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College Professor's Life Is Upended In 'Small Blessings'


Tom Putnam is a small-town college prof who seems to have a line from Shakespeare in mind for every turn in life. One day, he opens a small lavender envelope from an old love and discovers that an old mistake of the heart has a living, breathing consequences - a 10-year-old son named Henry. And Henry is on his way to stay with him for a while. The Bard says it is a wise father that knows his own child. But Tom Putnam doesn't know how that child is about to be a part of events that will turn his life inside-out in a series of crises that he might regard as small blessings. "Small Blessings" is the debut novel for Martha Woodruff, who writes for npr.org and has contributed to a slew of local and national public radio programs. Martha, first congrats for writing a novel. I'm so glad you could join us.

MARTHA WOODRUFF: Isn't it festive? I'm so excited about it.

SIMON: So tell us about Tom Putnam. He opens that note. His marriage is loveless and lifeless. His wife is troubled. In many ways, his best friend is his mother-in-law.

WOODRUFF: Yes. Tom is first and foremost a decent guy. His wife's mental health has deteriorated over the years - partially because of this mistake of the heart that you referred to. And he had a quick affair. But this is his lot. And he's not a sad-sack about it. And he keeps going. And his expectations are - he's not expecting it to change.

SIMON: But it does.

WOODRUFF: But it does.

SIMON: The pot is stirred when Rose Callahan comes to town. She comes to work at the campus bookstore - gracious southern university town.

WOODRUFF: Yes, small.

SIMON: Lots of - small - lots of people fooling around.


SIMON: So to what degree are you writing about Charlottesville?

WOODRUFF: First of all, I'm not writing about any specific place or college. The only thing that's taken from life is the bookshop, which is drawn from the bookstore at Bard (ph) College, where I actually worked for a while. And I got fascinated with the sort of bubble factor. Really all of the central characters have something in their life that isn't quite right. It's sort of like they're stuck in an elevator. They have no choice but to get along with each other and make life with each other around.

SIMON: The - my favorite relationship in the novel is the mother-in-law - son-in-law...

WOODRUFF: Yes. Thank you.

SIMON: ...Relationship between Tom and his mother-in-law. How did you strike that? And I'm not sure I read that in a novel before. You know, a relationship of a son-in-law with his mother-in-law who knows that he's been cheating on...


SIMON: ...Her daughter.

WOODRUFF: Well, Agnes' mother-in-law has had a life where things happen to her. She lost her husband. Her daughter has been troubled since her teens. And Tom, he has real problems in dealing with his wife. So he and Agnes - I think their glue is that they are both embracing reality. And they have a part - they're each other's partner in that - in being real.

SIMON: Martha, you're not just all-do-regard to them - a 28-year-old kid living in their -

WOODRUFF: Oh, god no. I'm 67. (Laughter).

SIMON: Sixty-seven. God bless - who's written a debut novel.

WOODRUFF: No, I'm a 67-year-old who's written a debut novel - finished it, sold it at 65.

SIMON: Do you think you've written a better novel now than if this idea had come to you 25 years ago?

WOODRUFF: Oh, heavens yes. You know, if you're aging - I've loved aging. I've learned a lot. I'm naturally nosy. I've kept my eyes open. I've met lots of people and interacted with them. It's taught me things about human nature.

SIMON: At one point Rose says she hopes life can really be that simple.


SIMON: Is this something we run away from? Do we look to complicate it - excuse things?

WOODRUFF: I am fascinated with how hard we work to shoot ourselves in the foot. I over-thought things. I tried to over-control things. And when I learned to just sit back, think that if I just - at the core, life is enjoyable and good if we human beings stay out of our own way.

SIMON: Charlottesville's own, Martha Woodruff. Her new novel - her first is "Small Blessings." Thanks so much for being with us.

WOODRUFF: You are so welcome. And thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.