Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Heading Out to Wonderful “When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand new penny, but before you get to wonderful, you’re going to have to pass through all right. And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.”

Heading Out to Wonderful is set in Brownsburg, Virginia, a small town where people live quiet, peaceful lives, where everyone goes to church on a Sunday and where no crime has ever been committed. Then one day in 1948, a stranger, Charlie Beale, arrives in the town with a suitcase full of money and another containing a set of butcher’s knives. Deciding that Brownsburg is where he wants to stay, Charlie gets a job working for the butcher, Will Haislett, and soon settles into his new life, getting to know Will, his wife Alma, and their five-year-old son, Sam. He and Sam become particularly close friends, with the little boy accompanying Charlie everywhere he goes.

Things begin to change when Charlie meets the beautiful Sylvan Glass. Sylvan is not like the other women in Brownsburg – she models herself on the Hollywood actresses she admires so much, wearing lipstick, earrings and glamorous dresses – and Charlie is instantly drawn to her. But Sylvan is the wife of the town’s richest man, Boaty Glass, and it’s obvious from the beginning that her relationship with Charlie can only lead to trouble. And when Sam, who is never far from Charlie’s side, witnesses something he really shouldn’t have seen, his loyalty to Charlie will be tested.

I really enjoyed the first half of this book. From the very first chapter there is an atmosphere of mystery. Who is narrating this story? Who is Charlie Beale and where did he come from? Where did he get his money? We learn almost nothing about his background – and maybe that’s the point, as he has come to Brownsburg to start a new life – but we still can’t help wondering what might have happened in his past. Other characters are intriguing too; one of my favourites was the dressmaker, Claudie Wiley. Claudie and Sylvan become friends due to their shared love of pretty clothes, but Claudie fears that it will never be a true friendship because this is Virginia in the 1940s and she is black while Sylvan is white.

In the second half, the tone of the novel becomes a lot darker. I thought I knew where things were heading, but it turned out I was wrong: what actually happened was more shocking and more devastating than I had expected. It’s the combination of the idyllic setting and the feeling of impending disaster that makes this novel so unsettling and causes what seems at first to be a pleasant, gentle story to become something else entirely.

This book wasn’t perfect – there were things that I didn’t understand, actions that didn’t make sense and storylines that could have been developed further – but overall I was impressed and I really liked Robert Goolrick’s writing style. Although the pace was slow, the story was compelling and I loved the portrait Goolrick painted of a small 1940s town and the people who lived there. My verdict is not quite ‘wonderful’ but definitely more than just ‘all right’!

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review.