s dilemma is interesting, but not edge-of-your seat material, even with lovely writing. Nor are the intertwining stories of her son, Gordon, playing with toy soldiers at home under the care of his grandfather; or her best friend, Blake, who’s got marital woes of her own. Yes, we do want to know what happens to all of these people, but it’s like riding in a car driven by your 90-year-old grandmother: getting there takes much more time than seems necessary.
One reason the plot seems so sedentary in places is that Monninger, at his best, is explosively good. The opening chapter, which describes the wounding of Sgt. Kennedy, is electric, as is the later account of Charlie King’s experience in the war. Monninger’s descriptives, too, are compelling. Margaret is “pretty enough for Maine, for rural life” but felt that “if she had moved away her looks would have suffered in comparison with other women.” When she takes off her boots, they “released her feet slowly, gasping as they did,” and the screen-door closing “sets the china in the dining room cabinet to rattling and gossiping.” A toy soldier guards the sleeping Gordon, keeping “his rifled aimed at the dark space under the bed, his vision sharp and ready for the appearance of any monsters, any creatures of bed dust and rug scatter that dared to threaten his boy.”
The oft-lovely writing offsets the lack of page-turner tension, and the result is a fine novel for a book club or vacation read. Right-wingers may take offense at some occasional jabs at the War on Terror and apparent affection for President Obama, but it’s a good, honest look at indecent things that can happen when decent people wind up shooting at strangers in countries they can’t even find on a map. But remember the cover: Despite the military camouflage, the genre is solidly romance. B —Jennifer Graham