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Michele Ashman Bell
Tuesday, August 30 2011

The Power of “Agape”: GG Vandagriff’s new book The Only Way to Paradise

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I recently read GG Vandagriff’s new book, The Only Way to Paradise and marveled at this beautifully written story and how Vandagriff used the relationships between four women to teach about “agape” which, in Italian, means Christ-like love.   

Long after I finished the book, the setting and characters lingered in my mind.  In my opinion this is a sign that the book has gone beyond being just interesting, but was able touch something deep inside and leave a lasting impression. 

Exactly what is that hard to define quality that makes a book memorable? Is it complex and interesting characters? Is it a captivating plot with unexpected twists and turns? Maybe it's the setting and the "feel" of the book. Or, perhaps, it's the ability to connect with the story, tap into that magical "relatability" factor that lingers long after the last page has been read.

Any one of these elements is vital to a story, but rarely do we find books that have all of these qualities. However, The Way to Paradise is such a book.

Four women: Georgia, Roxie, MacKenzie and Sara meet in a therapy group. Each woman is dealing with issues in her life that have finally pushed her to the point where she seeks help to come to terms with it. Their sessions allow small fragments of deeply rooted problems to surface, giving the reader glimpses into each woman's past and current struggle. The more we learn them, the more attached we become.

After watching the movie Enchanted April, Roxie throws out the comment that they should all be in Florence, Italy. Georgia, who takes on the role of matriarch, jumps on the idea, admitting that she too had thought that the women should go to Florence, Italy together since Florence is a place where they would be able to grow and heal and renew themselves. As the idea is batted around between the four women, it takes wings, and the next thing they know, they are walking away from their complicated lives and flying to Florence.

For those who have traveled to this timeless and breathtaking city, you will feel like you have returned. For those who have never been there, you will feel like you are seeing it with your own eyes. Vandagriff has done an extraordinary job of bringing the city to life in her story. It's as much of a character as the living, breathing ones are.

It is here, in Florence that each woman comes face to face with her greatest challenge and fear. Emotions and realizations erupt to the surface and push each woman to the breaking point but with the support, help and unconditional friendship they share, these women have the strength they need to power through their struggles. The highest highs and the lowest lows are experienced and in the end, the four women emerge strong, happy and whole. Not perfect, by any means, but definitely hopeful and able to take charge of their own lives.

Each secondary character adds to the mix, much like the vital herbs and seasonings to the richest sauces on one of the lovely Italian dishes. Even though the journey was emotional, intense and draining at times, the beauty and splendor of the setting, as well as the growth and ultimate confrontations each woman faces, culminate in a glorious and rewarding ending.

I was held captive throughout this book and many times had to slow myself down to absorb and digest the many facets of the story. This will be the book you share with all of your friends and family. As summer closes, it is a great way to escape to your own

mini-vacation. 

I asked GG Vandagriff what prompted her to write this book.  She said, “The usual thing: It came to me in the night or early morning.  I had to wake up and write all the details down, and then break it to my husband that he was going to have to go to Italy.” 

I’m guessing he took the news well.   

I was fascinated by the depth of each character and the extensive knowledge behind the descriptions of the setting.  When I asked about her research she said, “I went to Florence and tried to pretend I was a Crazy Lady.  Then I did everything she would do, i.e. go to an expensive spa, take cooking lessons in a thousand year old farmhouse, etc. 

The author shares that there are several themes to the story.  The main theme is that the way to Paradise (and earthly happiness) is to do everything with love.  And to learn to live, like the Italians do: with agape (Christ-like love).  She says, “They are not happy unless they are making you happy.” 

Finally, I asked her what she wanted readers to get out of her book?  This was her answer.  “I want readers to seek the inspiration to know what the Lord's solution is to their problems, what their trials are to teach them, and how to love along the way, showing friends and family the light of Christ.” 

GG Vandagriff’s book is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble.com.

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