3 out of 4 stars
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The protagonist of William H. Coles’ novel, The Spirit of Want, lawyer Lucy MacMiel, is a character one can understand and empathize with, but would find difficult to like. Her insecurity stems from being an adoptee into the family of a powerful man in the medical field, A.J. MacMiel, and her feelings of being second-fiddle to A.J.’s biological daughter Elizabeth. However, this bitterness doesn’t make a great first impression on her hapless future husband, the eye surgeon Luke Osbourne, whose initial impression of her is ‘the most self-centered by far in a covey of egotists.’
A car accident that could wreck Lucy’s career sees her opportunistically marrying Luke to cover her tracks, but she genuinely falls for the evangelist Hower Bain, a client who is accused of raping an underage girl. Lucy believes in his innocence, and follows him to Africa, leaving Luke and their daughter Jennifer behind. While Coles does relay Lucy’s thought processes in an attempt to make her more relatable, the reader cannot help but agree with the psychiatrist counseling Elizabeth later in the book, who stated: “I don’t like Lucy and I’ve never met her.”
Indeed, the contrast between Elizabeth and Lucy is perhaps the most interesting in the entire book. Elizabeth became a teacher because she loves children, and shows herself to be more thoughtful and considerate. The way Coles portrays the differences between the self-absorbed, bitter Lucy and the kindly, sensitive Elizabeth is interesting, and how the choices they make result in disaster for the former and in fulfillment for the latter – though you’ll need to read the book to know what forms they take.
What mars the book is the layout - Coles has produced an interesting, well-written story with complex characters, but the layout of 62 short chapters, combined with the story being told from a third-person multiple perspective, means that the story jumps from character to character quite a lot, making it choppier than it otherwise could have been. In addition, while Coles relays a realistic view of how self-seeking and ambitious those in law and in medicine can be, and how hypocritical certain religious preachers can also be, this realism often crosses over into cynicism, and leaves the reader with very few characters to actually like.
On that basis, I will rate The Spirit of Want 3 out of 4 stars. It’s certainly a worthwhile read, and as difficult to like as Lucy is, one can certainly understand her viewpoint. But the self-absorbed nature of the protagonist, combined with the choppy layout and off-putting nature of many of the characters, hinders somewhat the enjoyment of what is otherwise a good novel with a number of thought-provoking insights.
The Spirit of Want
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