I need to preface this review by saying that I am not a reader of Christian fiction. When I requested this book through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program, I did so on the basis of the publisher-provided summary, which gave a delightful premise and no indication of the real genre. I failed to click on the publisher's website, and the main page of Leanna Ellis's website referred to Lookin' Back, Texas as "women's fiction." That said, I found a lot to like in this novel, but I will have to review it as general fiction, since I have no basis for comparison to other Christian fiction.
Suzanne hasn't been back to her hometown of Luckenbach, Texas (say it out loud to get the title, which also refers to numerous characters) in years. She has a comfortable life with her husband and teenaged son in California. When a phone call from her father is cut off, and Linda Lou, Luckenbach's biggest gossip calls and mentions that Suzanne's father is dead, Suzanne packs up for a trip to Texas. She finds her mother acting the regal widow, planning the most elaborate funeral Luckenbach has ever seen. But her father isn't dead. Suzanne decides she'll have to be the one to reconcile her meek father with her controlling mother, and her husband (Mike) and son (Oliver) soon join her in this crazy town. Her own past sins haunt her as she's confronted with ex-boyfriend Drew (now the town sheriff) and her husband-stealing friend Josie is seen at a motel with Mike. Meanwhile, the town is splitting open quite literally--either by earthquake or drought as her parents push further apart, causing Suzanne to worry about the foundation of her own marriage.
I enjoyed Betty Lynne's over-the-top behavior. Always the perfect wife and mother, concerned to the utmost with image, she has decided that she would rather be a widow than a divorcee. Her glee in describing her husband's grisly death is hilarious. Ellis doesn't oversimplify the situation--she shows the toll the "death" takes on Suzanne's father's best friend, and she shows the outpourings of flowers and food from friends and neighbors. I enjoyed the metaphor of faulty foundation for both Suzanne's marriage and the parched earth, and found it to be well executed. Ellis has a wicked sense of humor, especially as she describes Betty Lynne: "It occurs to me that this whole scenario of a make-believe funeral is exactly like something the heroine of Gone With The Wind would do. The first time I saw the movie, I cried when Bonnie Blue Butler died after falling off the horse. I thought it was cruel of Margaret Mitchell to kill off an innocent child. Now I realize it was probably a good decision. I know what it's like to grow up with a mother like Scarlett" (p. 128). And when rumors about Mike and Josie start swirling, "Mother leans forward, resting her elbow on the table and whispers in a conspiratorial tone, 'Wanna have a double funeral?'"
That said, this was really a 300-page novel masquerading as a 400-page novel, so it dragged in places, and there was some repetition I could have done without. Had I been the editor, I would have immediately cut the chapters told from Drew's point of view, which really didn't add anything. I know that Ellis used to write romance novels, and convention in that genre usually dictates writing from both the hero's and the heroine's point of view, but it's out of place here. And at any rate, Drew isn't even a major character. Every twenty or thirty pages, Suzanne agonizes over her big secret, and while I understand that it's always on her mind, especially back in her hometown, the fretting about keeping the secret without any progress toward deciding to tell or deciding not to tell was tedious. As far as the Christian element goes, it wasn't pushed enough to make me dislike the book, but there were passages that were over-the-top for general or women's fiction, and I mostly rolled my eyes and skimmed past. There are several mentions of faith, being faithful, and being committed to marriage, and these were fine and flowed well with the narrative. It was only when they were intrusive on the story, trite ("No relationship is perfect. It's a dance."--Bleh.), unbelievable (her conversation with her son in the grocery store about Jesus just didn't ring true), or contradictory (Suzanne goes on about how she and her husband had to work at their marriage, then later says "My marriage survived, not because of me or Mike but because of God") that I was reminded that I was reading Christian fiction with a capital C. I think Ellis could certainly do well writing general or women's fiction, but I think the born-again element is a bit overdone for a general audience. Her snappy sense humor and apt characterization make me interested in checking out her first (non-romance) novel, Elvis Takes a Back Seat. I keep vacillating between a three-star review (based on the above criticisms and four stars (based on my enjoyment), so I think I'll split the difference.