More Strange Than Kind
The Kindness of Strangers by Julie Smith
Nothing is ever what it seems. Or at least, that is what Julie Smith would have you believe in her novel The Kindness of Strangers. A mistress of mood setting, Smith lures you into the enigmatic land of Louisiana with a promise that nothing you believe about the state can be taken for granted. Or if it is, you shouldn't be sleeping easy knowing that such a place exists and is breeding such sinister mayhem.
Nothing is ever what it seems. Smith teases the reader with seemingly normal scenes:
* A teenager's birthday party
* A cop who is under stress
* A warm psychologist building a happy home
* A teenager's poetic would-be love affair
* A mayoral campaign with no good choices
But in each of these overly familiar tableaus, Smith adds a sinister twist reminding us that stereotypes are cultivated to mislead and the familiar is not always the safe.
Smith creates tension by tantalizing us with a comfortable seat that we learn only too late was a lure and a trap. Then we're engrossed in the book and must go along for the ride until she exposes all of the corruption and danger and offers a hint of resolution.
Unfortunately, the book fails to live up to the expectations set in the first few chapters. It's a book filled with teasers. We meet characters we think we will like, but we witness little development in them. The good are good, the angst-filled remain angst-filled, and the evil are evil. There is no discovery in this novel. Even the image-filled writing that evokes such strong passions in the beginning of the novel peter off as the pages turn. Like the hurricane that blows through the final pages of the novel, we become flooded in prose that has lost its power. Not that it is ever bad, it just doesn't stay as good as it started out.
The main character, a cop by the name of Skip Langdon, is on leave from the police while she sorts out her emotions over killing a man. On the flimsiest of intuitions, she decides to "get" a mayoral candidate whom she believes is evil. It turns out she's right, but I think it's because she had an inside track with the book's author, not for any reasons apparent in the plot of the novel.
Smith does a good job of portraying caricatures. She re-creates many stereotypes with a respectful depth. She gets extra points from me because she is one of the few authors I've read who portrays large women sympathetically. They are not merely poor wrecks who don't want to devote all of their free time to obsessing over calories and exercising nor are they sloppy, dull-witted women. No, her large women are powerful and remind me of Maya Angelou's poem Phenomenal Woman.
The Kindness of Strangers is, in many ways, a setup for a series. Although it is the only Julie Smith book I have read, I can tell that there were books that came before and books that will come afterward. I don't think it is meant to stand alone. Instead, it is meant as a bridge in the series.
If you're looking for a strong, plot-driven, suspense novel, look elsewhere. If you want a book with strong imagery, interesting characters, and great mood-setting, then give this book a try. However, I'd recommend borrowing it from the library.--B. Redman