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The Big Door Prize

Review

The Big Door Prize

Five years after the release of MY SUNSHINE AWAY, M.O. Walsh returns with THE BIG DOOR PRIZE, a big-hearted and magical novel about fate, identity and the loyalties of a small town.

Deerfield, Louisiana, is the kind of town where crime rates are low and neighborly friendliness is high --- everyone knows everyone, but there’s just enough culture to keep it from feeling too rural or stuck in the past. However, the careful balance of the town is entirely upended when a DNAMIX machine appears in the local grocery store. Simple in appearance and life-changing in power, it purports to use the biological makeup of any person who deposits a swab of their saliva to determine their life’s potential. Much like a high school career aptitude test, the machine is equal parts enthralling and terrifying to the citizens of Deerfield. After all, if you’re a happy plumber today, do you really want to know that you could have been an Olympic swimmer? And if you’re a not-so-happy plumber, would it help to know that you already have fulfilled your full potential?

Douglas Hubbard and his wife, Cherilyn, have the kind of relationship that others dream of without realizing it. They are neither intensely passionate nor wealthy and beautiful, but they have the one quality that people spend a lifetime chasing: comfort. They are entirely comfortable with themselves and one another, and though Douglas has recently decided to take up the trombone (and a slightly embarrassing beret), they have faced few bumps in their marriage and even fewer major obstacles. Until Cherilyn secretly decides to try the DNAMIX machine and learns that she is, and always has been, destined for royalty, shifting the balance of their marriage and drawing a keen eye upon the troubles plaguing the rest of the town.

"Combining the humor and heart of small-town cozy fiction with the poignancy of literary fiction and the drama of domestic suspense, M.O. Walsh proves once again that he is a writer who needs to live on your bookshelves."

Where his wife was once kind and warm, Douglas has noticed some abrupt changes in her: she is insatiable in bed, obsessed with trying new, exotic recipes, and her patience for him and his silly trombone has grown thin. At the same time, he is forced to watch on as his high school students descend into what he believes is mass hysteria: a quiet nerd now believes himself to be a playboy Lothario, another student has a new interest in puppetry, and then there are his normal concerns, like Jacob, the boy whose brother died last year, and Jacob's budding friendship with a troubled girl named Trina.

Alternating between the perspectives of Douglas, Cherilyn, Jacob and a few other townsfolk, including Father Pete, the local priest, THE BIG DOOR PRIZE chronicles not only how the DNAMIX machine has upset the usual order of Deerfield, but also the smaller, more nuanced ways that the shift in balance has affected couples, friends and coworkers. Through the eyes of Jacob, readers watch as Trina starts falling into dark, devious patterns and a mounting obsession with Jacob and his deceased brother, leaving Jacob to track her moods alone, with all of the adults --- including his own father, the mayor --- having fallen into the traps of their potentials.

Simmering in the background and heightening the tension is the upcoming bicentennial celebration and the preparations leading up to it. But with all of the adults (and some of the children, to lesser degrees) walking around in costumes, speaking in funny accents and performing magic tricks, the weight of bringing reality back to Deerfield falls upon Douglas and Jacob alone. And Jacob has bigger fish to fry.

As his wife becomes a stranger to him and his town starts going off the rails, Douglas undergoes crisis after crisis, wondering first what has gotten into Cherilyn and what he can do to support her, then why anyone would ever be attracted to a man with a sudden dream of playing the trombone, and finally what on earth is happening in his classroom. As he tries to get to the bottom of these and other issues, he also must take a deep, hard look at himself and how he has contributed to his wife’s unhappiness, his career complacency and creating the kind of classroom that his students need. Through it all, Walsh weaves in several poignant and thought-provoking themes, most obviously the notion of a life’s potential and the power of a second chance --- but, just as masterfully, loyalty to one’s friend, the value of a legacy, and how we can remind those we love that we appreciate them.

Though THE BIG DOOR PRIZE is full of heart and complicated debates, it is every bit as full of humor and small-town hijinks. The cast of characters is as broad as it is varied, and as he did in MY SUNSHINE AWAY, Walsh proves that he can juggle multiple storylines, perspectives and even ages and genders with a deftness that makes it seem as though he has been writing these books forever. I have a soft spot for characters like Jacob, who are young and unsure of themselves, yet are dealing with something that would flatten even the strongest adult, but Cherilyn also was a highlight of the book. Walsh writes about the feeling of being wanted and coveted just as beautifully and tenderly as he writes about the opposite side of desire, and the underappreciated feeling of finding your home in another person, even if it is not always fireworks and fireside lovemaking.

In case I have made THE BIG DOOR PRIZE sound excessively cozy, I should note that Walsh has not left the darkness at the heart of his debut novel behind. While he distracts his readers with the big moments caused by the DNAMIX machine, there is a lot going on in the background, most notably between Trina and Jacob. He writes these scenes with the plotting and unflinching attention of writers like Liane Moriarty and Bonnie Kistler, and the book is all the stronger for it.

Combining the humor and heart of small-town cozy fiction with the poignancy of literary fiction and the drama of domestic suspense, M.O. Walsh proves once again that he is a writer who needs to live on your bookshelves. THE BIG DOOR PRIZE is a must-buy for readers who enjoyed MY SUNSHINE AWAY, THE SECRET WISDOM OF THE EARTH and even darker works like THE NIGHT OLIVIA FELL.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on September 25, 2020

The Big Door Prize
by M.O. Walsh

  • Publication Date: September 8, 2020
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: G.P. Putnam's Sons
  • ISBN-10: 073521848X
  • ISBN-13: 9780735218482