Land of Dreams by Cheryl St. John
The Particulars: Historical western romance, Harlequin Historical #265, 1995, Out of Print, has not been digitized but should be fairly easy to find used.
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: Cheryl St. John is an autobuy for me.
The Review: Every romance reader has at least one "comfort author." An author whose books evoke warm fuzzy feelings - like drinking hot chocolate on a snowy day, your grandmother's apple pie, or homemade macaroni and cheese. St. John is one of those authors for me. If I had to label her particular "formula," I would say that she writes nice romances, about nice people. Land of Dreams, only her third published book, reads like classic St. John. If you've read this author before, this book holds absolutely no surprises....but then it doesn't have to. It's pretty dang enjoyable, just like grandma's apple pie.
Thea Coulson has gone through life in her tiny Nebraska town known as Too Tall Thea. She's either looking men in the eye, or looking down on them. Between her height, her pale as snow complexion, and her red hair - well, it's no wonder she's an old maid. Her status is also her burden to bear. She runs her father's household, even though he's married to her stepmother. She's also roped into various local causes, church functions, housewarming parties etc. etc. etc. Thea does not have a life of her own. Nobody is outright cruel to her, it's almost worse than that. They take her for granted. And she's so desperately lonely. So lonely that when an Orphan Train rolls through and nobody claims Zoe, a young cripple girl who cannot talk, Thea convinces the social worker that she'll look after her until a suitable family can be found.
Booker Hayes has finally left the Army, and has gone to New York City to visit his younger sister. Only he discovers both Julia and her husband have died, and his niece Zoe was taken to the foundling home. When he gets there, he discovers he's too late. She was hustled on board an Orphan Train. So now he's off to Nebraska, where he discovers Zoe in the home of Thea Coulson. Booker has some land in the area, and a lot of big dreams. He wants to raise his niece, the only family he has left. However, there's Thea to consider. A woman he didn't expect to find, a woman he can't believe is still single. Are all the men in town blind and epically stupid?
What we have here is a favorite trope among many romance readers: the Plain Jane heroine who is sitting on the shelf, and the hero who is immediately captivated by her. There is no warming up period for Booker. He takes one look at Thea and is smitten. It actually gets worse for him once he gets to know her and discovers how kind, caring, and thoughtful she is....on top of being beautiful. He can't believe his good fortune! Now to convince her that he's the only one for her.
Naturally, it's not that easy. Thea is filled with a lot of self-doubt. Nobody is outright mean to her. Nobody says nasty things to her...well, to her face anyway. No, they don't see her at all. She's the grease that keeps the cogs moving. She's a necessity, but she's also wallpaper. Nobody sees Thea, they just see what she can do for them. And Booker is desperately afraid of turning into one of those people. He wants Thea, and badly. But does that make him just as selfish as....well....everyone else in her life?
The conflict here is very gentle. Some would even say this book is a slow starter. Even though she doesn't wallow, this is really Thea's story about her discovering her self-worth. For that reason, some of the conflict between the couple stems from them not sitting down and hashing out their feelings. Of course, after 27 years of believing she's not good enough, Thea's insecurities are pretty easy to understand. What I really appreciated is that this allows the author to show the reader Thea's faults. Without these faults, our heroine would have been a hopeless Mary Sue. A Mary Poppins clone taking in orphaned children, baking pies for the church bake sale, and cooking her father's meals. These moments allow the reader to see Thea's warts - she's slow to trust Booker, her selfishness. It all makes her seem like a real person.
The author spices up the final quarter of the story with some external conflict. This is actually pretty good stuff, although I would have liked more in the way of remorse from the idiot townspeople. Also, this is when the relationship between Booker and Thea is finally consummated....and it's worth the wait. I like sex as much as the next girl, but after a while I get a little bored with historical characters hopping in and out of bed without so much as a by-your-leave. There's quite a bit of tap-dancing here, again because of communication issues, but hell, if I'm honest? It was damn refreshing.
This is by no means my favorite book ever by St. John, but it was a pleasant, cozy read. Which probably sounds like I'm damning it with faint praise - but I'm really not! If you're a fan of historical westerns that give you that warm fuzzy feeling? Yeah, this is good stuff. I'm not going to say drop everything, run to the nearest UBS and buy it now! But if it's sitting in your TBR or you stumble across it one day? It's a really nice read.
Now someone pass me another slice of granny's apple pie.
Final Grade = B