Book Reviews

Book Review: In The Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming – Weak Start to a Series

This was a book I nearly quit on after the first chapter. As an adoptee myself, it’s one of those subjects that makes me bristle the way it’s traditionally been presented. And there were a lot of things wrong with the prospective adoptive parents (PAPs) in this story.

“Geoff is so right,” Karen said. “We’ve been up one side and down another with them.” She opened her arms, encompassing herself and her husband. “Just as a logical starting point, wouldn’t you say we were better parent prospects than a girl who would leave a baby out in the cold on the back steps to the church kitchen?”

In upstate New York, a baby is found outside a church with a note indicating that the birthmother wanted the baby to go to a local couple, Geoff and Karen Burns. Geoff and Karen are all that is wrong with PAPs. They are rich and entitled. They are also lawyers.

“That’s why we need custody now,” Geoff said. “We’ll need to be able to argue that the baby has bonded with us, that she is an unfit mother, and that the child’s best interests will be served by remaining with us.”

The baby was found by the new Anglican priest in town. Clare Fergusson is a former Army helicopter pilot turned Reverend. The PAPs are part of her congregation.

Maybe someone in the congregation has a friend of a friend who knows Senator Schumer. Whatever it takes to get the baby into our home as soon as possible.”

The child is placed in foster care while the case is investigated. A few days later, a young woman turns up dead. The Miller’s Kill police department manages to piece together that the woman was the baby’s birthmother. Clare teams up with police chief Russ Van Alstyne to try and figure out who would want her dead and why. The most obvious answer, of course, would be one of the Burns’.

You’ve never dealt with DSS, Reverend Clare. You have no idea what those people are like. They act as if genetics were sacred destiny. If they get their hands on the birth mother, they’ll do everything in their power to persuade her to hang onto the baby. It doesn’t matter to them if she’s underaged, if she lives in a dump, if she’s going to be a welfare breeder all her life. In their book, providing the egg and sperm for a child is more important than providing him with a good life. I’m sick of it.”

I get what the author was trying to achieve with the mystery. The problem is she takes an adoption fairy-tale angle that is very off-putting to those of us who are either adoptees or birthparents. When you adopt a child, the bottom line is that you are raising a child that someone else gave birth to. If you show as much disdain for the birthparents as the Burns’ show here, it’s going to affect the child in the long run. They feel entitled to someone else’s child. They want to manipulate the system to give them what they want. At the point the baby is left on the doorstep, they don’t even know if the child was kidnapped from someone else or if both of the birthparents know what was going on.

The set-up of the characters here is interesting. Clare is determined to make the church more than just a club in the community. This is her first calling and she’s learning how hard it can be to deal with the different personalities entrenched in church leadership. She wants to create a program to help local young mothers finish school and have decent lives. She meets with resistance from the church vestry. She asks the Chief if she can ride along with him and learn a bit about the community of Miller’s Kill.

Russ is older than Clare and happily married, although his wife seems wrapped up in her career of custom-made draperies. Russ and Clare bond over the case, but also fight over it. Clare makes many missteps, both as a pastor and as a person. She violates confidentiality and makes questionable decisions during the course of the story. She doesn’t have respect for what Russ has to do as a police officer, placing more emphasis on her own feelings and hunches. At the same time, though, I liked the two of them. Russ has many misconceptions about Episcopalian Priests that Clare manages to dispel.

This does a great job setting up the characters for future novels and it’s good enough to keep me interested despite the fact that I almost put the book down. The ending was way too uncomfortable as well, for although the murderer is exposed (and I didn’t guess it until close to the end) it’s something of a Hollywood “happily ever after” ending. The setting is compelling enough that I’ll at least try the next one in the series.

“There are a lot of people willing to kill to get rid of an unwanted baby,” Dvorak said, smiling sourly. “It’s called abortion, and it’s perfectly legal.”

Yes, the author went there. Although it didn’t indicate how much anyone else in the setting agreed or disagreed with the statement.

Next book in the series:

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