Did I Expect Angels? by Kathryn Maughan is the story of Jennifer Huffaker and her grief after the unexpected death of her husband, Jack. As she deals with his death and the repercussions it presents with her life, she must also consider the welfare of their young daughter, Kaitlin. As she tries to cope with single parenthood while fighting her depression demons, Jennifer grows more and more angry with the world Jack has left her. She begins having problems at work and can’t seem to pick up Kaitlin on time from school, no matter how hard she tries. She finds herself depending on Jack’s parents more and more, until she realizes that Kaitlin is actually happier with them than at home. One night when Jennifer is at the end of her rope, she runs into Henry, an elderly friend from Costa Rica who has a story of his own to share. And so Did I Expect Angels? begins.
The book’s underlying message is a solid one: we all can, and should, be angels to one another. When Henry sees Jennifer at the drugstore in the depths of her despair, he and his daughter literally force Jennifer to come with them to a diner, rather than return to her empty home. It is at the diner that Henry tells Jennifer the story of his journey to America, and how he eventually experienced a loss similar to her own. No matter how hard she resists him, Henry insists that she hear his story because he believes it might help her. In the end, it does.
However, Maughan runs into a classic problem with this type of dualistic storytelling: simply put, one of these stories is appealing and one of them is not. While Jennifer’s struggle through grief and depression isn’t exactly gripping, it is interesting enough that the reader wants to know what will happen. Jennifer becomes a character about whom the reader cares; Maughan develops her well. The issue is Henry’s story. Perhaps it is because the book is so short, leaving less room for less his character development. Maybe it is due to the fact that he is telling the story to the reader; we aren’t living it with him, as we are with Jennifer’s story. Whatever the reason, Henry’s story just doesn’t seem to work here. It is relevant for the effect it has on Jennifer, and by itself would be an extremely interesting tale. However, the juxtaposition of the two stories does not flow well. It is stilted and halted; the transition from one story to another is jarring. Maughan makes an extra effort to distinguish the two voices through the use of italics and Henry’s use of (semi) broken English, which is commendable. The reader never has to deal with confusion as to who is narrating the current story. However, this leads to another issue.
In an effort to make Henry’s story more genuine, Maughan inserts Spanish words into his narration - not very frequently, but often enough to the point that the reader may be confused by what is being expressed. Maughan should be commended on her desire to give authenticity to her Costa Rican character. However, a footnote translation to the Spanish words and phrases would have been appreciated.
There are also numerous unexplained plot holes that make me question the book. First, going back to Henry’s somewhat broken English – if he indeed became a successful businessman, he would most likely have a better grasp of English than is portrayed. I come from a background with a father who was an immigrant and has his own small business. A good grasp of English is vital, especially in a sales-type role. It doesn’t seem to make sense. Also, why did his story have such an impact on Jennifer? Why didn’t her mother-in-law’s story have more of an effect on her? It seems that with that single story, she suddenly realizes the error of her ways and goes rushing off to change her life. It just doesn’t seem plausible.
What Maughan does make plausible is Jennifer’s grief. She writes about Jennifer’s emotions, especially her anger, in such a convincing way that the reader begins to experience these feelings as well. She conveys the unspeakable sense of loss, an ability that also lends itself to character development. As mentioned previously, Jennifer’s character is very well-developed. Maughan should be praised for her talent to write and convincingly portray three-dimensional characters.
Did I Expect Angels? is an interesting read, but it doesn’t quite reach the level of satisfying. However, I look forward to reading Maughan’s future works to see how her abilities develop as she evolves as a writer.