I want to start by explaining that the author contacted me to review his book, and sent me a complementary copy to facilitate this. All views expressed are my own, and I seek to be as constructive – yet candid – as possible.
Heaven Shining Through opens with our main character, “Sam” Samantha, driving along, looking at the forbidding weather and musing on the depressing things of life.
All well and good. People do do that from time to time. She’s returning to her childhood home, where she dreads dealing with her mom (with whom she has always had an antagonistic relationship).
Then – ZOOP. We jump into a “flash-back” that takes up at least 60% of the book.
The Camera’s Lens
Mr. Siccardi’s pacing is…bizarre? He essentially relates Sam’s entire life, from grade-school through caring for her dying parents. Some parts of it read like a summary, skimming through details and landmarks without real depth.
For instance, Sam has four childhood friends – one of whom doesn’t attend the Catholic school with the rest of them. But only one of these friends plays any meaningful role in the plot. Why do we need first and last names for all these girls (and sometimes nicknames for them)? What purpose is served by even relating Sam’s school days?
We’re told that throughout Sam’s growing up, her mother is critical and abrasive. Her grades are never “good enough,” her behavior is always criticized through the lens the mother’s reputation in the church and community…
Oookay. Some people have bad relationships with a parent or two. But we’re not shown this – we’re told. When Sam gets into high school and college, gets a car, and starts living on the town, we’re told that this causes stress with her mother. The closest we get to being shown is when she gets home late one night and has an argument with Mom. Even her “wild partying with the girls” is relayed just like that: like a summary of what happened, not actually walking us through the characters’ actions to get us invested in them and their struggles.
And then — the camera snaps into slow-mo. As Sam describes meeting the man who will become her husband, the level of detail ratchets up…to the point of describing going to the mall with her girlfriends to get new jeans and nail polish for the first date with this new guy.
(Side note: this was written by a guy. What is with all the descriptions of Sam’s outfits? Not to sound prejudiced, but it kinda felt like he was trying to appeal to the female demographic!)
Once Sam meets this “Chad,” the whole focus of the book is aimed at him and their relationship. From a full, in-depth physical description when he first appears (classic technique of the romance author catering to female readers) to little details about his character (like “he actually listened when I talked” and “he was always courteous and gave me his full attention”), the whole pace of the book stops “skimming” and starts “showing.”
Even the circumstances that lead to them making love before marriage are shown (not the actual act…just the fact that her parents are out of town, the fact he has to leave for Air Force school soon, the elaborate dinner she cooks him, the snuggling by the fire, the unbuttoning of shirts…).
Her emotional breakdown in the aftermath also receives heavy narrative attention. Note: not based on betrayed morality (even though they both had a Catholic desire to “wait”), but rather on the realistically female yet classically tired “Does he still love me?” angst.
I’m going to pause and remind you of what I’m calling the “framing device” — the scene that brought us into this story. Sam returning to her childhood home and facing her mother. This is the image we imprinted on as brand-new readers in this world…this is the conflict that should color and shape everything that is contained herein.
Sam and Chad elope days after their common law marriage, and their parents find this understandably inconvenient. Sam’s mother is especially caustic, and frames all her objections in terms of her own reputation in the community (“What will I tell the priest? What will I say to ___?”).
This returns to our alleged “theme” of the mother-daughter relationship…and yet the narrative focus seems to be on Sam and Chad’s new marriage, getting their first apartment, navigating her graduation from college and his service as an Air Force engineer, etc. Sam’s interactions with her mother are relayed with broad brush strokes…not long, detailed scenes of dialogue that would let us know both these characters better.
(Sheesh, Sam’s wedding dress probably gets more meaningful detail than her mother does. We are told what Mom is like, and a couple times we get to see her actions or hear her words – but in anecdote form. We don’t really get to “ride along” with Sam and “watch” her mother’s behavior, and the mom’s motivations and backstory are never explored.)
Joe Average, Nowhere, U.S.A.
In fact, this lack of connection to the characters plagued the entire book. The strange double-opening probably didn’t help (where we started by talking about one situation, then plunged thirty or forty years back in time to a different situation). However, the broad, generic statements relaying events also weaken our investment in the characters.
Sam is not a close friend…nor does she bump our elbow in the grocery store, apologize while recovering our bags, and start to unwind her life story as we walk together to the check-out. Giving us an intimate, detailed introduction with an intriguing event would make us take notice of even the most ordinary protagonist. But as it stands, she is that weirdo who starts unloading her childhood trauma and exactly how her husband died to perfect strangers.
(On discussing it with my dad, he said it reminded him of Forest Gump. I have never seen that.)
What Is Your Conflict, Here?
Speaking of Chad’s death…
When Sam’s husband dies, we are walked through exactly when the tell-tale signs started…the nerve-wracking consultation with doctors…the passionate parting words before surgery…and the grief therapy she works through with her young children after his death.
Given this level of narrator investment, the book should have opened with some kind of: “The first time I met my husband, we were…” or “This is the story of an incredible man. Though I only knew him for the eleven years of our marriage…”
Almost no scene with Sam’s mother receives this level of attention to detail and character investment. Clearly, the story of romance, marriage, and loss was the real story Mr. Siccardi wanted to tell – as evidenced by the time and effort he spends relaying it.
This is all well and good, but because of the framing device (we open the book and close the book focused on Sam’s relationship with her mother) there’s a heavy implication that everything that happens between should be interpreted as it affects that central relationship.
And, frankly, from the pacing to the dialogue that’s actually recorded to the simple percentage of the book – the Sam-Chad romance takes center stage over the mother drama. Which, to be clear, would not be a bad thing if audience expectations were properly managed.
It’s the misdirecting hand gestures and speed of performance that suggest this magician is an amateur.
Speaking of amateurs, I have to say something in Mr. Siccardi’s favor. The narrative is not wooden or stilted – as it can be in truly inexperienced writers – and while there were some missing words here and there, he clearly has control of the English language.
His bio mentions he’s been an editor, and perhaps that role led him to take a drier, summary-based approach to his story-telling. Maybe he should have told his story as a series of anecdotes, playing up the feeling that this is just a person sitting next to us, telling us about their life – rather than as a novel (or really a novelette) where he (apparently) feels compelled to include all the boring parts that even he doesn’t care about.
To be clear, the “framing device” (as I’m calling it) is technically solid. The description of the clouds is evocative, and the way the end echoes the beginning – yet now with a beam of hope – is poetic and literary.
But again: to focus this much attention to Sam’s “present day” life, and her need to reconcile with her mother, creates expectations for the rest of the book. And I felt that, instead of delivering on those expectations, the author switched subjects, as it were.
Not My Genre
Perhaps I should have mentioned that this is not my genre. Any of my genres. If you consult my “Books” tab (cough) you’ll notice I write in everything from Medieval Historical to Post-Apocalyptic Dystopian to Detective Romance (and soon, hopefully, Sci Fi Suspense).
Fictional Memoir does not feature highly on that list. The last memoir I read was a real autobiography, Time and Again, by and about Bible translators in the Philippines.
You might not think that kind of thing would jive with me, but it did. It totally did. Largely because both the author and I have the same best friend…and as he wrote about the amazing things this Friend had done in his life, I would say to myself, “Yes! That’s the kind of thing He does. Y’know, He’s done some amazing things in my life, too. Isn’t it a small world?”
And that, I think, brings me to my final point:
The book is presented from a Christian standpoint. That’s the point of the title– well, here, I’ll just quote from the actual Amazon description:
Through a nostalgic look back, Samantha recognizes the presence of God in an ordinary life.
So, did my “best friend” show up?
Sam was raised Catholic (meaning moral rules are important), but after marrying she and her husband didn’t attend church until he got it into his head that they should go.
Why? As he said, “Well, we know what we believe, but what about our kids?” (Who were already school age, by the way.)
So they started attending some kind of “Gospel” church with hip music and friendly people, and it was so cool they all loved going back, it “became a part of their lives” (again, as summarily delivered by the narrative – not actually shown through the shifting world-views or changing actions of the characters. Or through actually describing a church service and letting us experience these friendly church people with the characters).
And as for the actual fruit of this church-attending? In the closing scenes of the book, Sam’s son is on his second marriage; there is very little in her own speech or demeanor to indicate she has changed a hair from the start of the book; and when she and her mother have a heart-to-heart to declare that they “always loved each other, really” God barely makes an appearance, if at all.
As for the name of JESUS? Nonexistent.
Reading a lot of books (including a large number from the “Christian” market), I’ve honed my palate to detect an author’s displayed spirituality. NOTE: this does not in any way reflect the personal beliefs or salvation of the author specifically…Robert Ludlum (who is not in any way connected to the “Christian market”) writes books that are much “deeper” as they address philosophy and human nature than a certain unnamed “Christian” author who writes fluff, pure and simple (engaging fluff, to be sure, but once the buzz wears off there’s no nutrition left).
In communicating the gospel (or other spiritual matters), clear communication is paramount. Without saying anything about Mr. Siccardi’s personal soul, I didn’t “taste” anything in his book that reminded me of my Best Friend. If that’s a part of his personal life, he didn’t communicate it very clearly.
There were references to attending church – which is not the same as having a relationship with Jesus.
There’s a value placed on moral behavior – though again, Sam and Chad’s premarital intercourse is angsted over, but ultimately brushed off; a moral lifestyle is not the same as a relationship with Jesus, but there is such a thing as looking at your life’s fruit.
The framing device at either end of the book (and the cover image, in fact) have this idea of sunlight breaking through the clouds as an image of “heaven shining through” – but like so much else in this book, the idea is never shown.
I don’t mean in the sense of describing the literal clouds over Sam’s head being pierced by sunlight – because that literally happens. I mean showing us the work of God in these people’s lives through changed attitudes, altered behavior, redeemed values…
What if Sam’s mother never said, “You know, I always loved and was proud of you, but never said it”? What if instead, Mom was a mean old biddie who tore Sam apart verbally whenever they were together…but Sam through the transforming work of Jesus still nursed her mother faithfully through her last illness and showed her the love of God?
What if Sam and Chad didn’t just let “one thing lead to another,” but ran off and lived together (“living in sin” as they say) until years later, they decide to take their kids to church, are convicted by the Holy Spirit, and through the transforming work of Jesus make themselves an honest couple, ask their parents for forgiveness, and show their children literally through their actions that this whole “church thing” is important?
What if there was some actual driving conflict that pulled inexorably through the entire book?!
Not every book has to be about Christian conversion, or even about some life-changing trial or adventure. But to establish audience expectations that they will actually get to see God’s literal presence in an ordinary life –
Like when we were going to Cameroon, West Africa, for a year of missionary work, we had two weeks to go and still couldn’t order our tickets, and on one day God raised 50% of our required support – and seven days after that we were saying good-bye to our sending church, tickets in hand!
Yeah. That’s what He did in our lives. (In 2005, in case you’re wondering.)
Or take the case of a family in our Sunday School class: at the beginning of this month (June, 2019), their house was damaged by a tornado – all except for the interior closet where they were sheltering! On top of that, God has given them peace and joy while they deal with major reconstruction of their home (can anyone else say, “We’re homeless!” with a big smile on their face?).
Wait, do you know this Best Friend, too? You say that’s just like something He did for you? Wow, it’s a small world!
Grandma’s Life Story
It is possible to write a “work of God in ordinary lives” story – just look at “Two Sets of Joneses” (swoon). (Note what the song does, though: it doesn’t tell us anything about these couples…it gives us brief, vivid pictures of their actions through carefully chosen words – “she bought him a house on the beach”, “he’s flying to Dallas, she’s having a son”, “the guys at the factory took a collection”.)
But Heaven came across even worse than a Family Circus cartoon – pat, sentimental, cliché, unBiblical.
Yes, a good husband can be a good gift from God – look at Ruth. Yes, God’s Spirit comforts us in hard places…and yes, He can use physical, visual reminders to turn us toward Him.
But to make the entire thematic focus of your story on “a ray of sunlight poking through clouds”…feels…shallow. Sure, it’s the kind of time-worn, don’t-know-what-else-to-say warm-and-fuzzy your grandma might tell you at a funeral…but that’s all it is.
In fact, this whole book felt like an old person sitting down in the pew next to you, leaning in a little too close, and telling you their life story – with special focus on the parts that were most meaningful to them.
And all the time you nod politely and rack your brains for which cousin this old bird is related to.
If “Sam” buttonholed me at a funeral home and dumped this on me, I’d probably try to slip the gospel to her somehow…because I don’t get any vibes she’s trusting in Jesus for anything in particular. Just happy that her husband was a “good” one, she made up with her mom before she died, and the sky is picturesque this particular day.
And if she weren’t an obscure relative, but rather some old fuddy-duddy who stopped me in an aisle at Wal-Mart, I’d struggle even more against smiling politely and bolting.
Oh, yes – one final point of similarity between this book and a stranger unloading their life story: it’s short. I knocked it out easily in an afternoon. I admit I’m grateful for that, since I’m kind of behind on my reading goals this year…
Ugh…I told you I wanted to be nice.
But now that I’ve written a review almost as long as the book itself, I have to cut to the chase:
If you want a memoir that talks about God’s provision and work in the lives of ordinary people, read Time and Again. Just do it.
If you want a “sweet” romance where the couple gets along perfectly until the untimely death of one of them, watch the first ten minutes of Up (and then cry like I always do). I guess Heaven would probably scratch that itch, too, though it won’t be a very potent hit.
If you’re looking for a story where a mother and daughter who’ve never gotten along are forced to cooperate and reconcile…yeah, this will deliver a pat, nonsensical resolution that none of the characters really worked to achieve.
Come to think of it, I can’t help wondering if this really is a fictionalized memoir for an actual person?
If I were advising the author, I would suggest he find a strong, compelling source of conflict that could unite the entire book, then include only the characters and scenes that directly tied in to that conflict, and give every part of the story the same “close up focus” and attention that he gave the Sam-Chad relationship.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a novel that explores the struggle of living a Christian witness in the lives of ordinary people, read Not By Sight by Kate Breslin. That wasn’t really my genre, either, but she really won me over.
Alright, I’m done being grumpy. Promise.
P.S. There are like three bad words in case you’re sensitive to that.
Heaven Shining Through is available on Amazon…and I’m just going to say I’d be kinda mad if I paid five dollars for something that took me probably less than four hours to read. But I’m an old grumpkinz who doesn’t like people and I live in a trash can and yell at the neighbors.
The author’s website is: WisdomFromAFather.com. You should go learn about him and be nice to him and give him consolation banana bread after he sees this.
I have a newsletter you can subscribe to for a free book, where I am actually sweet.