Pros: Likable characters; many intertwined stories; quick, easy read; more volumes to follow.
Cons: Somewhat underdeveloped characters; no singular plot; somewhat sappy in places.
It's always been quite obvious that I inherited my bookworm-ishness from my father. My mom can't seem to read more than a few pages without falling asleep - as a child, I remember her often falling asleep while reading my bedtime story, leaving me to finish it on my own. Dad, though, is forever in the middle of some book or another, and I've been just the same ever since I learned that books are for reading and not chewing.
A few years ago, Dad devoured the entirety of the Mitford series by Jan Karon. At the time, I had picked up the first book, At Home In Mitford, and enjoyed it, although for whatever reason I never bothered with the rest of the series. Until now. I was surprised on Christmas Eve to be presented with a large and unusually heavy gift bag from Dad - containing three of the books in the Mitford series! I quickly added two more to my new collection and happily set about reading each and every one.
~* Start at the Beginning *~
Although I've read it before, it's been so long that I didn't remember much about At Home In Mitford, and started fresh at the beginning. Originally published in 1994, this book is now the first in a series of eight books. It is available in both hardcover and paperback, most anywhere books are sold - I suggest checking Amazon.com for great deals on used books.
In the first chapter, we are introduced to the main character of the Mitford series, Father Tim. Father Tim is an Episcopalian priest in his early 60s and a confirmed bachelor. He has lived in Mitford for twelve years and, while having had great success with his miniscule North Carolina parish, is now feeling that something is missing.
Enter Barnabas, a giant black dog who is calmed only by the reciting of scripture; Dooley, a red-headed orphan with a penchant for fighting; and Cynthia, a new next-door neighbor who Father Tim finds most interesting and unconventional. While these three characters interact the most with the rector, there are a host of others living in and around Mitford that are introduced in this book - sometimes only in passing, making the minor characters a bit difficult to keep up with at first. I found myself flipping backward more than once trying to figure out just who was Walter (Father Tim's cousin) or Harold (the mailman) or one of the other undeveloped characters.
Which leads me to one minor gripe about this book - a general lack of characterization, even in the main figures of the story. While each character is described briefly - whether by their physical characteristics, occupation, or relation to another character - the reader is very seldom given insight into what a particular character thinks or feels, what makes them act the way they do. Rather, the story is laid out in a smooth narrative: he does this, she does that, they go here and say this to whoever. Occasionally, we are given a glimpse into Father Tim's mind, but certainly not the other somewhat less important characters.
~* Plot? *~
I could no sooner give away the entire plot of At Home In Mitford in this review as I could sprout wings and fly - due largely in part to the lack of one solid theme. Instead of having a main storyline leading to closure at the end of the book, At Home In Mitford instead chronicles the everyday life of so many of Mitford's citizens. And yet, true to life, many of the stories intertwine along the way - for example, Father Tim's grieving widower doctor finds love with the woman in need of a heart transplant who is, unbeknownst to her, great-niece to Mitford's wealthiest resident, who is one of Father Tim's closest friends. While not at all fast-paced or thrilling, this novel does offer a few small mysteries and surprises along with the calm, ordinariness of life in a small town. One day runs into another, nothing much changes, and the ending is left wide open to move into the next book in the series.
One should know before picking up any book in the Mitford series that they do fall under the genre of "Christian fiction" - as though you may not have guessed based on Father Tim's occupation. Activities in and around the church contribute largely to the story, and nearly every character is associated with the church in some way. Characters pray often, attend services often, and speak openly of their relationships with God. Although certainly not the norm in today's fiction, none of these instances bothered me in the least - but then, church has always been an integral part of my life. Readers who are not religious may be put off somewhat by the frequent references to Christianity - although with an open mind, even they may be able to look past the author's obvious slant toward the religious and enjoy the story.
With that said, readers of the Mitford series should expect a G-rated story not filled with profanity, violence or steamy bedroom scenes. (That's not to say that those things do not exist in Mitford, only that allusions to them are rare.) In fact, a few of the scenes take on a quite Disney-eque quality, appearing (at least to me) too sugary sweet to be 'real'. Take, for instance, the budding relationship between Father Tim and his neighbor, Cynthia Coppersmith. Although he is past 60 and she is somewhere in her 50s, she still asks him if he would like to "go steady". Never having been the dating type, Father Tim is unsure what the term means, and must ask his neighbor to clarify:
"He knew he would ask her, sooner or later, but each time he thought of it, his heart pounded. 'Cynthia,' he said, at last, glad for the fading light, 'what does going steady mean...exactly?'
'Well, it's one of those wonderful things that means just what it says. You go with someone. Steadily! And you don't go out with anybody else.'
'I already don't go out with anybody else.'
'Yes, but I do. Or did! Or, even might again,' She tilted her head to one side, smiling."
~* Make Yourself At Home *~
Despite the sappiness that sometimes creeps into the writing, At Home In Mitford pulls the reader into the serenity of the small town and forms easy attachments to the main characters, leaving you wanting to know more about them. And know more you shall, I'm sure, since there are six more books following this one.
The flowing pace of this book makes it a quick and easy read - I knocked it out in about four days of sporadic reading (usually during my daughter's naps, which aren't known for their length.) I suggest having the next book in the series (A Light in the Window) on hand, as the story moves seamlessly from the end of At Home In Mitford into the next volume. While not spine-tingling or action-packed, At Home In Mitford is a welcome break from everyday chaos, moving readers easily into a different sort of everyday life where everything is more calm and reassuring.
~* The Small Print *~
This book was originally published in 1994 by Lion Publishing and later by Penguin books. Paperback copies retail for $12.95 inside the U.S. ($18.99 in Canada) and have 446 pages.
~* The Mitford Series *~
At Home In Mitford
A Light in the Window
These High, Green Hills
Out to Canaan
A New Song
A Common Life
In This Mountain