English Mill Press, 2006. ISBN 0977218708.
Reviewed by Janet Caplan
Posted on 08/09/2006
Better Days Ahead, the first novel in a trilogy planned by writer Charlie Valentine, is a saga about the lives of four families in 1950s America—the Drakes of Alabama, the Dvoraks of Michigan, the Robbins family of Ohio, and the Strattons of California. The actual timeline runs between 1949 and 1963. It incorporates the major events of the 1950s and early 1960s in America, including racial unrest and the Kennedy assassination.
We are introduced to each family and their trials and tribulations at their points of origin. Then we follow them, as a consequence of their assorted difficulties, to the Strattons' home state of California—the fifties version of the land of hopes and dreams. Various characters intersect there and form relationships. The adults in the four families are introduced to each other and create a bond as a result of the friendships between their children. Hope for the future and sound, healthy family lives are everyone's goals and certainly key points in the novel.
For those looking for a good, meaty story, Better Days Ahead provides a solid read. Ms. Valentine's themes include racism and child abuse as well as such 1950s taboo topics as extramarital affairs and children born out of wedlock. The structure of the book is well suited to the saga format. It is organized so that the reader follows each family through parallel time periods; e.g., Vicky Dvorak in Detroit between 1950 and 1958 with the next chapter devoted to Thom Drake in Alabama during the same years. By creating these segments or blocks of time, Valentine establishes a sense of movement. One feels as if one is being propelled forward through the years. Tension and conflict arise out of the dilemmas, the highs and lows in which the characters find themselves. Valentine, while maintaining many storylines, manages to keep things straight and unconfused.
I did have difficulty with what I thought was stilted and dated language. While recognizing that the 1950s was a more formal period than our current decade, and that Valentine was perhaps attempting to convey that formality through her use of words and phrasing, I found her choice of language somewhat unnatural and, at times, more suited to a soap opera. That aside, the story certainly held my interest and probably would for many women who remember those times. Events of the day provide some of the glue that holds the book together.
The second novel in the trilogy, Harbor Nights, is about these same four families making it through the 1960s and is due to be published in spring 2007. Charlie Valentine is a writer living in Washington State. This is her first novel.
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