Widow Althea Winsloe just wants to be left alone to raise her young son as she sees fit. Unfortunately for her, the men and women of her tight-knit village in the Ozarks are determined to see her remarried, and soon. Determined to remain in control, she plans to sell her husband's well-respected pack of hunting hounds. No one's going to just marry her and take what's hers, she's saving everything on the farm for her son to inherit one day.
In the general store when Miss Althea discloses her plan to sell her hounds, Jesse Best chases after her to try to buy a dog from her. Nearly strangled by his umbilical cord when he was born, he's known as "Simple Jess" to the townfolk. An honest man and hard worker, he's nonetheless often taken advantage of for his lack of wit or logic. He's a simple man, and he wants three things in life - a dog, a gun and a woman.
Seeing an opportunity, Althea makes a bargain with Jess. He can earn all the dogs by working on her farm to get her set for the coming winter. Wanting to earn a living like a man, and excited to own his own hunting dogs, Jess eagerly accepts.
This is the one book I've read that's truly captured the truth of disability. Jess was a fabulous character in that he was nothing special. He was only intractably different in other people's minds. He wasn't an inspiration to others, he was just a man whose brain didn't work quite right, but went about his life doing things his own way.
When the story is told from his perspective, there's no angst or drama from him on his otherness. He regrets that other people treat him bad or take advantage of him, and wishes that he could keep up with other people's thinking, but he doesn't see that as making him less than anyone else. He just works hard to do right the things he can do. When we read the story from his perspective, it's colored with a sense of wonder and confusion. The prose changes a bit to reflect his simpler thinking but without bogging the narrative down in awkward sentence construction or excess dialect. You see less rumination on other people's motives and more of him repeating things to himself so he won't forget.
I loved Althea as well. She's a strong woman determined to spare her son the drama she went through when her widower father remarried. She's reluctant to marry again and have her new husband slight the son that isn't his own blood. The more she works with Jess, the more she begins to appreciate a man who works hard but isn't afraid to defer to someone else's judgement when he should.
Thankfully, the book avoids a common pitfall of books dealing with disability and there's not so much as a hint of charity in Althea's relationship with Jess. Loving him doesn't make her a better person, it makes her a happy person. She genuinely values what he can contribute and is happy to compensate for his weaknesses. Bit by bit throughout the novel we see the many things she has a newfound appreciation for once she sees him as a man.
And thank goodness, because pity sex is just pathetic. When these two finally get together it's anything but charitable. Their first kiss is equal parts sweet, passionate and awkward. Jess's inexperience is tempered by his blunt honesty, and having a man plainly say how much a woman drives him mad is hot, hot.
As strong as the main couple is, and as much as I love the treatment of disability, I think the secondary characters might make the novel. The town of Marrying Stone is populated with a wide variety of characters and none of them are cardboard placeholders. Even antagonists Eben Baxley and Oather Phillips have rich backgrounds and nuanced personalities, giving the marrying plot more depth and drama. Althea and Jesse are made even more vivid by the rich characters that surround them and the colorful conversations they have with them.
Simple Jess was a pleasure to read and I'd recommend it unreservedly to anyone who loves an emotional, character-focused read.