Act of Faith (by Erica James)

I started reading Erica James’ novels around fifteen years ago, and have gradually acquired most of them over the years. I re-read a few of them in 2008, but more recently decided it was time to make a habit of re-reading them, interspersed with other books, starting with the ones I had last read longest ago.

My most recent choice fell on ‘Act of Faith’ which I read in 2000, and - according to a previous review - found moving and thought-provoking. I’d totally forgotten what it was about; re-reading is a great joy to those of us with poor memories for fictional people and plots, but, once again, I found it quite an emotionally draining novel.

The main character is Ali, a young, motivated and quite successful accountant who was very happily married to the somewhat elusive but very straightforward Elliot. A terrible tragedy ripped them apart a couple of years before the novel opens; we learn what it was in the first chapter, although details are not filled in until later in the book.

There are plenty of other interesting people in the book, too. Erica James has quite a gift of characterisation, and despite quite a big cast, it was easy for me to keep track. There’s Sarah, for instance: Ali’s best friend from their school days, a small, sweet and caring woman who’s married to the religious fanatic (and rather self-centred) Trevor. Sam, Elliot’s father, is another delightful person; a voice of common sense and wisdom who often cuts through Elliot’s rather tunnel-visioned viewpoints.

It’s a character-based novel, and as such there are lots of different subplots. Sarah’s daughter Hannah turns 18; she wants more independence, but Trevor finds it very hard to let go and allow her to be an adult. Sarah struggles endlessly with her own simple faith, coming up against the fervour and self-righteousness of Trevor and his prayer group. We learn about some of Ali and Sarah’s childhood, and the origins of their friendship; we also see Elliot and Ali in their work environments, with pressures and stresses to deal with there.

But most of all the story is about Ali, and the way she slowly tries to come to terms with what’s happened in the past, and her feelings for Elliot. She’s a complex and interesting character, blessed with a very happy childhood and plenty of self-confidence. However this sometimes makes her want to coerce her friends into situations that she feels is best for them, rather than allowing them to make their own decisions.

If I have a criticism of the novel, it’s that it’s rather too long with more introspection than necessary. I felt it could have done with some significant editing in places; I don’t have a problem with people pondering or asking themselves questions, but there’s too much repetition of things that have happened, spelling out their feelings a bit too clearly rather than allowing the readers to make their own deductions.

Nevertheless, the writing is good, the people believable, the various situations and subplots cleverly woven together into an enjoyable whole. I had forgotten just how big a part religion plays in this novel; it’s perhaps a pity that Trevor and his cronies are portrayed so negatively; but Sarah’s new friend Grace provides a more balanced viewpoint of an intelligent woman with a strong faith that reaches out in love and concern rather than one-upmanship.

Ideal for anyone who likes thoughtful women’s fiction with some emotional depth.

'Act of Faith' has been republished more than once, and is available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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