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Friday, October 10, 2008

Copout Ending, Bland Characters Sours New Thriller For Me

Have you ever wondered what would happen if Jesus returned to the Earth in the guise of some obscure human and began performing miracles? If you saw a man with Christ-like abilities on t.v. healing the sick, preaching love and warning against greed, what would you think? Would you fall on your knees, praising God, or would you shake your head and mumble, "Yeah, right?" What If ... ?, by Steve N. Lee, proposes this exact question.

The book opens on Christmas Eve, with reporter Mary Shelley standing outside a bar wondering if her life could possibly get any worse. Moments later, it does exactly that. When her drunk boyfriend slams on his brakes to avoid an oncoming car, Mary flies through the windshield. Next thing she knows, she's waking up in a hospital room. Although witnesses say a vagrant molested her while she was unconscious after the crash, she has no memories of the violation. In fact, despite the fact that she's covered in blood, Mary feels fine. Weirdly, the doctors can find nothing wrong with her - no cuts, no hemorraghing, no nothing. Weirder still, the diabetes she's fought her whole life seems to have disappeared. There's simply no explanation. All Mary can remember is the blue, blue eyes of the homeless man - what had he done? Attacked her or healed her?

The more she investigates this vagrant - a John Connolly - the more Mary becomes convinced of his healing power. As soon as he walks out of prison, she pounces, demanding answers. What she finds is a complex, intelligent man who desires only to be left alone. With visions of world peace dancing in her head, Mary convinces John to use his gift to help the sick. Her purposes are two-fold: not only will she have some small part in changing the world, but she will also get a career-making expose. So, the two embark on a covert healing mission. As they fly across the country visiting hospitals, Mary sees the miracles with her own eyes - John cures cancer-ridden children; erases Alzheimer's; and destroys tumors. With a gift like that, he could be making millions, but John wants nothing in return. He desires only that his actions help people.

Despite their efforts to keep their identities secret, John and Mary are soon mobbed by journalists, protestors and thrill-seekers. Jaded cop Ben Cale offers his security services. Thanks to John's healing powers, the trio become the guests of multi-millionaire Rashid Al-Alawi, who is eager to help with the business side of miracle-making. A reluctant mobster also joins forces, rounding out John's most intimate fan club. With Rashid's money they are able to fund all kinds of healing journeys. The only problem is that John's miracles seem to be attracting the wrong kind of attention - Non-Christians are enraged, religious leaders skeptical, even the President of the United States is starting to panic. Even Mary, who believes in John 100%, begins to think they've bitten off more than they can possibly chew. With terrorists on their tail, a mobster in their midst and John and Rashid meeting without the other members of the "team," her faith begins to falter.

When Mary stumbles across Rashid's hidden computer files, she's shocked at the plan he and John have been concocting. Is the healer really trying to save the world? Or is he more interested in amassing billions? Will his plan to topple government and cripple economies really relieve the poor? Or is it the crazy dream of a raving lunatic? By exposing his secrets, Mary could lose everything, including the only man she has ever loved. Godly or greedy? She has to decide before the whole world comes crashing down around her.

Even though What If ... ? bears some resemblance to Jodi Picoult's recent novel, Change of Heart, I still think the idea of a modern-day Jesus makes for an interesting story. The book also makes excellent points about faith, tolerance and love. Despite its 70s cover, sloppy editing and unimaginative title, it's a much more intriguing book than it appears to be at first glance. My issues are really only with the story-telling. For one thing, I found the characters lacking in both personality and charm. John, especially, rubbed me the wrong way with his cold, smug attitude. I also didn't feel any chemistry between the main players. Furthermore, the plot felt contrived - Mary just happens to put all her trust into a convict who just happens to be a stand-up guy; after years of laying low, Mary just happens to be able to convince John to come out of hiding; the two just happen to meet a multi-millionaire willing to fund their operation; Mary follows after John like a puppy dog, without having to worry about work, family or any obligation whatsoever. To me, the characters' motives weren't strong enough, and 2 and 2 just didn't always equal 4. Still, I was prepared to give the story a grade in the B range until I came to the grand finale. Sam Houston warned readers not to read the ending first, and I'm glad I didn't, because I loathed it. I would not have opened this book at all if I had realized what a copout ending awaited me. Ugh. After reading 349 pages (with some serious sag in the middle), I think I deserved something more satisfying.

Like Picoult's book, this one made me think. It's nowhere near as subtle and effective as Change of Heart, but it makes readers ask the same kinds of questions. Even though it's preachy, I like its message of peace and love. It's also a fast, compelling read that some people really liked (check out its Amazon reviews here). However, the crap ending coupled with bland characters just soured this book for me. My advice? Stick with the Picoult.

Grade: C


  1. I have noticed this book is getting mixed reviews. I've been on the fence about reading it myself, not sure it was something I'd care to try. Thank you for your honest and great review.

  2. Hi Susan,

    I just wanted to thank you for reviewing my novel, even though it's far from the review I was hoping for. It just shows how different people get very different impressions from the same book. But don't worry, I'm not going to be an ogre and staunchly defend my work in the face of the slightest of criticisms, but, if you don't mind, I will let other reviewers address the points you've raised

    For example, you mention Book Chase's reviewer Sam Houston's warning not to read the ending first - that was not because he thought it was bad, but on the contrary, because he thought it was so good! As did book reviewer Christine over at She Reads Books.

    As for bland characters? "The characters seemed fully human" according to book reviewer Bethany at B & B Ex-Libres.

    Sloppy editing? J.C. of Bookfoolery and Babble said in her review "it was beautifully edited".

    I won't go on as I'm sure you get the idea.

    As for the 'copout' part of the ending? I always think copout endings come about because writers simply can't be bothered to work out the ending their story deserves. On the other hand, my ending came about because it was simply the only one that truly fitted this story, which is why I believe so many readers have found it so satisfying.

    You also prove an important point here, too: the value of an ending. For 349 pages you graded this book B, then one page turned it into a C. I've always held that a great ending can lift a mediocre book and a poor one can drag down a great story - it's a pity that on this occasion, the vote went against me instead of delivering an A.

    Thanks, Susan,
    Steve N. Lee
    author of suspense thriller 'What if...?'
    and eco-blog

  3. LF - The reviews I've seen have been generally positive, and in general, I liked this book. But, there were also things that really bugged me about it.

    Steve - Thanks so much for your very un-ogre-like response. If there is one thing I have learned from reviewing, it's that everyone looks for different things in books. That's great, because there are so many different kinds of books out there. Something for everyone, you know?

    You're right - I did sort of take Sam's quote out of context. I apologize for not making his opinion clearer. The ending is certainly a surprise - it's just not a surprise I liked!

    As for bland characters and sloppy editing - I am very character-centered. If a character doesn't feel real to me, then I don't feel like I know them. This makes me care little about what happens to them. Editing issues (and I should have emphasized copy editing - typos, words missing, etc. just jolt me out of the story. It's a big pet peeve of mine.

    I do think endings are vital to a story. If readers aren't satisfied by a book's finale, it sours the whole reading experience, especially if it's been a long (300+ page) experience. I know other reviewers found your ending surprising, dramatic, unpredictable, etc. Personally, I think an ending should be both surprising and predictable, if that makes any sense.

    I'll put the question out there, and see what everyone says - Can an unsatisfying ending spoil a book for you? Do you like things to be neat and tidied up at the end or are you okay with a more ambiguous ending? Have there been any books with endings you hated so much that you never read anything else by that author?

    Thanks, Steve, for your comments and emails. I really appreciate the dialogue!

  4. What I find interesting is that Steve is going around commenting on all his reviews, defending his books. I also didn't like it, and I also got a long comment about why I was wrong in my review. I agree with you, though: interesting premise, interesting ideas, lousy execution (and ending!).

  5. I have this book in my review pile. Now I'll be interested to see what I think of it.

  6. Wow, excellent review!! I have not seen this book before, but the description of the story sounds good. I will have to check it out.
    As for your question on whether an unsatisfying ending ruins a story for me, I have to say this. I have had that experience where I have enjoyed the book and the ending completely throws me. I will honestly say that it does have an effect on the overall impression of the story, but more than anything, I just get ticked off and want to throw the book, lol!


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