If ever a reader would root for a character in a novel to grab at a second chance at life, kindly Tom Putnam, the main character in Martha Woodroof's "Small Blessings," would be high on the list. A popular English professor at a small college, he has spent 20 tedious years with Marjory, a shut-in wife too crippled by mental illness to be a partner to him or to live any life of her own. She can’t forgive Tom’s one brief affair with a visiting poetess years ago.
The other member of Tom’s household is Marjory’s mother Agnes, a lawyer who left her profession years ago to help Tom care for the dysfunctional Marjory.
A fresh new face on campus is Rose Callaghan, a quirky 37-year-old hired to manage the coffee room in the campus bookstore and to “build community.” She is immediately popular with everyone — cranky professors, students, little kids. When Tom shakes hands upon meeting Rose, something like an electric charge jolts them both.
That’s not the only bombshell for Tom. A note from the woman with whom he had the brief affair arrives by mail to announce that he is the father of a 9-year-old boy. And that the boy is on a train headed to stay with Tom while the woman is on a trip.
Dismayed and disconcerted? Not Tom! Without much of a family life, he is intrigued and looks forward to the arrival of young Henry.
In her debut novel, author Woodroof draws her characters with wit and wisdom, some admirable and some not so appealing, and she is obviously familiar with the inner workings of a small liberal arts college and the boiling pots of intrigue that can surface there.
Mavis, Rose’s mother, was widowed early and tended bar in various locations as Rose was growing up. Rose doesn’t consider this unusual upbringing bad at all. She learned to make friends quickly, be sympathetic toward people’s stories, but also not to tolerate show-offs or mean drunks. Over the years she absorbed Mavis’ rule that the worst thing you can do in life is turn away from it.
It’s fun to read of Henry’s arrival and Tom’s and Rose’s joyful response to it. Agnes, too, joins in the fun. Major changes, not all of them predictable, are ahead for many characters, leading to a satisfying read. A nice break from holiday business.