As the story opens, Noelle, born on December 23, is getting ready to see her ex-husband, Jay, for the first time in six months. Noelle is still very much in love with Jay, but after two years of marriage, he finally confessed that he could never really love her the way a husband should to love his wife. Jay moved to Atlanta and has embarked upon a new relationship with Taj, leaving his widowed mother, Margaret, living alone in the family home.
Noelle wanted to be a veterinarian, but after graduating from college, she could not afford to continue on to veterinary school. Instead, she took a job as a veterinary technician in a nonprofit animal hospital and sanctuary. Her recent promotion to the position of “animal educator” was not accompanied by an increase in her modest salary. But she loves her job and adores the animals with whom she works.
She especially loves her own Great Dane mix, Zeke, “a carousing big dope of a dog with a heart of gold.” An abandoned puppy, Jay adopted Zeke from the shelter — and then asked Noelle out to dinner. A year later they married, but their attempts to begin a family failed. After learning that Noelle could not bear a child, Jay stubbornly refused to discuss adoption. Eventually, Jay confessed that Noelle had been part of his “attempt to have a normal life — a wife, kids, and a picket fence to boot.” When things didn’t work out the way Jay wanted, he finally came out. And when he left Noelle, he also left Zeke with her as her “consolation prize.”
So Noelle and Zeke live in a small rented house, but Noelle’s hobby is scanning real estate advertisements and dreaming about one day actually owning one of the fabulous homes listed there. She dreams about finding someone who will love her the way she wants to be loved, and allow her to reciprocate. She is also still mourning her inability to have a child of her own. Next-door neighbors Mike and Trey are regular party-throwers, while Dan and Danielle, who home is on the other side of Noelle’s, are pregnant with their fourth child and attempting to train their high-strung Jack Russell terrier, Bebop.
As Noelle meets Jay for dinner, she does not realize that he is about to request a favor from her that will change her entire life.
Mont has created a fully believable character who is a rescuer — on all levels. It is no surprise that Noelle works in an animal shelter dealing with animals who have been abandoned, abused, and betrayed by human beings. Noelle needs to be needed, so the job is a perfect fit. The problem is that she needs to be needed by people in her life, primarily Jay (an only child), who are sometimes too willing to accept Noelle’s kindness and affection, to Noelle’s detriment. Bluntly, Noelle is a doormat.
At the beginning of the story, Noelle is unhappy, lonely, and quite desperate. She still loves Jay, even though she has accepted, from an intellectual perspective, that their marriage was destined for failure. Still . . . she so wants to have a home and child that she actually considers options presented to her by Jay that are quite preposterous and would be flatly rejected by a more secure, confident individual. At the age of 33, Noelle thinks that Jay might still represent her only chance at a compromised form of happiness. Fortunately, she has the fortitude to hesitate before committing. She has not given up all hope for her future . . . yet.
Noelle is a character with whom readers will be able to readily identify. Most of us share aspects of Noelle’s personality and have, at some point in our lives, also felt that maybe, with one slight adjustment, an obviously unworkable solution might be resolved. Tenacity is an admirable trait, but one that can, taken to unhealthy lengths, result in unfortunate circumstances. So at the beginning of Mont’s tale, Noelle’s tenacity, fueled by her desire to hold onto Jay, threatens to derail a chance for her to experience authentic happiness built around the kind of family she has always wanted to build. The dramatic tension stems from whether Noelle will sell out or hold out.
Life is funny. The minute you think you know something for certain — the moment you let yourself believe everything is settled — life gets a sense of humor and shows you that nothing is ever, ever certain.
~ Eve Marie Mont in Free to a Good Home
Because Noelle is motivated by a desire to do the right and good thing, she agrees to care for Margaret, who is battling multiple sclerosis. Noelle has an unpleasant history with her former mother-in-law which is why Jay seems particularly manipulative, self-centered, and utterly insensitive to the needs and feelings his former wife, whom he claims he still loves, when he asks her to take on tasks that he should either be performing for his mother himself or hiring a professional caretaker to handle. But Noelle approaches responsibility for Margaret much like she does every other relationship in her life, i.e., Margaret is in need of supervision and medical attention in order to remain in her own home and retain her independence for as long as possible. Even though Margaret has been quite cruel to Noelle over the years — even going so far as to blame Noelle the breakup of her marriage to Jay — Noelle simply cannot refuse Jay’s request for “a favor.” Surprisingly, Margaret has mellowed with years and the inescapable reality of her own declining health. Like a shelter dog adopted by a loving caregiver, Margaret warms up to her rescuer, and the two women are able to not only forge a new framework for their relationship, but to help each other in much the same way that pets help their owners, providing support, compassion, and humor to each other. Margaret is a crusty old “broad” in the best sense of the word, with a few secrets of her own that cause both Noelle and the reader to reassess their initial feelings about her.
The themes of rescue and what it really means to have a home resonant differently through the character of Jasper, the handsome musician Noelle meets when she decides to make a brief appearance at Mike and Trey’s New Year’s Eve party. On the surface, Jasper is unlike any other person in Noelle’s life and, she initially believes, too young and good-looking for her. But Jasper has a few secrets of his own, and by the time the story concludes, it is clear that Jasper is, in a very different way, just as much a rescuer as is Noelle. Jasper too needs to be needed. But unlike Noelle, Jasper is not a doormat. Even though he is five years younger than Noelle, he has found creative, constructive ways to channel his efforts. And he is unwilling to embark upon a relationship with Noelle until Noelle learns that she must do the same thing. Jasper wisely recognizes that he cannot have a healthy, fulfilling relationship with Noelle until she establishes appropriate boundaries that prevent her from being taken advantage of by Jay, or anyone like him.
The one thing I found surprising about Free to a Good Home is the relatively small role in the action Zeke actually played. I thought the book was going to be more focused upon Noelle’s relationship with Zeke, probably because I recently read and reviewed Allie Larkin’s wonderful first novel, Stay, in which Joe, the German shepherd, is very much a main character. In Free to a Good Home, however, Zeke and the other animal characters are supporting players in the events that comprise the story, but very much center stage with regard to what they represent in the various human characters’ lives. Through their presence in the lives of the main characters and their interactions with them, the animals illustrate and explain the issues those people have in their relationships with one another.
I’m happy to report that Mont is working on her second novel because I am anxious to read more of her work. Free to a Good Home is a marvelous first book, featuring characters that are believable and empathetic, as well as an overarching theme that is well conceived, thoroughly developed, and will leave you pondering its relevance in your own life long after you have finished reading the book.
After all, each of us is called upon from time to time to serve as a rescuer in one respect or another, whether to an animal with whom we ultimately form a deep attachment or in our relationships with our friends, family or community members. The questions we have to answer for ourselves include whether or not we are calling upon others to rescue us when we should be taking care of ourselves or if, like Margaret, we should be graciously and gratefully accepting assistance from others. And, of course, the age-old consideration of what home means is one that authors never tire of exploring.
Is your heart where home is . . . or the other way around? By the end of the book, Noelle has answered that question for herself, but you’ll have to read Free to a Good Home to learn what she decides.
I entered the contest, hoping to win a copy of Free to a Good Home, Eve’s debut novel. Much to my shock, but delight, Eve selected my entry to receive first prize: Eight copies of the book for my book club members, as well as bookmarks, and a key chain. Here is my winning entry:
St. Patrick’s Day 1986. It was raining cats and dogs. As we were sitting down to corned beef & cabbage, we heard a dog howling. Hubby went to the backyard to investigate. Came back & announced that when the next door neighbors moved out, they left their dog behind. We had to help the poor thing, so he brought her over to our patio & we got her some food, dried her off, etc. “Not keeping her,” I said.
The next day we went to the vet who declared she was a golden retriever suffering from distemper. He said he would try to nurse her back to health. One week & $1,500 later, we were the proud new owners of “Lady,” the most beautiful, loving, gentle retriever you can imagine. Along the way, she also had vaginitis & mange, but after months & months of my nursing her along, she regained her health. After a few more months, I paid off the vet’s bill.
She lived to 13.5, and both of my sons adored her. They chased her around the backyard, riding her like a horse when they were toddlers. She was 85 pounds of pure love. She would have laid down her life for those boys & even though she died peacefully in her sleep in September 1998, I still miss her and often swear that my little Sophie — so much like her in temperament but in a smaller package — is our Lady reincarnated & returned to us.
Sophie is a mutt we adopted from Pets ‘n’ Pals, the local shelter. That’s where we got Buddy, too. Did I mention that we are total animal people? 🙂
This afternoon the members of my book club will be gathering on my patio with some delicious Lodi wines and other goodies to discuss Free to a Good Home with Eve, who graciously offered to meet with us via Skype! I am very much looking forward to speaking with Eve and talking about the book with my good friends, all of whom are, like me, absolutely raving about Eve’s first published novel!
I read Free to a Good Home in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review and Fall Into Reading 2010 challenges.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Free to a Good Home free of charge from the author. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Be sure to visit Colloquium tomorrow, Monday, October 4, 2010, to read a very special guest post from author Eve Marie Mont, Coming of Age at Any Age, and enter to win your own autographed copy of Free to a Good Home!