Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Her Hesitant Heart by Carla Kelly

My Experience:  B++
Synopsis:  On the frontier of a new life… Tired and hungry after two days of traveling, Susanna Hopkins is just about at the end of her tether when her train finally arrives in Cheyenne. She’s bound for a new life in a Western garrison town. Then she discovers she doesn’t even have enough money to pay for the stagecoach! Luckily for her, the compassionate Major Joseph Randolph is heading in the same direction. As a military surgeon, Joe is used to keeping his professional distance. But, despite Susanna’s understated beauty, he’s drawn to this woman who carries loss and pain equal to his own and has a heart that is just as hesitant and wary....

If there is one consistent theme in Carla Kelly's books it is this:  Everyone bends and we try not to break.  Bending without breaking is a hard lesson, usually learned over and over and over in life.  I am always grateful when the wind blows the other direction and reminds me, by the grace of God, I am more supple than I thought.  Ms. Kelly's books feel like a rush of affirming wind for me.  I am always glad I read them, always reminded that there is more to life than the hum drum grind of petty annoyances, and always give me characters I feel like I know.

Overall, the writing is excellent, the dialog genuine, and the narrative tenderly handled.  Secondary characters are human, flaws and all, and worth the time spent on them.  The sense of place and historical details are wonderful without info dumps or neglect of little things we forgot we knew.  The friendships and romance was given time to develop and are laced with both humor and determination.  This isn't a book for skimming, reading on a commute, or beginning late in the evening [unless you don't work the next day].  It is a put dinner in the crock pot, turn off the phone, and curl up read, definitely for the Keeper file.

*** NO spoilers here***

First let me vent:  Harlequin Romance still have the cwappiest blurb writers.  Reading the blurb they provide is like trying to decipher a secret code without the key.  I sometimes wonder if they even read the book before penning the blurb.   /vent off

So here's a synopsis that might make more sense:
Susanna Hopkins travels to Ft. Laramie to take a teaching position she is more than qualified for. At the request of her cousin, Susanna is met at the station by Major Joseph Randolph; a doctor that has endured grief and learned to carry on.  Divorced and denied access to her child, Susanna takes shelter in the less than welcoming home of her cousin, Emily, and her husband Captain Reese.  Through harsh seasons and the rigors of life on an Army Post, Joe and Susanna move beyond existence to living without hesitation and loving generously.

Or straight from the book says it better:
 She took her thoughts to another level, right down into her own hesitant heart. She had begun her journey from Pennsylvania with hope and the promise of a useful life. Events had taken a terrible turn, but she was still alive, her brain was agile and she was beginning to suspect that she was a resourceful woman. She had a skill people needed. There were six young children in a commissary warehouse, sitting at packing crate desks, who needed her. There was a private teaching a school for fifty cents extra duty pay a day, and in over his head, who needed her. There was a post surgeon with sorrows at least as great as hers, perhaps greater, who was determined she would not give up on his watch.  And there was Maeve Rattigan, denied the one thing she wanted most, who cared to read and write. “I can live with this, because I have work to do.”

Regardless of the blurb, this book touched me deeply, both in the crafting of the characters and the plot of the narrative.  A divorced woman myself, with children now grown, I could easily imagine the relentless clawing of separation from a child that you not only knew was in danger, but had no legal or familiar resource to turn to for help.  Ms. Kelly never lost sight of what abuse and judgment does to a woman's spirit and self-esteem.  The energy and courage required to start over are perfectly captured here without spiraling in to maudlin or reality TV drama.  Susanna grows to the realization that she is not only stronger than she knew but also softer, and that's all right.  Her baby steps - that felt like giant leaps to her - in this regard are believable.

Her moment of decision was a bit just add water  without the need of rinse and repeat of real life, but this IS a romance novel and not a psychological analysis of frontier life.  Through interaction in a small community and the commitment to teach while living a useful life, she cements respect and affection that borders on too sweet without crossing the line.  I don't believe it would be so easy or happen so quickly, but I know continuing to walk with dignity and self-respect does eventually make a difference, even if it is only in an ability to sleep well at night and face the day with anticipation instead of dread.

I decided there is only one thing I cannot live without, and see no solution at present.” She took a deep breath. “My son. He should be with me.”

No, she didn't win everyone over; not even when the truth of her circumstances was revealed.  She did make a place for herself that suited her nature.  Neither does Susanna give up hope her son will be restored to her, though it is hard to hang on to many hours of the day.  This felt true and oh so familiar.  She was definitely a woman of her times, but also a woman of gentler temperament and the fact she ran to save her life is probably the only out of character behavior she ever exhibited.  I imagine readers with different temperaments or modern perspective will find her ... less than a heroine.  That's all right, there are plenty of books with fiery, feisty, and bold women to read instead.  Quite courage that plods along has its place in the world as well as romance land.

Susanna fell into the rhythm of work, fitting her mind to the never-changing routine of an army garrison. The regularity of bugle calls and order was a balm to her soul. Now that she had made her personal peace with her cousin, she discovered how little it mattered to her what anyone else felt....No other families unbent enough to send their children to the warehouse, but Susanna was not one to search for grand success. Life had taught her how unlikely that was.

Joseph is a Kelly Hero and one of the many reasons I love her books.  He had his own demons and doubts but he walked through the nightmare days and reached this side of numb by the time he met Susanna.  His charming manners, stout humor and good-natured nagging is precisely how he did so.  That, and a great deal of work with perhaps an extra helping of pride on those really bad days, kept him sane and functional.  He would not make his sacrifices be for nothing or diminish his wife's worth by spiraling into despair.  From concern to curiosity to attraction and then love; Joe did not rush his own emotions any more than he did Susanna's.  I appreciate that respect for the reader as well as the characters.

I just want to put the heart back in you, Susanna,” he whispered. The thought struck him that maybe she was doing the same thing to him, probably without even knowing it.

Susanna put her hand over his. “These are difficult times. Perhaps we had better just remain fond.”

The traditional romance has become annoying to many readers.  The new formula seems to be: Attraction must be instant, temptation must be stronger than self-control, and thoughts of consequences are for dismissing in the heat of the moment since they'll be circumvented quickly enough by HEA.  Joseph and Susanna believe it is better to be hesitant until certain.  Whether this is a traditional response or not, it is reasonable for these characters.

As Susanna healed and learned to let go of hurts; Joe walked with her. Admitting his own weaknesses and strengths, taking those same steps because he wanted to be sure, not because he was compelled by the ache in his groin or the lust in his belly, made him a believable hero for me.  Their romance progressed from an emotional connection to physical attraction; from tentative friendship to earnest commitment and I think Ms. Kelly portrayed this very well.

Finally, mindful of spoilers, there are no dangling threads or forced march epilogue - Thank You So Much!  The story does leave you certain that whatever the future brings, they will manage to live, and love, without hesitation.

No comments:

Post a Comment