Rayme Waters displays a strong talent for writing in her debut novel, The Angels' Share. There are many beautiful passages, which are sometimes heart-wrenching and sometimes so vivid you feel transported into the setting Waters has developed. Early on I felt empathetic to the main character's doubts, anxieties, and hopes. However, the story begins to wane due to a lack of focus. The novel does a little too much and in doing so sacrifices stronger character and thematic developments, and a story that begins as a real life drama falls into plot contrivances which don't stand up to the promise of the beginning.
The story begins as a young woman named Cinnamon Monday wakes up on a driveway, bruised, bloodied, and near death. She crawls next door and is rescued by a winery owner named Sam Gladstone. It was her ex-boyfriend, a druggie named Kevin, who beat her to a pulp, but Cinnamon refuses to give him up to police. She receives great care, first in the hospital and then in an expensive care facility paid for by her grandmother and then by Sam. In the process, Sam courts her, so to speak, though as old as he is he's not interested in romance. He wants to see her recover, and he also hopes she'll work for his winery, which means living on site. Cinnamon is suspicious of any possible strings attached, but this is her best option. Her mother gave up all of her personal belongings to live at Oh Holy Mountain, a religious community run by Phil, who claims to be a direct descendant to Jesus. Her grandmother is a wealthy widow who lives with Frank Ferguson, an unpleasant man who wants nothing to do with his wife's family. It's no surprise Cinnamon chooses Sam.
In a parallel story we learn about Cinnamon's youth, beginning at the age of seven. She lived in poverty most of her life, with an alcoholic mother who believes school is evil, and a father who sold weed to pay the bills but didn't stick around much. Her mother, born into wealth, has no domestic skills, and this drives a wedge between her and her husband, and it also makes finding work difficult. Through this perspective we also meet important characters like Julia, Cinnamon's cousin, and we witness Cinnamon's descent into drugs despite having an education of Bronte, Dickens, and Austen. There's an inevitability to this story, unfortunately, because we know what happens. Cinnamon's flashback story can only go so far, and in the end it's not necessary.
We see everything from the eyes of Cinnamon, and I think the first-person perspective works fine here. Cinnamon is thoughtful and the motives behind her decisions are clear. The story unfolds at first in a slow, absorbing way. I felt sorry for this woman who was the victim of abuse and felt hopeful for the direction her future might take her. The problem is that each chapter alternates between her present and her past, and this interrupts the flow and rhythm of the novel. What we learn about her past could have been conveyed through much shorter flashbacks. I grew impatient at the end of every other chapter, because Cinnamon's flashback story was an interruption.
I think Waters was trying to do too much, and this shows in the many plot strands left hanging. Oftentimes chapters would end with some new piece of information that seemed to lead the story in an interesting direction, but they were forgotten following the next chapter. This is especially true towards the end, where the reader is left unsure what the novel's goal is. At one point, Cinnamon visits her sickly grandmother, who makes a puzzling mention of a cousin. Here I thought an element of mystery had opened up. However, Cinnamon never again visits her grandmother and we're left with the disappointment that her grandmother had done nothing more than mumble nonsense.
There are also hints of a romance between Cinnamon and one of Sam's new hires, Eduardo. Unfortunately, the connection to Twilight (Edward) is a little too close. The romance, which is hardly developed at all and doesn't feel earned, is more broody than romantic. Cinnamon wonders why Eduardo ignores her, but it never crosses her mind to go and talk to him herself. I don't understand how the idea of a doomed heroine, brooding and passive, makes for a compelling romance. It's a common theme in adolescent romance, but Waters is writing an adult drama, not young adult fiction. Cinnamon's character comes off as inconsistent: at times a responsible adult, at times the broody adolescent, and at times psychotic. This, of course, is a result of the lack of focus, because the story never settles into an identity. Just when you think it's going to be a romance, Eduardo is dropped and we find drama with her parents or an in-depth focus on wine-tasting and wine-making. A more focused story could have developed the characters and the plot with much more depth.
I have no doubt that Waters has a better novel in her. She just needs to hone her craft and work out the kinks. This novel didn't work for me, but Waters' knack for writing leaves me wanting to read more of hers. I would say her one main weakness is a tendency towards exposition, which is a style of telling rather than showing. This leaves characters feeling thin and one-dimensional rather than fleshed out. The final fifty pages felt like an entirely different book and left me unsatisfied. At the start of the novel I did care for Cinnamon, but by the end I wasn't really sure who she was or what I was supposed to make of her. I don't mind an unlikeable heroine, but I would prefer to know whether I'm supposed to like her or not.
(I received an ARC copy The Angels' Share in a giveaway hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader).