Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: The Sweetest Hallelujah

Summary: An unforgettable story of two courageous women brought together by one extraordinary little girl 

Betty Jewel Hughes was once the hottest black jazz singer in Memphis. But when she finds herself pregnant and alone, she gives up her dream of being a star to raise her beautiful daughter, Billie, in Shakerag, Mississippi. Now, ten years later, in 1955, Betty Jewel is dying of cancer and looking for someone to care for Billie when she's gone. With no one she can count on, Betty Jewel does the unthinkable: she takes out a want ad seeking a loving mother for her daughter. 

 Meanwhile, on the other side of town, recently widowed Cassie Malone is an outspoken housewife insulated by her wealth and privileged white society. Working part-time at a newspaper, she is drawn to Betty Jewel through her mysterious ad. With racial tension in the South brewing, the women forge a bond as deep as it is forbidden. But neither woman could have imagined the gifts they would find in each other, and in the sweet young girl they both love with all their hearts. Deeply moving and richly evocative, The Sweetest Hallelujah is a remarkable tale about finding hope in a time of turmoil, and about the transcendent and transformative power of friendship. -- Harlequin

I'm embarrassed to say that I'm very far behind in writing reviews. In fact, I still have a few books to review from when I was at the beach in August. One of them is THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH by Elaine Hussey. I am pretty sure that I requested this novel from Shelf Awareness; and since the major theme was the power of friendship, I decided that it sounded like a great book to pack in my beach bag.

THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH tells the story of two women -- Betty Jewel, a former jazz musician who is now dying from cancer; and Cassie, a recently widowed woman who works as a journalist for the local paper. Betty Jewel is a single mother to a young daughter Billie, and she writes a newspaper ad looking for someone to take care of Billie after she dies. Cassie sees the ad and becomes intrigued. Somehow, Betty Jewel and Cassie overcome these racial tensions (among other things) and manage to develop an incredibly strong friendship all in the name of love for Billie.

I actually have mixed feelings about THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH. On one hand, it was a quick read and did manage to touch my heart. But you know, I'm a sucker for books about female friendships. However, I also thought it was a little too saccharine and predictable. For many reasons, I think this story would have been a better movie than a book.

Despite not loving this novel, there were still some very positive aspects of the story. For example, the novel takes place in the deep South in 1955, and I thought the author did a fairly good job of bringing that time period to life. I appreciated how she explored the prejudices in the small town, and I even think she brought to life the plight of both black and white women in this time.

Another thing I appreciated about this novel were the characters. Ms. Hussey created some memorable characters in Betty Jewel and Cassie, and I couldn't help but root for them. I liked their initial pre-friendship exchanges and then I really liked how their relationship was portrayed after they became close. Furthermore, I loved how the author incorporated some humor into their characters, especially considering how sad much of this story was.

I also enjoyed how the story in THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH was told. The book alternated between Billie Jewel's, Cassie's, and Billie's voices, and for the most part, I liked how the author wrote each of their parts. As a reader, I appreciated getting an inside view into each of these character's minds and hearing the story through each of their perspectives.

I guess my biggest issue with the novel is that there were parts of this story that were pretty far-fetched. I don't want to give many specifics because I think they'd be considered spoilers. Just suffice it to say that I don't think these two women would forge such a strong friendship in such a short period of time. Of course, there's the whole black/white thing which would make their friendship difficult; however, there is also a lot of baggage, hurt feelings, and resentment. I wanted to believe that they would be so close, but I just couldn't totally accept it.

I think THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH would make a good book club pick. I'm sure there will be plenty of readers who love this book and the characters, and I bet there could be some terrific discussion about why the book worked for some and not others. There is a reading guide available with nine questions that is included in the back of the book. Some of the topics you might want to talk about include the significance of music, racial relations, sacrifice, love, forgiveness, and family.

Overall, I think there is an audience out there for THE SWEETEST HALLELUJAH. I recommend it for fans of women's fiction and readers who appreciate stories with strong female characters.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Sandy Nawrot said...

Don't you feel sometimes, with books like this, that your chain is being yanked? The first thing that came to my mind when I started reading this was "Beaches" which makes for a great cry movie but you know all along you are being manipulated.

bermudaonion said...

It sounds like this was a good book for the beach.

Beth F said...

This is probably not for me, since I often have trouble with light women' fiction.

Kim@Time2Read said...

I'm sorry you found some of this a bit far-fetched. It actually sounds like a pretty good story from the synopsis. But I'm not sure it is worth the time reading if it so 'unrealistic'. Maybe I'll wait for the movie.
Thanks for the review!

Yuska said...

Among all book bloggers that I follow, yours is on my top list. I want to read everything that you read.