Noelle Hueston has no idea how she got to the hospital or why she is there. She believes that she is a twenty-one-year-old college student majoring in art and insists that the nurses tell her when her parents will be arriving to take her back to school.
In reality, Noelle has been married to Eli for twenty-five years and raised three children, Kyle, Kelsey, and Kirby. En route home from Duluth to Deep Haven, the northern Minnesota hamlet where Eli served as sheriff for many years and Kyle has recently become a deputy, Noelle was the victim of a violent crime. Her confusion is the result of amnesia caused by head trauma. Whether she will regain her memories is uncertain.
What is certain is that Noelle and Eli were estranged from each other at the time of her accident. In fact, Eli was not even aware that she had made the trip to Duluth and now he is left wondering what she was doing there. Worse, Eli struggles with how to explain the past three years to Noelle — how much should he reveal to her and when? And he wonders what their future holds if Noelle has forever lost her memories of Kelsey, who was brutally murdered three years ago. Eli has spent the intervening years sleeping in the basement, escaping to his ice house, and spending two much time with Lee, the widow of Clay Nelson, the officer who also lost his life on that terrible day. Although Lee values the assistance Eli provides with chopping wood, plowing the driveway to the log cabin she shared with Clay, and other chores, she has felt herself increasingly drawn to the husband of her good friend and knows their shared loneliness and grief have inspired their deepening friendship.
Because Noelle has lost her memory, she cannot identify her assailants, but they don’t know that. Kyle is determined to catch those responsible before they locate Noelle and attempt to keep her from revealing their identity.
What would it be like if you had the ability to rewind your life? What would you do if you could step back in time to a point in your life when it was uncomplicated and the future held endless possibilities and choices? Would you accept the opportunity to return to that moment, even if it meant giving up your memories of all the events that have transpired since then and all the people you have known and loved?
Prolific Christian author Susan May Warren challenges readers to ponder those questions in The Shadow of Your Smile, the story of Noelle Hueston. For most of their marriage, Noelle and Eli were happy. He served as the sheriff of Deep Haven and she devoted herself to raising their three children and serving as a volunteer. Kyle was a local basketball star who earned a college scholarship and Kirby seems destined to follow in his footsteps, while the beautiful Kelsey dreamed of a future as a singer-songwriter with her best friend, Emma Nelson. The Nelsons and Huestons enjoyed a close personal and professional relationship. In an instant, their lives were shattered when both Kelsey and Clay were brutally murdered.
Warren explores the aftermath of the tragedy from the perspective of each of the characters as Noelle struggles to remember the last twenty-five years. Eli is wracked with survivor guilt, convinced that he should have done more in his role as the local sheriff to prevent the violent crime that claimed the lives of his only daughter and best friend. His regrets and inability to share his emotions with his wife helped drive a wedge between them — he distanced himself from Noelle and gravitated toward Clay’s widow, Lee.
You have the unique chance . . . to break down all the barriers of the past and begin again. Don’t run from it.The Shadow of Your Smile
Kyle lost his way for a time, as well. His basketball dreams in the past, he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement and has returned home to Deep Haven as a deputy sheriff. While in the process of moving from Minneapolis back to his home town, a chance meeting with Emma Nelson, Kelsey’s best friend and musical partner, causes Kyle to ponder why he never really noticed her in high school. But Emma is determined never to return to Deep Haven, convinced that the town holds no appeal and can never figure prominently in her future.
Noelle’s life is like a huge puzzle — she works, once piece at a time, to establish a picture of who she became during the years that she can no longer remember. There are some humorous aspects to her journey, including the moment when she finally looks in the mirror and finds that the face staring back at her is no longer twenty-one years old. She is as appalled by the body that has carried three children and been impacted by the passage of time, as well as gravity, as well as the age-appropriate wardrobe selections she discovers in her closet. There are also heartbreaking and poignant moments, such as when she learns that her parents will not be coming to the hospital because they are both deceased.
The core of Warren’s tale is, however, the issue of whether Eli and Noelle can find their way back to each other and the happy marriage they once shared. Initially repulsed by Eli, Noelle’s gradual appreciation of the man to whom she has devoted herself for so many years feels authentic and believable. So too does Eli’s self-reproach and eventual acceptance of responsibility for his own part in the marriage’s breakdown. The Huestons are revealed as having been a quintessential American family, neither perfect nor without problems, but loving and committed to each other and the life they have built in Deep Haven. Whether that life is worth reclaiming is very much in doubt at the outset of the story. The juxtaposition with the secondary storyline — the need to identify and apprehend Noelle’s assailants before they can further harm her — holds reader interest and keep the action moving.
Ultimately, as with Warren’s other books, the real key to the success of The Shaadow of Your Smile is her characters’ flawed humanity. Their challenges are believable, their redemption not at all assured at the beginning of the book. Their journey to peace is both interesting and compelling. Because the characters are essentially likable, readers will find themselves hoping they will at least be able to process their grief and forgive each other. The resilience of the human spirit and promise of hope through faith are very much evident in Warren’s work, but prominently so in The Shadow of Your Smile. That’s enough reason to build a fire, make a cup of hot cocoa, and curl up on the coach on a winter’s afternoon to get to know the good folks of Deep Haven, Minnesota.