Last Train to Omaha by Ann Whitely-Gillen

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One may overcome, but it never is easy.
Synopsis of Last Train to Omaha: After a horrific accident claims the life of his best friend at the age of eighteen, James Milligan is changed forever. For the next seventeen years, he lives as a ghost of his former self: shutting out those who love him most, navigating his life in a veil of solitude and drowning himself in anxiety and guilt. When a chance encounter introduces him to Martin Diggs, an enigmatic war veteran, and palliative care nurse Rebecca Doyle, his life is changed irrevocably. Rebecca reignites emotions he thought he’d lost forever, and Martin challenges him to accept his shattered past and move forward. Told with compassion and wisdom, Last Train to Omaha is the story of a broken man gaining the strength to let go of the crippling blame and doubt that plague him, pick up the pieces of his life and put them back together. 

My two cents
Seventeen years have passed and James Milligan is still struggling to process the death of his best friend, Stephen. Ridden with guilt and practically functioning on drugs, he has shut out everyone from his life -- including bewildered and hurt family members. Yet James finds a semblance of solace when he spends time with war veterans at the hospital which his family runs. He finds he has so much more in common with these men who have lived and faced the unspeakable, very much like the horror he himself had witnessed.

Two people challenge James to get back on track with his life, to come to terms with Stephen's death. There's Rebecca Doyle, a nurse at the hospital -- beautiful, caring and a loving mother of a lovely young daughter, Rebecca connects with him as a woman, reawakening the romantic and sensual side of James. And there's the secretive Martin Diggs, a war veteran, who befriends James and tries to get a better understanding of what is holding James back from healing.

These budding relationships, including his interactions with those in the hospital and with war veteran patients, give us a better understanding of what really happened during that fateful day of Stephen's death and its impact on James. In a trip Asia, James's realizations come to a head and he slowly learns to let people in, including his beloved family, finally finding his way on the road towards healing.

***

I liked: I enjoyed the positivity of the messages in this story. Everyone needs to know that there is hope in the face of any life tragedy. James's story embodies this hope and shows that one can always overcome despite extreme grief, emotional anguish and pain, and guilt. This book also highlights the importance of other people in the process of healing. Overall, this paints a realistic picture of how the road to healing is never an easy one. 

I also enjoyed getting to know some of the war veterans who were patients at the hospital; their camaraderie brought a welcome lightheartedness to the storyline. 

***

Uh-ohs: I corresponded with the author on this book and was inspired by how she came about in writing this book - a project that resulted from her battle with cancer. Add to that the five-star ratings on Goodreads, which got me extremely excited. I really wanted to like this more, especially because of its positive messages about acceptance, healing, hope, and transcending tragedy. But this didn't really come together for me nor did it sit well with me. Why:

The use of metaphors is quite heavy handed. Sure, the themes of life, healing, and death are obvious in the synopsis. But why add all these references, among other: anguished dreams (which are psychoanalyzed by our characters), James referred to as a "shepherd," a near-death and more backstories of deaths, a tattoo (= rebirth) ... too much and overdone. I wish that the story focused more on James and not be so muddied in all this metaphor! I already loved the the metaphor of the train, from which the title is derived, but piling all this on detracted from making this storyline tight.

The storyline was also iffy in some places and were either improbable or convoluted ways to make the plot work:
  • One was a whole detour of James's pilgrimage to Thailand and Vietnam, which dragged on for quite a while with descriptions of what he saw, where he was and what he ate and what Ted said and .... ok, you get the picture. 
  • Another incident where I scratched my head was: why would James, who is out in a remote part of the world with limited access to email or phone, go to the trouble of contacting Martin Diggs through someone else when all the while he was in touch with Rebecca the whole time through email and she could easily have passed on the message to Martin? 
  • When James needed to be informed about some urgent news from back home from Martin, Martin contacted Kendra who contacted Jade, who contacted Jackson, then Ted, who gave the message to James. I actually had to read this twice to understand it and sorting out those extra names really threw me off!
Generally, I wasn't too fond of any of the characters. Both Rebecca and James came across as a little annoying to me simply because they seemed immature. Even Martin Diggs stretched my already thin patience as I felt he was such a stereotype of a character; the wise, the enigmatic, the one who everyone likes. The only character I liked was James's tough cookie of a sister, Kitty, because she seemed the most realistic.
Overall, I sailed through this book but ended up slightly let down, instead of jubilant, at its end. 

Verdict: A disappointing read for me despite its inspiring messages of healing, hope and rebirth. This would probably appeal to those who are feeling a little low and need a pick me up, as the characters,  situations, and nuggets of wisdom may resonate.

I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. 

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5 comments

  1. I think I must've have been feeling the right amount of low at the time I read it. Looking back, I don't think I will re-read it.

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  2. PS - Great review. Love your breakdown of it.

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    1. Thanks Freda. I sort of agonized over this review!

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  3. Oh, this book is on my TBR - and I am torn to read or not to read?

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    1. I recommend you read it. I would never discourage anyone from reading a book because of one review! You never know, it may be a good fit for you! :)

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© guiltless readingMaira Gall