Cover Image: Out of Esau

Out of Esau

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Out of Easu
Being a lifelong Michigander, whenever I hear a book is based in Michigan, it immediately is moved to the top of my list. Such is the case of debut novel, Out of Esau by Michelle Webster. We meet Susan who is quite unhappy with her marriage but finds comfort at the local Baptist church in Pastor Robert, though he too has his own demons to fight. This was a very well written novel that really made you feel what the characters were feeling. I look forward to reading more from this author.

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Michelle Webster-Hein’s 'Out of Esau,' set in a dying Midwest town that feels a lot like that of David Rhodes’ 'Driftless' or Stephen Markley’s 'Ohio,' is the most beautiful, dark, gritty, and realistic character study of 2022, and it stands as a towering achievement of the kind of work that a small, independent press can put out into the literary world of today, showcasing the idea that you don’t need a big publisher’s backing to have an incredible novel in your hands.

The premise of 'Out of Esau' is simple enough—through the eyes of five different characters, we spend a couple of months at the end of 1996 watching the happenings of a small, dying town in Michigan, and we follow along as the characters interact with one another and other citizens of Esau during their daily lives. The viewpoints are chosen wisely—Willa is the daughter of Susan and Randy, arguably the main characters of the novel, and we see the story unfold through all three of their eyes. Webster-Hein paints a picture of a painful, abusive marriage between Susan and Randy, and we get their unique individual perspectives on all aspects of the relationship, both from Susan and Randy themselves and their daughter. Willa’s chapters provide a devastating insight into what a child watches when she sees her parents fight and her father abuse both her and her mother, and readers struggle and want to shake her as we see her justify mentally her father’s behavior to herself, forcing us to understand how some kids grow up still loving their abusive parents, albeit difficultly and understanding the duality of doing so. Susan’s and Randy’s viewpoints also offer different sides to the same relationship, and the dueling narratives fully flesh out their characters and the relationship to the point where it seems to be written straight out of a real-life story, the twists and turns and excuses and fights all completely formed and realistic. We also see the story expand through the eyes of Robert, a pastor in his late thirties who’s been in town at the local church for around a full decade, and his mother, Leotie, who, in the first few pages of the novel, shows up on Robert’s doorstep after not seeing him for nearly thirty years, right before the state took him away into protective custody after they deemed her unfit to provide for his wellbeing.

As the novel goes on, Robert and Susan start to slowly fall in love with one another, and this is the main thrust of the small plot that runs throughout the story—the ‘will they, won’t they’ aspect of the story helps to propel it along, and it provides reactions to and from the other characters as they respond to the development of the relationship between the two lost souls, both good and bad. Leotie helps her son see the hole that has formed in both his heart and his faith over the years, and readers watch as he struggles with his faith and his role as the leader of the church where he preaches, especially as he starts to pour over contradictory Bible passages as he writes his weekly sermons and deals with an ineffective and lazy church board that seems to thwart his needs and desires at every chance they get. The story builds to a sudden and jolting climax, and we only learn in the closing pages the ultimate resolution to all five characters’ lives, at least in the present day of the novel, and the ending, which could’ve been ambiguous depending on how Webster-Hein wanted to write it, instead is immensely satisfying, if also a little melancholic.

I want to emphasize that this novel has a very loose plot to it, and that's anything but a bad thing—readers spend the vast majority of the novel getting glances into each character’s past, some more detailed than others, and Webster-Hein introduces warts and all to her readers, every salacious or gratifying personal detail throughout. This helps to form a well-rounded view of each character, and it allows them to jump off the page—I felt like I knew these characters in real life by the time I was done reading the novel, and I found myself wanting to scream and shake and congratulate the characters at various times throughout, all because I cared about them. And it’s that distinct lack of a larger plot that makes the novel so fascinating—by being, essentially, a character study of several different people, the novel allows you to dive more into the world of the story and feel like you could live next door to each and every one of these people. The little world-building details that Webster-Hein provides as well, including setting it in 1996 and making the time of the year (it’s basically told from October 1996-January 1997) a character in and of itself, add even more depth to the novel as a whole, and you don’t even realize there’s basically no plot throughout most of it because you’re too interested in seeing the interactions between the many characters as the chapters unspool.

Speaking of chapters—each one is rather short, usually between five and ten pages, and this allows the story to both flow languidly from one place to the next, the pacing of it almost perfect, and give the novel itself a sense of urgency underneath all of its words, propelling readers forward when the action on the page seems to ebb and flow from chapter to chapter. By only spending a few pages within each character’s head at a time, it helps to create a vague sense of unease and hurriedness that adds to the urgency of the crisis that builds as time goes on between the five characters, and it allows readers to spend just enough time to get an opinion on each character before shifting gears and hearing about the same events from another perspective.

This book is dark—as previously mentioned, it deals with an abusive relationship, and Webster-Hein does a beautiful job of painting why some people choose to/have to stay in an abusive relationship. No one wants to be abused by the one they love, physically or emotionally or mentally, and a lot of times, people who aren’t in the relationship don’t understand why people would stay with a partner who abuses them. The relationship that unravels on the page between Susan and Randy is so well-written, so realistic, and so painful that I struggle to say that it’s not the most realistic relationship I’ve read in a novel over the past year at least. We watch as Susan torments herself into both forgiving her abusive husband and wanting to leave him immediately, and we see her also considering the life she could have with Robert and what it does to her faith. Webster-Hein handles the details of abuse very delicately as well, and they are neither over-the-top nor overwritten, giving an even bigger sense of realism to the entire thing.

I, personally, was also nervous to read this based on the description—I was worried this was going to be a story that justified/celebrated Christianity, something I struggled with for years before finally extricating myself from the Church, but this is the exact opposite. Webster-Hein spells out in perfect language the hypocrisy of many modern-day Christians, especially those in small town America, and how they hold everyone but themselves to a set of Biblical standards that are both unrealistic and outdated in today’s world. We watch as both Robert and Susan struggle with their faith, their calling in life, and the idea of God in general, and the subtle ways that Webster-Hein herself calls out the contradictions of Christian faith and scripture, especially those found in the story of Jacob and Esau, are incredible and mortifying at the same time. The author paints a picture here of a crisis of faith that could be expanded to the world at large today, and she does so by distilling it into the thoughts and actions of just a few characters in a dying Michigan town. Many authors would stumble and struggle to do so without it seeming stuffed down readers’ throats, but Webster-Hein perfectly walks that line and creates a story that shows the hidden dualities of the Christian faith while not shaming the faith itself at large.

If you want to read one of the best novels of 2022, please pick this book up. It’s the most beautiful character study I’ve read in a while, and I sincerely hope Webster-Hein might write a sequel in the future that shows the characters in the present-day. I savored the time I spent with the characters in Esau, Michigan, and it helped that I read this in November, the same time as much of the story itself. You can read it anytime, however, and just imagine in your mind the cold, grey landscape that surrounds the characters in the novel as they contemplate their places in life. An absolutely incredible debut novel, this marks the beginning of what has to be a long and fruitful career for Webster-Hein and her incredible storytelling abilities.

Thanks to NetGalley, Counterpoint Press, and Michelle Webster-Hein for the digital ARC of 'Out of Esau' in exchange for an honest review.

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A marriage dissolves in this novel set In a small town in Michigan told by the people involved. Susan been unhappy for some time with her husband Randy and their life together but its been exacerbated by their recent move, Her children Willa and Lukas knows things are troubled. Robert, the pastor at their new church seems like a safe harbor for Susan but he has his own issues. He was removed from his own mother as a child and knows this is one of the things his congregation unfairly judges him for (as well as his mixed heritage). Everyone collides, including Robert's birth mother but this isn't a big drama- more of.a slow burn with characters that will wind their way into your head. Thanks to netgalley for the ARC. Grim in spots but a very good read.

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Great book although it was a little bleak. Susan only knew one kind of man, and it was the type her father was. He was intimidating and boorish with explosions of temper. When Susan went off to college she met Randy who treated her well and took care of her. She became pregnant, neither one finished their college dreams. Randy took a job where he never progressed or was promoted and became bitter. At home, he had mood swings and a violent temper. He was controlling and constantly checking up on Susan. One night, he takes his aggression too far and Susan has enough. In trying to change the life of her and her children, she starts going to church. This is the story that shows the effects of Susan’s attempts to change her and her children’s lives. This novel is not a pretty story but it rings true. It kept me interested from beginning to end. I was privileged to receive an ARC from NetGalley and Counterpoint Publishing. This review and rating is heartfelt and honest.

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Out of Esau, the debut novel by Michelle Webster-Hein, comes out on October 11, 2022. Counterpoint Press provided an early galley to review.

As a Michigan resident for almost a decade, I am always instantly drawn to books set in the state. It helps me learn about the area through the words and narratives of authors. The author even comes from here. Unfortunately, other than a couple references this story really could take place in any northern state and would still work.

The story is told from five different perspectives (Robert's, Susan's, her husband Randy's, their young daughter Willa's, and Robert's estranged mother Leotie's). This can either work very well or very poorly for me, as a reader. Here, the author has done a good job establishing the "voices" of each of the five so that it is easy to distinguish from whose eyes the reader is viewing the most recent actions.

I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by some of the unexpected turns this story took. The characters also act in very realistic manners. It kept me wanting to read more. And though the story inevitably ended in a way I thought it might, it was an interesting read to get to that point.

Highly recommended for those readers who like contemporary, realistic fiction.

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With a troubled marriage and a future as bleak as the Michigan winter landscape, Susan seeks friendship at the Baptist Church. This sets off several events that affect not only her family but also the pastor and his mother. In a way, I found this book sad. Life is not always easy and sometimes it's hard to cope. The story is told from different points of view of each of the main characters. Unfortunately, they are either lonely and depressed or mad at the world. This author has a way of really making the reader feel this range of emotions. Thanks to the author, Counterpoint Press, and NetGalley. I received a complimentary copy of this ebook. The opinions expressed in this review are entirely my own.

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Thank you for an advance copy of this novel. I took a chance on this based on the title, cover and brief description. I am so glad I did! For a first novel by this author I thought she hit it out of the park! The story of a Baptist preacher and the woman he befriends is really the story of two lost souls. I loved how the author told this story from five different perspectives. Each one different but all telling of faith and loss. I also found it interesting for the point of growing up in a Baptist church and how controlling deacons can be! I will recommend this to my fellow reading friends and suggest that my book club chose it when it is released. Thank you again for the ARC!

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"Susan's mother had always told her that marriage was a journey, not over land but over water. When the storms came, you lashed yourself to the mast and you rode it out. And if you couldn't do it for your husband, you did it for your children, and you did it for yourself because you wouldn't make it on your own."

Reading Out of Esau was like travelling in a time machine to my childhood and watching the slow demise of my own family. Michelle Webster Hein has beautifully written a debut novel that delves into the raw and poignant spiral of a rural Michigan family, and tackles what happens when the foundation you have built based on promise, faith and love begins to crumble under the weight of financial hardship, dead end dreams and the loss of oneself. Throw in a steadfast, handsome pastor who is questioning his own path and choices and you've got yourself a slow burning, character driven read that will keep you turning pages until the igniting finale.

I did struggle at times with how I felt about these characters and their choices, but isn't that life? People are messy and complicated, and I found myself rooting for them, regardless, to find their way. Heartbreaking and wholly relatable, Out of Esau will be painfully relevant to those who choose to pick it up and crawl inside.

Thank you to the publisher for this gifted arc, via NetGalley for my honest review.

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This book has great potential and the character development is very well done. However, I was unsure what this book was trying to be: Romance. morality play, statement on the failing of the church, a story of domestic abuse, or Christian fiction I am fairly knowledgeable of scripture and the story of Esau and Jacob, but I could not figure out where this author was going with her references to scripture. What was the point that she was trying to make? It just did not work. Also, I feel like every story that has been published in the past two years has to remind the reader that so many Christians are just racist without hearts for others. I will leave it there because in my faith community, I find hearts of love and concern for others - regardless of race, color, creed, etc.

Finally - I was totally unprepared for the abrupt ending... what was with the curve to running off with the preacher suddenly wrapped up in an epilogue. It felt that the writer had either 1) grown tired of the story (it was a bit tediously long) or 2) met her quota of pages and so wanted to get the novel finished.

I will not be posting this feedback publicly because I hope there is still some time for significant revisions and edits. Again, this story has great potential.

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