By Sue Minchew
In 40 Days, author Joe Lee returns to his Oakdale series with another suspenseful novel set in the small university town roughly based on Lee’s hometown of Starkville, Ms. The clever framework of the novel is a 40-day countdown, with each of the 40 chapters numbered in descending order. Lee adds to the novel’s currency by prominently featuring various types of social media throughout with texts, Facebook, Skype, and voicemail messages playing significant roles in the plot.
The novel opens with a text message from his girlfriend Dorothy to journalist Duane Key, the main character, who is about to turn 50. The much younger Dorothy texts her married lover, “We need to do something on your birthday. You only turn 40 once, handsome.” Her typo of “40” begins the countdown of numbers that Duane (and only he) begins to see in descending order as each day passes. Tension builds as Duane attempts to make sense of the visions’ meaning, growing increasingly certain that they foretell his own death. Following the advice of his best friend Rob, Duane seeks counsel from a priest, who suggests that the numbers represent the season of Lent, the last day ending on Easter Sunday.
The plot centers around the complicated, interconnected relationships among the characters. Duane, a wealthy journalist and recovering alcoholic who was abusive to his ex-wife and estranged daughter, is a devoted father to his six-year old son Chad; he has fallen in love with Dorothy, a kind, understanding woman who wants a future with him and Chad. Duane’s wife Toni is a university professor who cares more for her career than her family. Currently on a research sabbatical in New Mexico, she has become romantically involved with a colleague. When Duane’s jealous ex girl friend Candi sends Toni a Facebook message warning her about Duane’s affair, Toni and Duane begin to talk about divorcing. Facing divorce and possibly his own demise, Duane becomes concerned about what will happen to Chad and Dorothy, as well as his own soul. Tension builds as he desperately tries to get his house in order before the final day/number vision arrives.
Ultimately, Joe Lee’s 40 Days is a novel of redemption that should resonate with most readers. It is a compelling page turner that I found hard to put down. The ending, while predictable, was both appropriate and satisfying.