Debbie Macomber’s “Hannah’s List:” Contrived, Predictable, and Infuriating.

Debbie Macomber’s Hannah’s List (Mira, 2010) is a book that, unlike most of her other romances, is based on a plot contrivance that made my teeth grind. In Hannah’s List, Doctor Michael Everett receives one, final letter from his deceased wife on the first anniversary of her death from his brother-in-law. His wife Hannah, for reasons known only to herself, decided while she lay dying, she’d make up a list of people she wanted her husband to date — more than that, she wanted her husband Michael to pick one of these women to start a new family with.  She finishes her letter by saying that she feels terrible that she wasn’t able to give Michael any children during their twelve-year marriage, so she really hopes he’ll pick one of these gals soon and get on with the job. This letter was not played for laughs; instead, it’s played straight, and although Michael puts up some rather formulaic grumblings, he decides that he should do what his wife wants, and ends up meeting all three of the women.

The three women on Hannah’s little list are about as dissimilar as could possibly be.  First off, there’s Winter, who was Hannah’s second cousin. She’s a cook and caterer who runs her own little coffee shop, and she’s very good at what she does. She and Michael already know each other slightly, but there are no real sparks there and both know it — basically, she’s there to ease Michael back into dating and not feel as if it’s such a chore. Also, Winter has a boyfriend already, Pierre, a fellow cook who runs a restaurant, but they’re ever-so-conveniently “taking a break from each other” so Winter and Michael can have their little “meet-cute” before realizing she’s better off being Hannah’s second cousin than Michael’s new main squeeze.

Next, there’s Leanne, who is an oncology nurse. Hannah met Leanne while she lay dying in the bed, and liked Leanne because Leanne has a good sense of humor even when things are going to Hell in a handbasket around her due to the nature of her job (cancer equals dying people is the equation Ms. Macomber was going for). Michael likes Leanne when he meets her because they have their work in common — he’s a pediatrician, she’s an oncology nurse, and they can talk shop together. But because she’s coming off a painful divorce, and he’s still grieving (it’s been a year, which apparently Ms. Macomber thinks is “too long” for a grief cycle), they are unable to connect as anything more than good friends despite several dates. Which, once again, is just as well as the ex-husband comes back into the picture because Ms. Macomber must not have wanted to leave any dangling plotlines.

Finally, there’s Macy. She’s the youngest of the lot at just over thirty; she’s impetuous, scatterbrained, air-headed, wears silly outfits, paints her house in multiple colors, and has the requisite three cats that apparently any such person must have (all with unusual names). As for what she does for a living, it’s pretty much anything she can find — she’s an artist, she does radio voiceovers, she does some acting — she’s the comic relief of the book, such as it is, and it’s obvious from the start that Michael, who is in his late-thirties, is intended to pair off with her.

Listen. I have a real problem with the main idea of Hannah’s List because most dying women would never, ever do this — and not just because they’re worried about their own imminent death. The way Ms. Macomber writes it, Hannah is being unselfish by putting this list together, and indeed, unselfishness would probably be part of the equation if a real woman were ever to do something like this. However, what was infuriating about all of it is that Hannah’s darker motivations were never brought into play at all — Hannah was seen as a spiritual force for good, or in simpler terms, an angel. And thus we don’t see any of Hannah’s less admirable qualities even in retrospect except for the nature of this letter.  The fact that Ms. Macomber does not discuss the other reasons why a woman might write this letter makes me extremely troubled.

First off, writing a letter as Hannah did in this book, then giving it to her brother to give to Michael, her husband, as he grieved the one-year anniversary of her death, is an extremely manipulative act. First, from pages 24-5:

The greatest of (my) regrets is my inability to have children. This is harder for me than even the discovery that my cancer is terminal. I so badly wanted your baby, Michael. A child for my sake, yes, but yours, too. You should be a father. You will be a wonderful father. Oh, Michael, I so wanted a child.

And as if this wasn’t enough, on page 29 Hannah says:

I’ve given you three names, Michael. Each is someone I know and trust. Any of them would make you a good wife and companion; with any one you could have the children you were meant to father.

I’ll be watching and waiting from heaven’s gate, looking down at you. Choose well.

Then she has the nerve to sign it, “Your loving wife, Hannah.”

I don’t even know where to start to say how wrong I believe all of this is. It’s incredibly manipulative; it plays on this poor man’s grief and pain and rage that his wife is dead, and says, more or less, “If you love me, you will remarry and have children by one of these three women I’ve picked out for you. And if you don’t meet these women and pick one of them, you don’t love me anymore.  Then I’ll look down from Heaven and be bitterly disappointed. Nyah. So there.”

Ms. Macomber, in her preface to Hannah’s List, says that one of her readers gave her the idea for this — that apparently something like this has actually happened. And after that, she said (paraphrasing) that the idea for Hannah’s List just popped into her head.

May I be the first to say that I wish this idea hadn’t occurred to her? Or that perhaps if she had explored the darker aspects of what Hannah did here, rather than making Hannah into this saintly presence that Michael should be glad to have had in his life for twelve years, this would’ve been a better book?  Because without question, Hannah’s final action shows her to be far, far less than saintly, perhaps even Machiavellian, yet this is never, ever thought of — no, Hannah is a veritable saint, Michael is an idiot who must be led by the hand through what’s left of his grief cycle or he’ll never father children, and because of Hannah’s “brave and selfless” act, Michael will be all right because he’ll have married the ditzy Macy and the children will start popping out all over the place in due course.

What a disappointment!

Mind you, the rest of Debbie Macomber’s career shows that while contemporary American romance does have a formula, it usually can be gotten ’round using humor and a keen knowledge of what makes people tick — that is what Debbie Macomber’s name on a romance has come to mean.  But all of this was wholly absent in Hannah’s List except for some moralizing about how important communication is to a marriage, which seems mighty hypocritical considering Hannah’s final action.

I have read just about everything Debbie Macomber has ever put out. Her “Heart of Texas” series is outstanding. Her “Midnight Sons” series is good. Her “Cedar Cove” series, the first four in particular, are interesting and well thought out. And her best books are probably those she’s written about Shirley, Goodness and Mercy, three rather scatterbrained angels — one of those books is called Angels Everywhere and I highly recommend it as a good, honest, heartwarming read.

But this book — Hannah’s List — I cannot recommend.  It made me incredibly angry because it is not honest at its heart.  And due to its emotional dishonesty, the rest of the book boils down to a bunch of plot contrivances: for example, I knew from the beginning Michael would end up with Macy, but that Macy would “inexplicably” run off two chapters from the end for no good reason except that the plot demanded it, just so they could have a typical “fall into his arms” ending where the reader is supposed to bask in the warm glow of yet another book successfully completed.

I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. And I’m very unhappy that I read this book.

My advice, if you like Debbie Macomber, is to skip this book and read anything else by her — I don’t care what it is, it has to be better than this.

Reviewed by Barb

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  1. #1 by Barb Caffrey on October 3, 2010 - 3:11 pm

    Thanks for adding in the cover, Jason — and for the Tweet. As you can tell, I restrained myself big-time. (And I’m only being slightly sarcastic.)

    There are very few books out there that are kind to widows and widowers. Unfortunately, this is yet another of the sort that “piles on” and tries to make a formula out of the grief process — “grieve one year, thaw and serve, and then the bereaved must be dragged, kicking and screaming, back into the ‘waking world’ to remarry and resume his/her life.” That mindset absolutely disgusts me, as I’m sure you can tell.

    I really hadn’t expected to dislike “Hannah’s List” because I truly do like Debbie Macomber’s work. But I couldn’t stand this book because it’s being upheld as yet another heartwarming American romance that shows the presence of God in all things, and it really isn’t.

    I believe in a positive Higher Power and thus God can and probably is indeed in all actions, good and bad, to a degree. But something like this, if it really has actually happened as Ms. Macomber referred to in her preface, has some darker motivations going on as human beings are not made up of moonbeams, rainbows and kittens no matter how hard we try. And refusing to admit that even a good person has flaws does _not_ do it for me; my late husband had some flaws (not many), and he’d kick my behind from here to Kingdom Come if I didn’t say so, because _he_ did _not_ want to be known as a saint. (Way too boring.)

  1. Open Season on the Widow(er): More about Debbie Macomber’s “Hannah’s List” « Barb Caffrey's Blog
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