It’s a story about Annie, an atheist, who discovers while on a school assignment, a woman named Anna. Anna is a survivor from the Ukraine at the time of the Russian Genocide. Her wisdom shared with Annie begins to move through Annie’s searching mind. Annie’s fractured relationship with her mother and the grief of her grandmother dying has created in Annie the desire to belong.
Anna’s involvement in Annie’s life helps Annie deal with her many side issues like her friend, Lena’s penchant for partying, her friendship with Angelo (Lena’s brother), and a curious icon over Anna’s mantle. The questions about the icon’s origins propel Annie and Lena to the fringes of the country where they meet Father Elias.
With Father Elias’ guidance, Lena eventually leaves her partying ways. Angelo and Annie’s deepening relationship is obvious to all of us except for Annie. Anna grows frail as her health deteriorates. It’s a story written in first person using Annie’s point of view and it felt too real.
When I reached the end of the book, I discovered a note written by the author explaining that the character Anna was real. It made me wonder if Annie wasn’t Cheryl. Some novels are very autobiographical. Unexpected Joy was well-researched on the least taught aspect of history, the Ukrainian Genocide. Annie’s character’s emotional exploration of atheism had a touch of depth only written by someone who experienced that spiritual struggle.
Unexpected Joy began too slowly. I would not have included the prologue. The prologue didn’t add anything to the story. Chapter one also felt slow. Then, the beauty of the words and the story began to come together and the plot sped up.
Because this is a novel, I agreed not to touch upon the theological aspect of the book as a reason to deduct a star. For the most part, I found the religious aspect of the novel quite agreeable. For instance, when Angelo was explaining to Annie the “Jesus Prayer,” he said:
“It’s a meditative prayer. Orthodox Christians use it to center the mind in the heart and concentrate it on Jesus Christ.”
“Like a mantra,” I said understandingly.
“No,” he corrected me firmly. “Not like a mantra. A mantra is a meditative method used to alter consciousness. According to my spiritual Father, the Jesus Prayer is supposed to bring the mind into the heart and fill it with God in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s a difference. The aim of the Jesus Prayer isn’t alteration. It’s transformation…”
I deducted a star because of the slow beginning. Otherwise, Unexpected Joy was exactly that—an unexpected joy. The end disappointed me because I wanted to see more of Angelo and Annie. Perhaps Cheryl will write a sequel? In any case, I gave this novel four stars.
*Book given by author to review.