Raised in a loveless household, a young girl strikes out on her own to find affection and happiness.
Charlise Charmaine Vickery, nicknamed Cha Cha, grows up starved for familial warmth. Her mother, Jolean, is icily distant and perpetually disapproving, and her father, Mr. Vickery, is sweet but numbed by the sadness of his own parents’ premature deaths. After a “joyless wedding,” Jolean inadvertently became pregnant with Cha Cha, and her enthusiasm for motherhood is no greater than for marriage. Cha Cha is stung by her parents’ aloofness, which she can’t help but experience as a wounding rebuke, a sadness poignantly captured by Brown Schwartz (Charlie Purple Turnipseed and the Dixie Brood, 2013, etc.): “Why don’t my parents hug or kiss me? Aren’t children supposed to know how to love?” Her father dies suddenly, and although she’s only a teenager, she’s left to take care of his tree farm and nurse an ailing Jolean. But once her mother passes away as well, Cha Cha, now in her early 30s, is finally free of dreary obligation. She sells the farm and takes off for Divine, Georgia, a location randomly chosen. There, she decides to open a muffin shop and settle down with Ariabella, a donkey she befriends and adopts on the way. And she’s given an opportunity to craft the kind of loving life she was always denied. She meets Rob Brodie, a man whose figure “exuded masculinity.” The two are immediately taken with each other and quickly become close. Also, she makes the acquaintance of a little boy, Sage, whose life has also been troubled and who longs for a welcoming home.
Brown Schwartz writes in a dreamy, childlike style evocative of a fairy tale. One can’t help but expect the story to take a supernatural turn. She expressively portrays Cha Cha’s emotional deprivation, the forlorn consequence of her parents’ collective disappointment with life rather than a dark meanness. Both Cha Cha’s parents are intelligently depicted as complexly contoured: Mr. Vickery’s good nature struggles to shine through his despair, and Jolean keeps the causes of her angst a closely guarded secret. Also, the story is a sweetly inspirational one that cheerfully yanks relentless optimism out of long-standing despair. However, it’s never clear for whom this story is intended. The writing seems created for children, especially given the simple, tenderly earnest prose and dialogue. Even as a woman in her 30s, Cha Cha speaks like a child—consider this characteristic line, addressed to a donkey. “Ariabella, do you want to go with me? I am on a journey and it’s possible we will be a great comfort to each other.” Further suggesting the book is designed for children, it’s festooned with cute illustrative drawings. But incongruently, some themes seem ill-suited to a younger audience, like a scene depicting Cha Cha losing her virginity to Rob in which she sheds tears until Rob promises her first experience won’t be painful. For whomever the story is composed, the plot moves slowly and without much excitement—the author introduces minor dramas so cautiously she seems afraid to startle her readers.
A love story too innocently conceived to titillate adults and too mature to appeal to younger readers.