As a librarian, I "knew" about Rainwater by Sandra Brown months ago. I've never been a Sandra Brown reader (one of those authors I've just never gotten around to), and this book stuck in my mind mostly because it's a historical set during the Depression. Didn't mean I had any plans to read it though. That is until I read Rosie's musings on the book. That was enough to peak my interest, and knowing that I'm massively behind on my reading, I put myself on the wait list for an audio book copy at work.
The year is 1934 and Ella Barron runs a boarding house in Gilead, Texas. Her husband is not in the picture, and she has a 10-year-old son, Solly, who is autistic. Given the economic climate, she's making a passable living for herself and Solly, although her days are filled with hard work and her personal life is non-existent. That is until the local doctor shows up on her doorstep with David Rainwater. Mr. Rainwater needs a place to live and Ella has an empty room. After some haggling, Ella decides to rent him the room, only to find that his arrival on her doorstep is the first of many changes in her life and in town.
Unrelenting heat and drought have caused the local farmers and ranchers to make heartbreaking decisions in order to ensure the survival of their families. There is a local shantytown filled with desperate men and families who have nowhere else to go, that has caused much sneering among the more well-off townsfolk. Plus, being 1934 Texas, local race relations are....well, what they are. Into this mix is the villain, Conrad Ellis, a vile, hateful bully who arrives on the scene to stir up a mess of trouble.
This is not a romance novel (as we currently define the genre), and while having never read Brown, I still know enough to realize this book is a departure for her. How willing the reader is to roll with this will determine how well they like the book. Frankly, by the end of the first chapter the author has set the tone, and anyone who is left with the hope that they're going to get a Care Bear Rainbow Ending? Yeah, good luck with that.
I'm a reader who hates to feel manipulated, and I've read books of this ilk in the past where stuff comes flying in out of nowhere, like the author was told by someone they had to make the ending depressing at the last minute. I didn't get that feeling with Rainwater. For one thing, Brown pretty much lays her cards out on the table with the first few chapters. As the reader I knew how it was going to end (to a certain extent), it was just a question of the journey the author was going to take to get there.
I suspect many readers will have issues with this "depressing" tone - and while the setting, time period and aspects of the story are heartbreaking, I never felt like Brown was burying me in sadness. This is probably because the character of Ella worked so well for me. Her thoughts, her actions, her undying devotion to a son she so desperately loves but cannot reach, and her feelings for Mr. Rainwater. Frankly the tension between the two main characters is some of the best I've encountered in my recent reading, putting more than a few romance novels I've read this past year to shame.
As I mentioned, I listened to this on audio, and it's hard to say if I would have had the same reaction to this story had I read it. It is a slower story, that simmers through the first half and hits full boil towards the finish line. But I found it to be just about perfect, aided by the excellent narration of actor Victor Slezak. I was riveted to this audio book from the first CD and had to resist taking it out of my car this weekend to finish it up in the privacy of my home office.
I suspect that Rainwater is the kind of book that will divide readers. Rosie hasn't graded it yet because she needed time to think on it, and Keishon, while giving it a B, didn't write the most enthusiastic review for it. But for me? It totally and completely worked. Everything about it. From the audio production, to the narrator, to the story, the bittersweet heartache, just everything. Wow.
Final Grade = A