A pleasant, small town, family-centered read
Reading Level: Adult Romance
Release Date: April 19, 2018
Pages: 334 pages
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
Two years ago the heroine, Carla, who is 28, dropped out of her job as a rescue tracker, a job which involved travel to disasters all over the world with her highly trained Golden Retriever dog, Abbey. She was too depressed to continue with her previously highly successful career after she failed to save a 7-year-old boy, who got lost during a scouting camping trip in the mountains, and whom she was personally attached to, as a friend of his family. She blamed herself for her failure, quit her job, and has been hiding out ever since, wallowing in guilt, in her hometown, Chandler, a quaint tourist destination by the ocean in Northern California, which is a small, insular community. She has been making a living training and selling Golden Retriever rescue dogs like Abbey to her former employer.
Carla’s widowed mother and two of her three older brothers live in Chandler, and the third brother lives 30 miles away. Her mother is a cliche, Italian, Catholic matriarch, who insists that her children come to a huge, home-cooked dinner every Sunday, and whose biggest ambition in life is to see all her children married and producing grandchildren, for whom she is willing to endlessly offer free babysitting. Most especially she is willing to do whatever it takes to get Carla, as her only daughter, married off, even going so far as to suggest that the local, unattractive butcher, who is 20 years Carla’s senior, might be a viable catch. She has informed Carla, only half-jokingly, that her life will be ruined if she makes it to her 30th birthday without being married.
Carla’s oldest brother Tony is the local sheriff, and he is married to his high school sweetheart Beth. They have a 2-year-old daughter. Carla’s best friend Stevie still lives in town and owns and runs a coffee shop. Her other two brothers couldn’t be more different even though they are twins. Paul is an IT genius and Nick is a pro football player who just suffered a career-ending knee injury at age 32.
The romantic interest for Carla, Jackson, is a 30-something (his age is never directly stated) attorney from Chicago whose wife died in a car accident a year before. His then five-year-old daughter, Reese, was in the back seat. She has not spoken or even laughed during the entire year since then, in spite of therapy and Jackson constantly hovering over her. His wife was from a very wealthy family, and her parents blame him for her death. He doesn’t defend himself against their verbal insults because he has survivor guilt and blames himself for his wife’s death, even though he wasn’t in the car when she died. His rich in-laws are cold, callous people who have threatened legal action, in the process wielding their enormous economic power and political influence to guarantee an outcome in their favor, to take Reese away from Jackson if she is not speaking by the 1st of September, only three months away. At that time they plan to stash her away in some kind of residential mental institution that is presumably going to help her get her speech back, but which is presented from Jackson’s point of view as something out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
As a last-ditch effort to save his daughter, Jackson has taken a leave of absence from his big, corporate law firm in Chicago and come for the summer to live in Chandler. He is renting a house across the street from Carla and her mother, who live next door to each other.
Right from the start, Reese is attracted to the litter of Golden Retriever puppies that Carla keeps in a kennel in her backyard. Reese is also attracted to Abbey and to Carla. Jackson is amazed when the puppies cause Reese to laugh, the first sound she has made in a year. Even her frequent, depressed crying has been silent.
In spite of the fact that it is blatantly obvious to Jackson that it is incredibly healing for Reese to be around the dogs, and Carla as well, who is extremely warm and caring, Jackson is rude and unfriendly to her because he resents the fact that he is physically attracted to Carla. He is wearing a hair shirt of guilt, and believes that any experience that feels less than punitive to himself is something he doesn’t deserve. Therefore, he initially tries to keep his daughter away from the dogs and Carla. Fortunately, his heart isn’t that egocentrically closed off for long, and he soon surrenders to Reese’s need to be around the dogs and, eventually, not just Carla, but her loving mother and boisterous family as well.
There is a strong theme in this book of both Jackson and Carla living with guilt and shame. Both have withdrawn from life and are punishing themselves for an imagined failure to save the life of someone close to them. In short, this is a classic, Harlequin, contemporary romance with the theme of redemptive love, in which the relationship of the protagonists with each other, with the pitiful, little child Reese, with Carla’s dogs, and with Carla’s affectionate and loyal family bring emotional healing to Jackson and Carla.
This book was originally published in 2004 as Book 1 of a trilogy. Book 2 is a romance between Carla’s brother Paul and her best friend Stevie. Book 3 is a romance between Carla’s brother Nick and the foster mother of an illegitimate 10-year-old son whose existence he was not aware of until the boy takes him to court for paternal support.
This book has the pluses of lots of heartwarming schmaltz, between the cute little girl, the adorable dogs, and the big, loving family of the heroine. It also portrays small-town life in a very positive way, though we only get to know a handful of stock figures in this imaginary town.
Another plus is that this is a slow-burn romance, with only one tender sex scene toward the end of the book.
I also liked that, contrary to an utter cliche of romance novels, the white hero did not have an unearned tan.
On the negative side, and some readers may not find this a negative, there is a lot of head hopping in the story. In addition to the points of view of Carla and Jackson, the author jumps into the points of view of Stevie, Tony, Beth, Carla’s mother, and Reese. The shift to these different points of view sometimes happens from one paragraph to the next, with no warning transition, which is rather confusing.
Every romance must have romantic conflict, that is, we are told or shown immediately that these two people are soulmates, but something stands in the way of them leaping wholeheartedly into each other’s arms and running off into the sunset. In the case of this particular story, almost the entire romantic conflict comes from Jackson’s self-flagellating guilt, which frankly, in my perspective, makes him at times quite irritatingly passive.
Another personal pique of mine is when the author vicariously lives out through her female protagonist what is obviously her own personal fantasy, the ability of the heroine to never exercise and eat enough junk food to make a normal human female enormously overweight and seriously unhealthy while maintaining a gorgeous, slender figure and glowing health. This particular heroine seems to live off cookies, chocolate, ice cream, pizza, and massively fattening Italian pastas.
In a similar, standard cliche of romance novels, that the hero must have a ripped physique, Jackson is certainly described in that way. However, he too has an unearned beautiful body. He also never exercises in any way.
Another irritating, automatic-pilot phrase that far too many romance authors unthinkingly include in their stories unfortunately appears in this novel: Jackson refers to his blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter as an “all-American girl,” which is a subtly racist term that I would love to see romance authors (and makers of dolls for children) dump forever. The implication of that obnoxious term is that anyone who is not as white as white can be is only partly American or, worse, not a “real” American.
All in all, though, in spite of these issues, which most readers probably won’t even notice, fans of pleasant, lightly dramatic, Harlequin American type romance novels will probably enjoy this book. Because that is not specifically my cup of tea, I am not grading this book down for being what it is. What I see as cliche are classic, expected tropes that fans of this particular genre expect and demand.
I grade this book as follows:
Romance Plot: 3
Child Plot: 4
Dog Plot: 5