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A Song I Knew by Heart (Women of Faith Fiction) Hardcover – April 13, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Praised for his portrait of a strong-willed mother raising a Down's syndrome child in Jewel, Lott returns to the notion that some burdens are in fact blessings in this quiet, tender novel about what it means to go home again. After her only son, Mahlon, is killed in a car accident, widow Naomi Robinson is sure of one thing: she must leave New England, where she and her husband settled after WWII, and head home to South Carolina. In trying to recapture the joy of her childhood, Naomi hopes to find serenity and redemption, a process hampered by a 50-year-old secret she's kept hidden from all but her best friend. To Naomi's surprise, Mahlon's wife, Ruth, vows to join her. The book unfolds slowly, as mother and wife cope with their shared grief amid a loving, working-class family they barely knew they had. Based on the biblical story of Ruth, Lott's novel doesn't pivot on plot turns but rather on small observations about the power of mementos and rituals to give one a sense of history and belonging, and about how forgiveness can weigh the heart down more than guilt. At times, the writing shines with pathos-as when Naomi recognizes that "[l]oss was alive down here too.... You'd have to be a fool to believe otherwise, to think that loss lived only where you left it"-while at other times, it feels greeting card-like, with plenty of repetitive, treacly telegraphic paragraphs ("Eli. Her husband. Her love"). Lott misses the opportunity to make Ruth more interesting; she comes across as a one-dimensional martyr, beautiful, devoted and boring. The blessing is that readers will find it easy to identify with Naomi and Ruth's tragic loss, and aren't likely to notice.
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From Booklist

In this highly emotional depiction of grief and its aftermath, Lott (Jewel, 1991) expertly avoids the sickly sweet sentimentality that often torpedoes books of its ilk, such as Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie (1997) or Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook (1996). Instead Lott brings gravitas and a biblical cadence to his story of seventysomething Naomi, a widow forced to confront death once again when her son, Mahlon, is killed in a car accident. As Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth, stumble through the weeks following the funeral in a haze of grief and sadness, Naomi keeps returning to an image from her South Carolina childhood--a slant of light scattered on pine straw. This memory inspires her to move back to her hometown, and her daughter-in-law goes with her: "Where you go, I will go." Lott's great gift here is the way he elevates the small rituals of everyday life--a child's Thanksgiving drawing, homemade biscuits for breakfast--into transcendent moments of human connection. Although the relationships presented are idealized, with nary a cross word exchanged, they are never less than persuasive. Lott's rhythmic and repetitive phrasing, revealing the source of his inspiration--the Book of Ruth--is both artful and soothing. This is a radiant, achingly tender portrait of the grieving process. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Random House; Book Club edition (April 13, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375503773
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375503771
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 2.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,710,232 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Bret Lott is the bestselling author of fourteen books, most recently the nonfiction collection Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian (Crossway 2013) and the novel Dead Low Tide (Random House 2012). Other books include the story collection The Difference Between Women and Men, the nonfiction book Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life, and the novels Jewel, an Oprah Book Club pick, and A Song I Knew by Heart. His work has appeared in, among other places, The Yale Review, The New York Times, The Georgia Review and in dozens of anthologies.
Born in Los Angeles, he received his BA in English from Cal State Long Beach in 1981, and his MFA in fiction from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1984, where he studied under James Baldwin. From 1986 to 2004 he was writer-in-residence and professor of English at The College of Charleston, leaving to take the position of editor and director of the journal The Southern Review at Louisiana State University. Three years later, in the fall of 2007, he returned to The College of Charleston and the job he most loves: teaching.
His honors include being named Fulbright Senior American Scholar and writer-in-residence to Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, Israel; speaking on Flannery O'Connor at The White House; and having served as a member of the National Council on the Arts from 2006 to 2012. Currently he is nonfiction editor of the journal Crazyhorse. He and his wife, Melanie, live in Hanahan, South Carolina.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
For those who love beautiful writing and a quiet read, Bret Lott's A SONG I KNEW BY HEART, a tender contemporary retelling of the biblical Ruth and Naomi story, is a competent exploration of grief and healing.

Lott's narrative opens as Ruth loses her husband in a terrible accident. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, a widow whose husband died eight years before, is plunged into renewed grief (the song she knows by heart). Throughout the book, Lott uses the image of light and darkness to illustrate deeper meanings. As the two inconsolable widows wait for morning together, "Shadows outside eased and shifted, made way for new shadows, all of this movement only the empty fruit of that faithless sun." Later, as Ruth and Naomi try to do ordinary things, such as see a movie, they find it devastating, "like sitting in the dark and watching a life played out just beyond your reach, that life your own."

Seeking healing from her pain, Naomi declares her intention to go back home to South Carolina, "called by the force of whatever mystery the place I'd once called home and would call home again held out to me." As readers of scripture will quickly guess, Ruth vows to go with her. After a yard sale where the women divest themselves of almost everything, they journey back to Naomi's childhood region.

Other themes unfold. Naomi grieves over a secret from her past for which she is unable to forgive someone --- and herself. She finds the area she was nostalgic for from her childhood is not as she recalled it. Now, there are satellite dishes, video stores, tattoo parlors, sushi bars, Taco Bells. "Time moved, whether you liked it or not." Naomi also realizes she is not the same person she once was in this place. She has run, but "I hadn't run from me.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Rebecca Brown on September 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover
After Naomi's son is killed in a New England winter car crash, her daughter-in-law is cast into the pit of grief, just as Naomi had been 8 years before when her Eli had died. This is a song she knows by heart.

When Naomi decides to move back to South Carolina, the land of her childhood, Ruth utters the Biblical words: "Where you go, I will go. Where you live, that's where I'll live too." & the two women say their goodbyes to their marriages & head south.

Written in 70-year-old Naomi's voice, Bret Lott takes us into the grey, cold world of grief where numbness & despair dwell. Then, in the plans, actions & journey hope blossoms, as the Southern sun melts their frozen hearts & souls.

Rebeccasreads highly recommends A SONG I KNEW BY HEART as a rich, dreamy & memorable read, superbly written.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 13, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I was surprised when I started reading A Song I Knew by Heart to find it a retelling of the Naomi and Ruth story from the Bible (see the Book of Ruth). Some names are the same - Naomi and Ruth - and some are different - Beau instead of Boaz, but in essence it is a modern telling of an ancient story. The story challenged me to think as Ruth and Naomi . . . what would I do if I was widowed? I enjoyed Bret Lott's writing style and encourage anyone who wants a good romance without sappy endings to pick up a copy.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Not Enough Bookcases on July 21, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Imagine this: you are an aging woman whose beloved husband died eight years ago from a heart attack. Your only child--a son--has just been killed in an automobile accident. How MUCH can your heart endure? This novel is a tale of love. Naomi, the widow and mother, is faced with the crushing burden of grief, and the emptiness in her heart because of it. In steps her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth, who gives Naomi the comfort, devotion and love that will set her on a course to a renewed life. This book is about being open to the reception of the gift of love from others, and about then giving the gift of love back, in return. Kind, supportive, forgiving, merciful love is given to Naomi by family and friends. They are able to extend this love because of the ultimate gift of love from God. When Naomi acknowledges God's blessing on her through the blessings of those around her, and then she returns that blessed love, her heart is joyful and full once again. She sees that in order to know love, she can't merely accept it...she has to give it away. If you are familiar with the Book of Ruth in the Bible, you will recognize the basis for Mr. Lott's story. I urge you to read Ruth in the Bible. Read it again if you already know the story. Read it either before or after you read this heart-wrenching, soul-satisfying blessing of a book.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Japan Reader on June 7, 2005
Format: Hardcover
This book was beautifully written; I found myself pausing to admire the language frequently, with images clinging quietly but powerfully. I also enjoyed the dialect that Naomi uses to express herself -- at least at first.

That said, very little happened. I'm more in favor of character-driven versus plot-driven novels, but the character here wasn't strong enough to drive things and there was way too much repetition. Both the infidelity theme and the forgiveness theme were driven into the ground. A much better novella than novel.

I also wonder if a woman who spent 60 years away from the South would still be so very, very Southern in her voice. I've lived away from my home for only 25 years and have lost much of my local accent. "Might could" and "fixing to," "couple three" seem as if they might have dropped by the wayside after that long a time. Also, they became irritating after a while rather than charming -- a big reason most authors avoid dialect.
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