A nun-in-training finds her true calling caring for a dysfunctional Angeleno family in Samartin’s determinedly upbeat third novel (Tarnished Beauty, 2008, etc.).
Sent by her Mother Superior to live in the world for six months before taking final vows, 21-year-old El Salvadoran refugee Ana accepts a temporary position with Adam and Lillian Trellis, caring for their hellion preschooler Teddy. Lovely, spoiled Lillian is pregnant. Brooding, ruggedly handsome Adam, a financier, intimidates yet captivates Ana. Homage to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is obvious throughout, beginning with the dark secret in Adam’s past. Once a piano prodigy, he hasn’t touched the family Steinway since his parents and chauffeur died in a car crash while en route to his recital. Live-in housekeeper Millie, the chauffeur’s widow, is now a wretched alcoholic whom Adam continues to employ out of guilt. Lillian, an unapologetic nymphomaniac, takes a succession of lovers, including Adam’s brother Darwin. When Teddy almost drowns as a result of Lillian’s insistence that fencing the pool will ruin her cocktail party, Ana rescues the boy and is rescued herself by Adam. Soon she’s infatuated but keeps her devotion a secret. Thanks to Lillian’s indifferent parenting, Ana’s hiatus from the convent stretches to 20 years. She becomes indispensable to the family and restores a semblance of peace. Millie joins AA, Adam begins playing piano again; only Lillian is incapable of change. Once their two children are grown, she leaves Adam, freeing him to confess his love for Ana. The new couple’s happiness is tempered by a diagnosis of cancer. Like Jane Eyre, Ana becomes the master’s caregiver. She also becomes pregnant, but unlike Mr. Rochester, Mr. Trellis dies before learning the blessed news. No spoiler here: The narrative begins with Ana at her beloved’s deathbed and bounces confusingly around in time from then on. In contrast to Samartin’s previous novels, the temptation to let romanticism deteriorate into shameless sentimentality was seemingly irresistible this time.
Earnest, but the main characters’ saintliness dilutes the drama.