Friday, April 22, 2016

The Inheritance, by Michael Phillips

When I was a little girl, I liked sitting in front of my mom's bookshelves looking at the books I would read when I grew up. Most of them were Montgomery novels, but on the very end was a series that I eyed with some distrust. It must be one my mom didn't approve of anymore, I reasoned in my childish mind, because it had a picture of a man and a woman on the front cover.

Why I thought that I'll never know, but I'm glad little me grew up into a more sensible me, because those books, The Stonewycke Legacy series, turned into my favorite modern historical novels to date. I've had a soft spot for Michael Phillips' works ever since.

Michael Phillips edited George MacDonald novels for modern readers and has a pretty spectacular array of his own novels to his credit. I've read a lot of his MacDonald works and a few of his other ones. I hadn't seen anything from him for a while, though, so when I stumbled across The Inheritance on Goodreads, I welcomed it as an old friend.

I was curious to give it a try. Phillips and I have been parting ways in different years, and I wanted to see if The Inheritance would prove to have the same contention points.

The Book [From Goodreads]
The death of the clan patriarch has thrown the tiny Shetland Islands community of Whale's Reef into turmoil. Everyone assumed MacGregor Tulloch's heir to be his grand-nephew David, a local favorite, but when it is discovered that MacGregor left no will, David's grasping cousin Hardy submits his own claim to the inheritance, an estate that controls most of the island's land. And while Hardy doesn't enjoy much popular support, he has the backing of a shadowy group of North Sea oil investors. The courts have frozen the estate's assets while the competing claims are investigated, leaving many of the residents in financial limbo. The future of the island--and its traditional way of life--hangs in the balance.

Loni Ford is enjoying her rising career in a large investment firm in Washington, DC. Yet in spite of her outward success, she is privately plagued by questions of identity. Orphaned as a young child, she was raised by her paternal grandparents, and while she loves them dearly, she feels completely detached from her roots. That is until a mysterious letter arrives from a Scottish solicitor. . . .

Past and present collide in master storyteller Phillips's dramatic new saga of loss and discovery, of grasping and grace, and of the dreams of men and women everywhere.

My Thoughts
Most book covers give a peek into the book, leaving you at a cliffhanger that the characters will spend the rest of the book grappling with. When I read The Inheritance back cover copy, I thought it did the same thing. I found when I read the book that instead of being a teaser, it was pretty much a summary of the entire plot. That was a problem. For the majority of the book, the characters spend a lot of time thinking. Thinking about backstories, personal thoughts, and where they want to go in life. The amount of narrative as opposed to dialogue is strongly out of whack. What little dialogue there is is mostly trivial interaction with characters that may or may not have anything to do with the main conflict. It read like story notes, in a way, instead of an actual story, and kept the pace of real life's trivial interactions with frightening accuracy. I think Phillips stretched out a plot that should have been the first act into all three acts.

It's easy to tell that Phillips loves his setting. The Shetlands Islands are beautiful, and he takes great care detailing the scenery, the shops, a couple of supporting settings in Aberdeen, and the overall culture of laird and chief. It's also easy to tell that the themes of belonging and inheritance are ones he's thought a lot about. Setting and theme are often underdeveloped, so I love that aspect of his work. However, I think it would be ten times more powerful if he made the plot and characters equally vivid. The villain is a cookie cutter bad guy. I didn't enjoy the chapters with him and hope that changes in future installments. Loni and David spend so much time thinking and telling us all their feelings, doubts, and childhood scars, that I find it hard to care, because I rarely see them in meaningful present action beyond sitting in front of the fire and sitting on planes. In real life those actions can be meaningful; in fiction, we need a little more dramatic pace. While the side characters are often colorful, Phillips again falls into the trap of including way too much backstory. If anything, it gave me an example of how the more backstory you tell, the more your story weakens. Plot and characters felt like a vehicle for the things that really mattered to him, like it shouldn't have been a fiction book at all, but a travel guide with personal religious reflections attached.

Michael Phillips and I parted ways in theology a while ago. While this book doesn't discuss it as openly as some of his others, there are tremors of what I'm sure will come in the series. As far as I can tell, Phillips believes in the possibility of repentance after death. I don't. Or at least, he likes to bring attention to that idea based on his studies of Lewis and MacDonald. It's a strong agenda in his fiction, one which, after studying Revelation this year, I find saddening. I think Phillips' views on the afterlife are going to crop up in David's view of the church and God's character, and probably influence Loni's views as well.

In spite of my heavy criticisms of this book, I truly enjoyed bringing it to breakfast every day. The chapters were a nice, short length, which made it an easy book to get through, and while I disagreed with a majority of the writing choices, I thought a lot about the story and enjoyed wrestling through questions of writing style.

I'm still going to stick with the Stonewycke Legacy series, though. 

I received a free copy of The Inheritance by Michael Phillips from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.   

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