Patterns of redemption in small-town Wyoming

A movie version with Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez is coming this Christmas

Mark Spragg's third novel is a tale of redemption, forgiveness, and the forging of family - and there's no mistaking those themes. The tale unfolds as Jean and her 9-year-old daughter, Griff, escape an abusive boyfriend and flee to a farm owned by Griff's grandfather. Griff has never met the old man named Einar, and Jean hasn't seen him since her husband was killed in a car accident.

The story is intensely human, gently probing the longing for family and the inescapable grip of the past. Swiftly shifting perspectives lend the novel a pleasing dynamism and an energy that rarely lags. The writing is engaging, and the landscape of small-town Wyoming, just outside Yellowstone, is a vivid complement to the novel's mood.

But for the most part, "An Unfinished Life" is predictable, and many of its thematic metaphors are too obvious. The message of forgiveness appears, sometimes not so subtly, on almost every page.

As the future folds back on the past, the story offers redemption that ultimately feels too tidy in its forms. For instance, a friend of Einar decides that he and his old war buddy must transport a bear that once mauled him from the zoo to a more dignified death in the wild.

Later, when Jean's old boyfriend bursts back onto the scene, he beats Griff and her grandfather as he once beat Jean - and in watching Jean come close to death, Einar inches past his wrath over her role in the car crash that killed his son.

Though Einar blames Jean for that accident, he eventually teaches her daughter to drive, and easily forgives Griff when she nearly kills him with the truck.

Pleasing as some of these echoes are, an engaged reader can foresee the outcome: abused woman seeks shelter with bitter old man; darling daughter wins over old man; abusive boyfriend returns, but good people triumph; and an unusual but loving family is forged.

Einar himself is a disappointing, if sympathetic, stereotype of the gruff old man - steeled for loss and haunted by his past. And Griff, preternaturally wise and pitifully eager to please, often strains credulity as Spragg's writing strays into mawkishness, portraying her as too irresistible and too swift in winning over grumpy old Einar.

All this is not to say there are no surprises here. Einar's very existence stuns Griff; the grandfather's old friend is complex and gracefully drawn; and Jean consistently rises above circumstances - though Griff always leads the way.

Wandering through the abandoned home that she grew up in, Jean looks back on an alien past and captures the novel's core. Standing in her childhood bedroom, she wonders "why it seems like a room from someone else's life," and reflects at one point, "It's just that she felt useful as a kid, like she was part of something better than herself, a real family."

This is the essence of "An Unfinished Life" - that life is unfinished without a family of one's choosing, without forgiveness, without someone to be useful to. And the sentiment comes through, clear as the Wyoming air that Einar says lets you see for 102 miles.

A movie based on the book will open this Christmas. Spragg's wife, Virginia, worked on the screenplay as Spragg wrote the novel. With a cast that includes Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, and Morgan Freeman, success at the box office and high sales for the book are assured. The novel's vividness and emotional purity deserve such acclaim; its problems stem from a fictional world simpler than such human truths deserve.

Christina McCarroll is on the Monitor staff.

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