Up until the end, Sweet Forgiveness is a genuinely good book. The story follows Hannah Farr, a 30-something woman who hosts her own popular day-time talk show in Louisiana. When we meet her, Hannah’s show is struggling to maintain ratings, and Hannah is fighting to keep her job out of the clutches of her eager and conniving younger co-host. In an effort to boost ratings, Hannah agrees to have an old acquaintance, the now-famous Fiona Knowles, on the show to talk about Forgiveness Stones, a phenomenon Fiona began that asks people to send two small stones to someone they have wronged in the past: one stone means “I’m sorry, please forgive me” and the other stone means, “Now you have to forgive someone, too.” In time, Hannah agrees to send out some forgiveness stones of her own, an act which dredges up serious drama from her past. She manages to handle the ensuing fallout with remarkable incompetence, and the story unfolds from there.
Though it was difficult for me to believe that a woman as successful as Hannah could be so bad at life, honestly, I didn’t really even care that much at first. Sweet Forgiveness is unapologetic fluff, and I didn’t mind that it wasn’t very deep, involved, or realistic. I was happy to keep the story light and the stakes low.
Which is why the last 50 pages made no sense to me. (I’m going to try to be as vague as possible, but I will be revealing details of the book, so I think I’ll issue a general SPOILER ALERT at this point.) Toward the beginning of the novel, Hannah reveals that, at the age of thirteen, she was inappropriately touched by someone close to her–or at least she thinks she was. When we first meet Hannah, she is 100% sure she knows EXACTLY what happened, but over time she begins to doubt herself and wonder if she misinterpreted events and motives, etc., etc.
In the book, this is treated as a minor conflict that Hannah goes back and forth on for a while. I know it sounds serious–because we’re talking about, you know, sexually assaulting children–but, somehow Spielman doesn’t really make a big deal of it. It’s a side issue that gets addressed between main plot points. Spielman kind of leads the reader to believe that Hannah may have misinterpreted events because she was young, angry, and perhaps melodramatic, choosing to lash out with accusations because she was upset about her parents’ divorce. Truthfully, I didn’t even think much of any of it until the end…when it is made very clear what really happened.
And, at that point, Spielman completely lost me. Not only does she randomly introduce new and suddenly very important characters to the story, but she also introduces incredibly strange connections between these characters. It all came out of left field and, in my opinion, did not flow with the first 300 pages of the novel.
More seriously, however, I was shocked by how Spielman chose to resolve the sexual molestation conflict. I won’t get into details, but suffice it to say that the book ends on a “Well, sometimes it’s better not to know the truth” vibe. Hannah’s exact words are, “We lie and cover up for two reasons: to protect ourselves or to protect others. [This person is] harmless now. I no longer need protection from him. But those who love him do. I need to protect their truth…No one needs to know the truth…I will learn to live with ambiguity.” In other words, she has a chance to know, definitively, the truth about what happened to her and to other girls like her, but, instead, she decides to protect the person who did the inappropriate acts, and she essentially destroys the evidence against him because she doesn’t want anyone to remember him negatively. And Spielman seems to call this strength.
I have dealt with sexual abuse in my own family, so I have very strong feelings about this ending. I absolutely hate that Spielman had her main character protect an abuser. So what if Hannah doesn’t have to worry about being molested anymore? What about all the other girls who were potentially wronged by this person? I absolutely do not understand the mindset of people (fictional or not) who think that if they just keep all the horrible deeds a secret then they can protect all parties involved and everyone can “move on.” In reality, no one moves on–especially not the victims–until the truth can be acknowledged and spoken about freely. I understand that there is a time and place for revealing secrets and having other important conversations–and maybe that is Spielman’s point–but sexual abuse is never a situation where you want to (or should want to) “learn to live with ambiguity.” The damage caused by such a violation is simply too great.
Ultimately, what started out as a fun, light read, ended up as a surprisingly disappointing story. What a misstep it was for Spielman to conclude Sweet Forgiveness with Hannah finally having the resolve to make a fresh start…by burying her head in the sand.