Divorced with two kids, on the run from a vicious ex and strapped for cash and credibility, Tandi Jo Reese finds herself two months behind on the rent in the cottage-slash-bungalow she’s renting from an elderly woman (whose lush manse is just across the yard) on Hatteras Island in (on?) the Outer Banks. As is wont to happen when one is dealing with wealthy reclusive old ladies in spacious mansions, Tandi one afternoon finds that Iola Anne Poole has died in her sleep (and left her house to the church). Worried about her living status and desperate for income, Tandi accepts an offer to clean out the old mansion, which is filled with the detritus of numerous years.
But amid the trash, there is treasure: Tandi comes across dozens of decorated prayer boxes that contain hundreds of Iola’s reflections — secret letters, spanning decades of life. Through the prayer boxes, Tandi learns so much more about Iola and—because obvi—herself.
The Prayer Box is about as touching as you would expect from a tale as old as time—flawed woman with relationship issues finds solace and insight through the life of an older, also flawed, but well-loved and well-lived older woman, who is, incidentally, deceased. And with the glaring exception of Fried Green Tomatoes (because duh), it would be fair to say that I usually balk at these kinds of novels, which always seem to include tear-jerky life lessons and covers depicting women’s legs in various states of self-discovery.
But The Prayer Box is only moderately cliche, and the prayer boxes themselves are a welcome caveat to what might have otherwise been a well-worn story. (Editor’s note: The concept initially reminded me of a book I’d read where a mom—dying of a terminal illness—wrote out hundreds of notes and bits of advice for her daughter before folding them into little origami shapes and filling a vase with them. After 20 minutes of searching online, I came to the embarrassing realization that this novel was a “New Adult” book called Point of Retreat that I read because I was “going to write a post about New Adult novels.”.)
ANYWHO. As a lifelong keeper of a Memory Box (replete with everything from Broadway Playbills to 2nd-grade report cards), the emotional magnitude of poring over a life’s worth of reflections isn’t lost on me. …Which isn’t to say that I foresee a down-on-her-luck single mother finding inspiration in my elementary-school math grades, just that there’s something weird and special about exploring another person’s history without them being there.
Wingate is a skilled—if loquacious—writer; she rarely uses three words when she could use seven, and loves similes. But what weighs the text down also sometimes builds it up — descriptions are long and flowery enough that it’s hard not to feel like you’re there: on Hatteras Island, in Iona’s musty, cluttered home, sailing back in time and space to events and moments long past.
In the interest of full disclosure: I have a diary. I mean, a “journal.” It’s the third iteration (though I also have the preceding two, which document ages 10-13 and are riddled with heart-dotted “i”s and speculation on what kissing might be like) and I’ve been writing in it on and off since I was 14 years old. When I read through old entries — from high school, college, one nervous “so wait, I’m an adult now?” post-graduation summer — I’m not exactly struck by epiphanies so much as amused by my overseriousness and naivete.
Except sometimes. Because tucked among the academic concerns and boy troubles and griping are small insights, windows into who I was and how my life has progressed and what I’ve learned, or perhaps still haven’t. Now, those insights probably wouldn’t mean much to your average divorcee with a troublesome past, but maybe that’s just an argument for putting them in some decorated boxes.
TITLE: The Prayer Box
AUTHOR: Lisa Wingate
PAGES: 400 (in paperback)
ALSO WROTE: Blue Moon Bay, Firefly Island
SORTA LIKE: Other books with women’s legs on the cover
FIRST LINE: “When trouble blows in, my mind always reaches for a single, perfect day in Rodanthe.”