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Acts of Contrition

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Mary Morrissey is living the life of her dreams. She has a loving husband of ten years, Tom, two daughters, and twin boys. Her parents are just down the road. Her three sisters are nearby. Perfect—some might even say she is living the American Dream.

But beneath the shiny veneer, Mary hasn’t taken a calm breath in years. She lives in a constant state of panic, afraid that the secret she’s kept hidden for so long will be revealed, that it will shatter the life she’s worked so hard to build.

When Mary’s handsome and addictively charismatic ex-boyfriend Landon James reappears during his high profile Senate campaign, she feels the truth bubbling to the surface and knows she’s powerless to stop it. Mary has spent years trying to forget him, and now he’s on every TV she sees.

A conditional Catholic, Mary bargains with God, negotiating deals that will keep her happy life undisturbed for another day. She prays for strength and confesses her sins—anything that might let her sleep at night under the weight of the guilt she carries from lying to her husband and family for the entirety of her marriage.

When Tom learns what Mary’s been hiding, what once seemed unfathomable—a deep, heartbreaking divide between them—is now their new normal. Can they find a way to rebuild their life together? Is forgiveness possible?

Acts of Contrition is a richly drawn story of faith, family loyalty, and forgiveness, even in the face of moral ambiguity, guilt, and shattered trust.

332 pages, Paperback

First published April 15, 2014

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About the author

Jennifer Handford

6 books74 followers
A native of Phoenix, Arizona, Jennifer Handford now lives in the Washington, DC, area with her husband and three children. One of three first-place finalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest in 2010, she published her first novel, DAUGHTERS FOR A TIME, in 2012. People magazine hailed it as “a wrenching, resonant debut about infertility, cancer and adoption. Grab your hankies.” In 2014, ACTS OF CONTRITION was published. THE LIGHT OF HIDDEN FLOWERS was released in November 2015 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Midwest Book Review called it "A deftly crafted and deeply engaging story from beginning to end." Jennifer is busy at work on her fourth book, a historical piece of fiction about a grown woman searching for her biological mother. She also blogs about Middle Grade fiction.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 139 reviews
Profile Image for Judy Collins.
2,508 reviews352 followers
April 19, 2014
Mary is a very likeable character, a strong protagonist readers will relate to, as she is the perfect wife and mother of two daughters and twin sons. She is real and flawed. She loves her family and everything it stands for; she has values and morals.

Even before she married at age thirty, an attorney in her earlier career, her real passion ---to be married and raising a family, similar to her simple, but loving Catholic Italian upbringing. She deserves to happy, having waited so long for this dream.

Tom, her husband is every woman’s dream, and mirrors his wife’s passion by supporting his family, a caring father, offering love and financial security. (I found myself wanting to be a part of this dynamic unit).

However, Mary has a problem. She suffers from an addiction. She has an addiction to people. Mary, finds herself in an unhealthy roller coaster relationship for years, with charismatic and political Landon James. He was charming, good looking, successful, ambitious and she fell deeply in love. However, Landon was very non-committal, and did not share her happily ever after. She continues waiting for him, addicted to being with him, hanging on his every gesture, waiting for that perfect ending which never came.

After such time, she gives up on Landon (not out of her mind), and meets Tom (the one) and they marry. Now in the middle of her perfect life – her deal with the devil comes back to haunt her.

When Landon calls, her heart melts and she loses her senses. She has been living with the guilt from the past with a secret she has buried. She has kept this secret and lie, in order to protect her own marriage and family.

The deep buried secret now resurfaces, as Landon in running for Senate, a high profile position - her past is about to destroy her perfectly planned life.

A thought- provoking, intense, and poignant story of a moral dilemma--disclosing the truth, versus burying it deep within a perfect marriage. When faced with the question – What would you do, and are you prepared for the fallout? Do you trust your love and your partnership to see you through the most difficult times? By experiencing the bad, can you get to an even better place?

Beautifully written story for Easter, as we are celebrate Sunday (same as setting at the end of the book). A time of redemption, love, grace, and forgiveness. There are many parallels within ACTS OF CONTRITION, as Jennifer unfolds masterfully.

Told from past to present, from both points of view (Mary and Tom), ACTS OF CONTRITION is deeply moving and full of emotion. A story which will be attractive to a wide audience of readers-from young mothers, wives, to older women, of any faith. An ideal book for book clubs or discussions.

There are other secondary characters in this contemporary fiction, carrying out the theme of “addiction”, in other ways, such as Tom’s brother, Patrick – an alcoholic, his father, also an alcoholic and not so faithful husband, Mary’s sister, Teresa with secrets of her own, and Tom’s mother, who has held strong, and faithful throughout.

I loved the quote in the READERS GUIDE, at the end of the book by the author: "If Mary were sorry—for the sake of it, because she did wrong and was regretful for it—then her contrition might have been “perfect.” But Mary was seduced by the good life: her husband, her children, and the life she built with them. In a sense, she made a deal with the devil. So she was contrite, yes, but the reader wonders about her contrition. Certainly it was imperfect. She was more concerned about getting caught, about losing what she had, than about coming clean for the sake of it. Is this to say she was a bad person? Absolutely not. It’s to say that she was human.”

Highly recommend this compelling read, and look forward to reading “Daughters for a Time” her earlier award-winning book. As a Professor of Writing at American University in Washington, D.C., Hanford’s strong and keen writing style is most reflective in this powerful and satisfying second novel. http://judithdcollins.booklikes.com/p...

A special thank you to Amazon Publishing and NetGalley, for providing a complimentary ARC, in exchange for an unbiased and honest review.
Profile Image for Elle.
1,005 reviews82 followers
March 11, 2015
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. And I never lie about books...

I fell in love with this book very early on. There is some very beautiful writing here. I love the language the author uses. She just puts everything out there so easily. Word choices are not canned or commonplace. Things are described in a way that makes the reader easily understand and sympathize with Mary. I felt at home reading this book. Though the topic of the plot wasn't always a comfortable one, it was written in a way that made me feel as if I had been welcomed into the character's home and life.

All of the characters were full and real. They interacted realistically with one another and for the most part responded realistically. I thought she did a wonderful job portraying a full picture of Mary, both as her own person and in terms of the roles she plays...mother, wife, etc. The supporting characters are written just as well. None of the characters featured felt like an afterthought; they all served their purpose and the writing fully committed to completing their portions of the story.

There seemed to be little to no force in the forwarding of the plot. It progressed very naturally without feeling boring or trite. The balance of Mary's past and present life are woven into the story line very well. There were no instances where the juxtaposition felt odd or left me confused.

Overall, I think this book managed to remain engaging without being extravagant. I could definitely go for a sequel to follow the events after the close of this book, but I didn't feel that the ending lacked any sense of reasonable closure.
Profile Image for Laura.
556 reviews2 followers
March 30, 2014
I will be nice and say 2.5-3 But honestly I did not like this book. It was cold, clinical a mother trying to right a wrong that was done years ago. Yet she was punishing herself by not allowing her husband to love her and making deals with priests. This could of been a great story. I didn't like how it was written. The writer needed to add more emotion to her characters. I couldn't wait to get through this novel. Thats bad. Wanting an ending? Basically it was how it was wrote, it didn't engage me, the characters were primary but weakly depicted..
Profile Image for Esther Walker.
15 reviews
June 29, 2014
I got this book as a free read from my Amazon Prime account. Well it's true not everything for free is a good thing!! I finished the book because I kept expecting more from the book, however, when I reached the end I was terribly disappointed. Tom and Mary are a couple with four children, Tom manages to forget his prior romance and Mary cannot. She holds a secret from Tom and when she tells him continues to play the martyr roll like she has done in all her relationships. There is not a character in this book that I liked.
Profile Image for Faith Simone.
Author 3 books11 followers
December 11, 2014
Family secrets…everyone’s got them. The secrets we keep can either tear our families apart or bind us together. For Mary Morrissey the coin has been tossed and she’s been waiting for over a decade to see which side it will land on.

“I’ve made my family a happy home, but it was a house built with stolen bricks.”

There was no need for me to judge Mary, she did a thorough job of that herself. She’s weighed down with the guilt of her deception but, despite her morally corrupt choices, I empathized with her. The reason I could identify with Mary was entirely due to Hanford’s brilliant skill at creating a distinctive narrative for her. Mary’s voice is honest and without guile, as if the entire novel was a diary of sorts.

“The truth wasn’t pinning me down, I was pinning it down, pushing is mercilessly against the wall with my hand over its mouth.”

What made this story interesting to me was the all access pass into the shifting dynamics and subtle nuances of Mary’s marriage. Hanford manages to show how completely a single bad decision can slowly eat away at a relationship in the form of the lies and omissions continuously needed to bury the truth.

I thoroughly enjoyed Acts of Contrition and highly recommend it!

Profile Image for Dee Miller.
Author 6 books5 followers
June 25, 2015
Mixed Feelings

A good character study, though I would have preferred it to be less preachy. I find it lacks sufficient insight into the psychological damage and risk a woman causes herself by having a long-term, involved relationship without her partner showing a willingness to commit.
Profile Image for Gary Thomas.
Author 47 books505 followers
February 9, 2017
I loved this book and read it in just a few days. I'll definitely check out her other novels, depending on their subject matter. It was refreshing to read someone who has at least a sympathetic view of faith and church. Great characterization, great food for thought, accurate portrayal of some of the intimacies of marriage and extended family--overall, a nicely written, well-paced book.
April 20, 2014
A beautiful 4.5 read.
I thank Netgalley for the privilege of having this to review.

I was not sure what I was going to be reading or reviewing, even though I had read the blurb. This book was SO much more than I had ever hoped it would be. The story of Mary and Tom and their marriage with the ghost of Landon always at the edges kept me reading and reading and reading. So much it reminded me of: lost love, my own marriage, the secrets that couples keep and the utter work it takes to make a good marriage. This book explores the nuances of a woman who wanted so badly to have the love of a good man and family; the traditional family, the Catholic religion and its rituals all part of her life. I found myself walking with Mary as she made lunches for her children, got them ready for school, her devotion to them as well as her husband. But there always hovered in the background Landon James. Her first love, her addiction that followed her right into her marriage. Mary loves Tom. She does. But her 10 year co dependent relationship with Landon has left her needy, wanting that perfect family and that life she could not get from him.
Acts of Contritions touches on so many avenues of forgiveness. What some will do for it; what others will do to avoid it; and what some women are willing to put up with in order to achieve it. I felt so for Mary, for her desperate need for Tom to understand, somehow. And I felt for Tom, and his own insecurities when it came to Mary and what had existed with Landon. This is a beautiful story of marriage and family and the secrets that affect couples for a lifetime. It gave me pause to think on my own life, and how things can always turn out some other way. I highly recommend this book to women who simply need to read about normal women and marriage and its struggles.
Profile Image for Kim Weiss.
26 reviews2 followers
April 22, 2014
This is one of those books--and there are a few of them out there--where most of the action takes place years before the timeframe of the book. Ten years before the book begins, the protagonist, Mary, betrayed her husband. He found out about it, got very mad at her (understandably), and little by little, he gets over it and begins to trust her again. That's more or less the "plot" of the book. Told in first person, much of the book is taken up with Mary's thoughts about how she loves her children. Handford is a good writer--she thinks of many different ways to describe a mother's love--but it still gets repetitive after a while.

A more serious problem is the character of Sally. This is also one of those books--and there are also a few out there--where a child character is ridiculously un-childlike. Sally is 9 when the story begins, but her main hobby is comparing myths to Bible stories, especially in the areas of temptation and sin. Really? Throughout the book, she says the most profound things, things that only the most incredibly gifted child would say. It annoys me when authors can't write a child character without making her a child prodigy intellectual. She would make a good friend for the 15 year old Virginia Woolf expert I met in the last book I read.

Overall, I could see many women enjoying this book, if they like a more literary type of novel. I need more action and humor in books, so I can only give it a medium rating.
Profile Image for Elaine.
2,258 reviews2 followers
October 27, 2014
Change the number!

There are actually two protagonists here, Mary and Tom and their individual POVs take place in the chapters. The reader finds out in later chapters what it is that Mary is keeping from Tom.

Landon James, the man from her past whom she can't seem to forget, has made the news and Tom again feels insecure in his relationship with Mary. His appearance on television has Mary reminiscing about her time with him.

Missing is the intense anxiety that Mary should be feeling instead of her almost lack of concern should Tom find out what she's keeping from him. Not really a lack of concern but more a depth of feeling in such a situation. Sure she's preoccupied at times but she certainly does not appear anxious.

When the dam finally breaks, her reasoning to Tom makes no sense. I find myself yelling to Mary "Change your stupid phone number!"

I like the symbolism of the chapter titles and also Ash Wednesday, symbolic of forgivenness, a rite the Catholic Church recognizes. It's fitting for this phase in Mary's life.

There are a few memorable lines in here: "But why would he forgive me?"

"The same reason why other people forgive. The weight of carrying the pain gets to be too much. At some point we have to do what God asks of us and let go."

I find myself looking for a sequel to this one; none is apparent.
Profile Image for Nenette.
850 reviews51 followers
June 23, 2014
Keeping a major secret for ten years!!!! Any devout Catholic would not be able to do that (in my opinion), but whatever one believes in, Mary's situation depended solely on her decision alone - to keep quiet or not. She decided not too; she came clean and she suffered the consequences.

Here is a story that is plucked from ordinary characters living an ordinary life. Until the truth came out, until the life she once knew was no more, then nothing is ordinary anymore. Mary wanted to confess and still have the life pre-expose, but she was asking for too much.

A lot of life lessons here:

1. If nothing is wrong, don't fix it. If not for pride, or maybe she still loved Landon - this must have been the prompt for Mary to seek Landon with her newly born daughter.

2. Be content. One couldn't have it all.

3. Do not lie, do not cheat, do not deceive.

4. Time heals...always.

5. Forgive. It is good for your heart.
Profile Image for Sarah.
1,002 reviews5 followers
August 25, 2016
I did not like book . I think the story line was ok. I felt like the book got "good" half way through it but it did not really last long. I felt that if the author would have kept the pass part all together and the present all together it might have been a little bit better. I don't think I would read this book again. I felt by the 3 chapter I could not wait for it to get over. The book is about lies that have gone to far and the main character is trying to hard to get out of it that lead to more lies and more lies and then leads to self distraction over all the author did a ok job telling a story but it was all over the place and at some points it felt like it was repeating its self over and over again.

I was given a ecopy of this book for free for my honest review of this book.
Profile Image for Stacie.
1,225 reviews115 followers
March 15, 2017
Received this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Mary has a good life. She's married to a man that she loves, has 4 wonderful children and is close to her family. But Mary has a secret she's been keeping for 10 long years and it's about to come out.

Honestly, it was pretty obvious what the secret was early on in the story and by the time Mary confessed I was ready to pull my hair out. The rest of the book explores faith, marriage and the thoughts of rebuilding when everything you know is based on a lie. It was an okay book but very slow and I think more of a character study which is not my favorite genre.
Profile Image for Brittany.
70 reviews3 followers
June 1, 2015
My biggest problem with this book is the main character Marty. I do not understand her obsession with her ex boyfriend. At a certain point I really thought that she had some type of mental illness. Or maybe the author didn't do a good enough job developing his character. He came off as a regular guy. Nothing that he did came off as especially bad.
Also I felt like her religion was more a distraction than an important part of the story. This book just wasn't my cup of tea.
Author 7 books3 followers
September 19, 2020
Outwardly, Mary Morrissey has her perfect life, a loving husband and four growing children. But she is the prisoner of two secrets which she fears could ruin everything for her. This novel of true and engaging characters teaches us that some addictions are about people rather than things, and that we even though we fear the truth, what really threatens us are the lies in which we imprison ourselves.
Profile Image for Sue Lilley.
Author 6 books263 followers
August 6, 2017
I struggled to relate to any of the characters. The children seemed the most real. Mary was very dithery and I couldn’t see why Landon had such a hold on her for so many years. Tom became a different person by the end but on the whole the book was a bit meandering for me. The premise wasn’t that complicated to take so long to resolve.
44 reviews1 follower
July 21, 2018
I liked it but.....

The main character was annoying at many points in the book. She was judgmental of others yet she’s not innocent. Not to give anything away but the character is addicted to people, good and bad and it’s annoying. Despite this, I was absorbed in the book and enjoyed it.
June 17, 2019
The story is riveting and intriguing.

I highly recommend this book. It is about a relationship between two friends. It is also about a couple who learned how to communicate with each other.
May 17, 2017

I was completely absorbed in the story.
Her reasons for the characters was interesting.
I would recommend to anyone who appreciates good writing
5 reviews1 follower
July 21, 2018
Would love to see a part 2.

I think everyone can relate to a character in this book. Very well written. I'd love to read part 3, when Sally is grown.
Profile Image for Sandravides.
522 reviews10 followers
November 12, 2019
This was a great story about a woman's first love and her current marriage. The wife has a secret that she has not told her husband, and the story takes off from there .
3 reviews
February 2, 2022

Such a good read. My heart ached for Mary and especially Tom. This book should make us all look at the secrets we keep.
Profile Image for Kate.
Author 8 books31 followers
April 22, 2014
A very interesting book, although I do agree with Stacie that it's more of a character study than a "traditional" novel. We know from the start what has happened in the past to cause friction in Mary and Tom's marriage, and when that cause of friction (Mary's commitment-shy quasi-ex-boyfriend, Landon) pops back into their life and refuses to go away, how everyone handles it is the main focus of the story. Fair warning, everything after this is spoilery!

One thing that I genuinely liked about the book was that it elicited real (and definitely not always positive) emotion about the characters from me. To be perfectly honest, I wanted to shake Mary until her teeth rattled for a goodly chunk of the book. Yes, she's a loving mother and sort-of devoted wife. Would THIS Mary cheat on Tom? I don't think so, but at the same time she keeps doing the one thing she knows drives her husband crazy: keeping in touch with Landon. In some ways, this betrayal is almost as bad. So Landon keeps calling? I found myself talking to the Kindle. "Don't answer it, Mary. Seriously, don't...oh for Pete's sake." Obviously there was no way Landon was actually going to do anything crazy (and Mary acknowledges this herself) in his semi-obsessive quest to get to know Sally, so JUST AVOID HIM!!! Mary cries "God, Tom! This is me you're talking to. The mother of your children, and you're talking to me like I'm a whore. I don't deserve the f-word." Well, umm, actually Mary...

Tom is, for the most part, the wronged party in the whole mess when he finds out about Sally's parentage. His reaction, fed by years of resentment and Landon-paranoia, made him blind to the fact that he was hurting his children even as he was trying to hurt Mary like she had hurt him. I don't blame him for his anger (I wouldn't want to look Mary in the eye for a while either), but his running away made the situation worse.

The title itself is interesting, because the Morrisseys are a "normal" Catholic family, and Mary turns to her faith in order to gain contrition through confession, forgiveness through Hail Marys and Our Fathers. At times I found myself wondering how genuine Mary's remorse was...she only confesses her betrayal to Tom when she's backed into the corner by an incriminating photograph...would she have ever confessed had she not been forced to? "I won't be entirely free until Sally knows the truth, and that is years away, if ever." Hmmm...

It's an interesting question that you can ask yourself as you get to know Mary and Tom more and more. I was satisfied with the way the story ended as well, with Tom making a very strong statement (throwing away the bookmark) about how the future, and Landon, will be handled. I'm glad to say I would definitely recommend this book, especially as the religious angle is present, but not crammed down our throats. A good book all the way around.

I was provided with a free copy of this book by Netgalley in return for an honest review.
Profile Image for Ju Haghverdian.
701 reviews23 followers
January 20, 2016
I finished this story and couldn't put into words what I thought about it.
I have mixed feelings about it. I liked the writing style, Jennifer Handford has a talent for building up a good relationship between her characters, they are well developed and emotional, they are likable. However, the mix of religiosity was overwhelming to me.

I mean,

So that is where I was ready to be done with this story. For a book on family values, it left a big chunk of the values out.
Profile Image for Keith Madsen.
Author 30 books9 followers
June 12, 2014
This is not the kind of novel I normally read. Basically, it's "chick-lit". It's the story of a wife and mother, Mary, who struggles with letting go of an old romance. Part of the issue is that one of her daughters was conceived by this old flame, and she has hid that truth from her present husband. Sound like a soap opera? Well, basically, it is. I would have to say that it is a well-written soap opera. Jennifer Handford has good descriptive power, and she paints realistic characters. Female romance novelists I have read in the past have often not done a good job of painting the males in the story. Men are either total jerks the writer knows her female readers will love to hate, or they are some version of a Ken doll, who the female writer can mold into place, so the female readership can say, "Now, that's the kind of man I want!" Handford's male characters are real, with their strengths and their weaknesses. I liked and empathized with Tom, the husband, and felt he handled the situation well in the end. I found myself getting really irritated with Mary because of her total incapacity to just say no to her ex-boyfriend and mean it, and then hang up, no further debate. She seemed unable to decide between the good, steady man, and the bad boy who "needed her." (Significantly, the steady husband has the plain, common name of "Tom" and the exotic ex-boyfriend is named "Landon James"-- sounds like a pro quarterback!) Of course, I offer this caveat to this review -- it's just the opinion of one male, and I'm sure she didn't write this for male readers.

Handford does do a good job of bringing in the Christian faith of the couple, to show how that faith helped, especially the wife, to deal with this moral dilemma.
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