This is not my type of book. I have not read similar books, not even The Help, so I cannot make comparisons within the genre. Even the food that Elaine Hussey describes so lovingly in this book is utterly foreign to me.
But, that aside, I do not doubt The Sweetest Hallelujah (Harlequin MIRA, August 2013), as a celebration of friendship and family, will appeal to many other people.
Former jazz singer Betty Jewel Hughes lives in Shakerag, Mississippi, with her elderly mother, Queen, and her 10-year-old daughter, Billie. Betty Jewel’s former husband, a charismatic trumpet player, drug addict, and alcoholic called Saint, is gone from their lives, arrested before Billie was born. All that remains of him are Betty Jewel’s painful memories and a broken-down tour bus that is Billie’s refuge.
Betty Jewel herself is dying of cancer, and in a moment of desperation puts an ad in the town newspaper, for a loving mother for her child. The ad catches the eye of widowed part-time reporter Cassie Malone, who decides to write a story about Betty Jewel and Billie, much to the displeasure of nearly everyone else in the segregated, 1950s Mississippi town.
It’s clear from the beginning how the story is going to end. There are no 11th-hour interventions, no miracle cures, and no—despite the stories Billie tells—guardian angels descending from on high to fix everything. The destination is not the point of this; rather, the journey is.
The Sweetest Hallelujah has a large cast of female characters, including Betty Jewel’s two best friends, Sadie and Merry Lynn, and Cassie’s sister-in-law, lawyer Fay Dean. Queen is a powerhouse of a character as well, and when the women work together they triumph over any peril they face. It is their friendships and their familial relations that are most valued in this novel; romantic relationships serve only as a background to help explain how all of these women wound up where they were.
Every emotion is amplified, every voice is loud and vehement, and any plot twist can be spotted by a discerning reader chapters ahead. The prose is either rich or overdone, depending on one’s perspective, and the elaborate, poetic, potentially perilous, metaphor-filled descriptions—of people, places, feelings—can go on for paragraphs. Hussey delves into each character’s soul and dredges up virtues and vices and, undeniably, significant depth. Sadie and Betty Jewel’s family in particular feel real enough to step off of the page. Anyone who remembers being 10 years old can sympathize with Billie, and anyone over the age of 15 will wince at the thought of her doing half of what she considers rational and necessary. Surprisingly, Cassie is the one character that comes off as flattest, despite her passion and fieriness; she seems almost too pure-intentioned, too good, too ahead of her time to be believed.
If you like stories centered around characters and their relationships, read this book. If you like to know where the story will end and learn slowly how it will get there, read this book. If you cry at Lifetime movies, read this book—with tissues on hand. If you are sick of romance in your dramas, read this book and rejoice. If fried chicken and okra and cornbread and gravy are the tastes of your childhood or If you hear jazz trumpets in your sleep, read this book.
If you get lost in metaphors, bring a map.