High Country Bride by Jillian Hart
The Particulars: Inspirational historical western romance, Love Inspired Historical, 2008, Out of Print, Available Digitally, Book two in connected duet.
Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?: I picked this one up at RWA 2008 (uh, San Francisco?). Plus, I tend to like Jillian Hart's books.
The Review: Joanna Nelson's life has been one big trial after another. After her no-good drunken husband dies, she takes her two small children to live with her father. He's not much of a prize either, and when he takes sick, Joanna writes her half-brother begging for help. Now their father is dead, and Joanna is hoping that Lee can hold off the banker and debt collectors with the same ease Daddy did. She's in for a shock though when Lee declares that he had no intention of keeping the farm and has sold it back to the bank. Oh, and by the way, she and her two kids need to get the hell out before nightfall.
Aidan McKaslin finds Joanna Nelson and her two small children living out of a wagon, and squatting on his land. He can't very well leave them there, and the idea that this woman has, literally, no place to go and no one to help ease her burden turns his stomach. He offers her the use of an old shanty cabin he has on his land, just for the night of course. Until she can decide what she's going to do.
What I tend to love about Hart's historicals is that she really slathers on the angst, but still manages to make it feel authentic. In other words, not over the top. Yes, Joanna has had a hard life, but nothing that befalls her is so extraordinary that it couldn't have happened to women living in the 19th century. She's been at the mercy of useless men her whole life, and while Aidan does scare her, at first, she quickly realizes that he's not just any man. He's the man. However, as much as she's starting to care for him, she knows that he is unable to return her feelings. He's already buried the love of his life, along with their infant son. While his faith is still strong, he fears his heart is dead.
The emotional turmoil in this story is really gut-wrenching. Joanna has gumption, and is the sort of woman who would go to hell and back if it meant providing stability for her kids. Aidan is a man who was so desperately in love with his late wife, that her death literally shattered him. It's an amazing amount of internal baggage in this story, and the author makes her characters walk over miles of broken glass while lugging it around.
Unfortunately the longer the story goes on, that baggage gets heavier. It also begins to wear on the reader how exorbitantly tolerant Joanna is. Aidan isn't outright cruel. He doesn't beat her. He doesn't abuse her. But his belief that he simply cannot love her and her refusal to confront him on his bullshit began to make me very angry. Joanna feels it's her fault for making Aidan relive his pain. Joanna thinks that if she lessens his burden, if she waits him out, if she's patient, he'll come around. In the meantime he avoids her and avoids her children - both of whom worship him.
I wanted her angry. I wanted her so angry that she'd damn God to hell, get in Aidan's face, and tell him what a moron he was being. I wanted a confrontation. Instead we get Aidan wandering off to contemplate if Joanna and the kids coming into his life were all part of "God's plan." Ok, fine. That might be all well and good - but would it have killed God to let Joanna find a little backbone and rip Aidan a new one in the process?
This is a hard book for me to wrap up into a final grade. It starts off like gang-busters, and I loved the angst. But the lack of a real confrontation at the end, plus the fact that I got a little bored with hearing how awesome of a cook Joanna was, started to wear on me. There's also the small matter of there not being a love scene in this book. Yes, I'm well aware this is an inspirational. I also do not need sex scenes in my romances. But in this one? I do. Why? Because Aidan's complete unwillingness to let go of the past for pretty much the WHOLE book makes it hard for me to believe that finally, in the last chapter, he's suddenly willing too. That after, for the WHOLE book, he's held fast with his I'll-Never-Love-Again idiocy, suddenly in the last chapter he admits his feelings and I'm supposed to believe everything will be just dandy? A love scene, even a vaguely-drawn G-rated one, would have gone a long way in showing that Aidan is ready to move on, be the husband and father that Joanna and the kids deserve.
So yeah, I got angry. I got angry that Joanna didn't get angry. But, I'll be honest, this book sucked me in to the point where I read it in a day. And considering I DNF'ed one book, and chucked aside two others, before settling on this one? As angry as I was, we're not talking anywhere near hate.
Final Grade = C+