“Spare Change,” by Bette Lee Crosby

Bette Lee Crosby

Reviewed by Patricia O’Sullivan

Award-winning author Bette Lee Crosby is a prolific writer who has penned six novels in the last six years. Her latest work of fiction is Spare Change, the story of a troubled orphan and an independent older woman.

Susanna Doyle dreams of becoming a Rockette at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. But her husband, a farmer named Benjamin, thinks her place is by his side in Virginia. Every year Benjamin promises to take Susanna to New York on a vacation, and every year there is a reason to put off the trip until next year. When Susanna has a child, a boy they name Ethan Allen, Benjamin hopes Susanna will settle into married life. But Susanna cannot stop thinking about New York. She’d married Benjamin because he’d promised to take her there. A decade later, she realizes the only way she’s getting to New York is by leaving him. So Susanna gets a job waitressing at a local diner and starts saving her tips and making plans.

Olivia Anne Westerly dodged marriage proposals like a soldier running through a mine field. In her words, “I told people the thought of being tied down to a man who expected a clean shirt every morning and dinner on the table at the dot of six was something I simply couldn’t face; but the real truth of the matter is that I’ve grown petrified of babies. They look all cute and cuddly in their little pink and blue buntings, but I’ve seen what they do to women.”

At the age of fifty-eight, however, Olivia finds herself smitten with Charlie Doyle, a charming retiree who hasn’t seen his only son, Benjamin, in over fifteen years. Relieved that Charlie doesn’t expect her to be a mother or a grandmother, Olivia marries Charlie. Theirs will be a marriage built on companionship, and Olivia looks forward to concerts and dinners and travel with Charlie. But eleven days after their wedding, while Olivia and Charlie are on their honeymoon in Florida, Charlie dies of a heart attack.

Years later, when Olivia has finally put back the pieces of her shattered life, Ethan Allen Doyle shows up at her apartment claiming to be Charlie’s grandson. Olivia doesn’t like children in the first place, and this one is foul-mouthed and dirty. Even worse, his parents have been murdered, and now someone is after Ethan Allen, who is the only witness to the brutal crime.

Spare Change is an enjoyable, if somewhat predictable, read. Crosby’s writing is infused with Southern charm, but there is also a gritty realism to it, particularly during the scenes depicting domestic abuse. The two main female characters were not naturally maternal and had dreams of building their own careers. Even when Ethan Allen came into Susanna and Olivia’s lives, their response to him was realistic, given their personalities. Neither of them had a sudden surge of nurturing feelings. And while both women came to love Ethan Allen, Susanna still regretted giving up years of her life to marriage and raising a child, and Olivia did not regret the choices she made as a young woman to forgo marriage and children for her independence and a career. And yet caring for Ethan Allen changed Olivia. She began to understand how children can give a person a sense of purpose. Ethan Allen was also changed by his relationship with Olivia. This process took time, but Crosby assures her readers in the end that the scrappy boy turns out alright under Olivia’s care.

Some readers might be thrown by Crosby’s tendency to switch back and forth from first person to third, but Crosby marks changes in point of view by introducing them in short chapters titled by a character’s name. These brief, first-person chapters are interspersed between the third-person narrative chapters of the novel and provide little windows with big views into the private thoughts of each character.

A modern-day Oliver Twist, Spare Change is both funny and shocking, full of drama and unforgettable characters.

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