Wednesday, May 20, 2015

TBR Challenge 2015: A Soldier's Heart
The BookA Soldier's Heart by Kathleen Korbel

The Particulars: Contemporary romance, Silhouette Intimate Moments #602, 1994, Out of Print, No Digital Edition

Why Was It In Wendy's TBR?:  Adored by numerous readers, and a RITA winner in 1995, I was eventually pushed over the edge to adding it to the TBR because of Victoria Janssen's love for it.  Like me, Victoria is a major category ho so I tend to listen to her recs.

The Review: I love the "social history" aspect of reading older category romances.  In the days before digital and self publishing, if you wanted "current issues" in your romance novels you often found them in category romances thanks to the sheer volume of them that were published every month and the tighter turn-around in deadlines.  There were elements of this story that were a tiny bit dated (say hello to your car phone!), but it still feels fresh and relevant reading it 20 years after the fact.  I can only imagine what it would have been like to be a reader back then, discovering this book.  Nothing short of a revolution.

Twenty years ago Tony Riordan was pulled out of a Vietnamese rice paddy barely hanging on to life.  By the time he makes it to the evac hospital he's ready to give up, slip away.  And then a nurse with a soothing voice punches him in the jaw and tells him in no uncertain terms that he will not die - she won't allow it.  Tony does survive and makes it home - but not without demons.  He's found help for his PTSD and is ready to put the last of those demons to rest, which means finding his nurse.

Vietnam was a lifetime ago for Claire Henderson, one she's trying to forget.  She lost her parents (figuratively, not literally), her husband (another Vietnam vet) and keeps her demons at bay playing the always on-call caregiver.  She's trying to open up a bed & breakfast, still works part-time as a nurse, has two teenage children, one of whom is itching to enlist so he can fly jets.  She's barely holding it together as is - then the nightly news starts filling up with Somalia and Tony walks into her present, a ghost from the past.  Claire begins to crack and Tony, knowing the signs, having seen them and still living with the struggle, stays in town under the guise of helping her with her B&B (handily, he's a contractor).

Let's go back to the early 1990s, shall we?  The US has a long history of shame when it comes to helping our veterans and it took until the early 1990s for the idea of treating PTSD to gain some traction.  And even then?  It was a lot of veterans helping their own in street-side clinics.  But hey - that's just the men.  Nobody was really thinking about the women.  The idea that women would come home with PTSD was still a foreign concept.  Claire feels like she didn't have it so bad - not like the boys did.  She didn't suffer like they did.  What she won't acknowledge is that just because she had it different doesn't mean she didn't suffer.  Their experiences do not invalidate her experiences.  Because of all of this, Tony is at a bit of a loss as to how to help her.

This element to the story is very well done and by far my favorite aspect of the story.  I've got a huge soft spot for nurse heroines, and Claire is pretty much a textbook example of why I do.  Nurses tend to be pretty amazing people and any nurse who has served in a war zone is balls-out amazing as far as I'm concerned.
"I was just one nurse in one evac hospital.  There were hundred of us, nurses, doctors, corpsmen, medics."

"It wasn't the doctors who held my hand when I thought they were my mom."

Her smile was fleeting and tenuous.  "The doctors didn't look a thing like your mom."

"Neither do you.  But you were there."

Her eyes gave her away before she could ever manage the words.  Huge eyes, eloquent eyes, eyes that betrayed the old horrors she'd locked so far away.  "It was only my job," she said quietly, and nobody in the kitchen believed her.
The Vietnam portions of the story are epic, and so well-done.  They are what really elevated this from being a "very good" read to a "great" one.
"What happened was I quit," she told him.  "Quit fighting, quit asking, quit giving a damn.  I went over because I could make a difference, but I was wrong.  I couldn't do it.  I couldn't take every one of those boys looking to me to save them, to hold them, to be their mothers and sisters and lovers.  I couldn't let them die without trying and I couldn't tell them it was going to be all right when I was sending them home with only one limb.  So I quit."
So yeah.  My heart pretty much got ripped out repeatedly while reading this book.

But this is me we're talking about and honestly, as emotional charged as this book is in so many ways and for all the praise it has garnered over the's not perfect.  The romance does get a little lost in the shuffle at times.  I'm not entirely sure how Tony and Claire fall in love because the "stuff" going on with them and around them takes a bigger piece of the action.  There's also an element of alcohol use that the author totally skates over, I suspect because we're talking category word count.  Tony likes the occasional beer, but it's mentioned that Claire sometimes has to down a couple glasses of wine before bed in the hopes she'll actually sleep.  Wine bottles in her bedroom, in the kitchen, are mentioned more than once.  Now just because Claire drinks wine before bed does not automatically make her an alcoholic, but she's obviously using it as a crutch, and that's classic alcoholic behavior right there.

The author does do a bang-up job with the ending, and I never got the impression that Claire was "cured" by the love of a strong hunky guy with a mustache.  Also, gird your loins - we have an older couple!  Vietnam vets + parents of teenage kids + 1990s = a romantic couple in their 40s.  The romance genre has evolved and changed in 20 years, but some things haven't.  Older protagonists still aren't thick on the ground and while we love us our military heroes?  We still don't see a ton of military heroines.  So this revolutionary book in 1994 still feels a bit revolutionary 20 years after the fact - if for only those two reasons alone.

This was firmly sitting in my B range for the majority of the story, but once Korbel turns up the angst and emotion in the final half things really begin to cook.  I'm not sure I'll ever reread this, but it's just too strong of a story for me to not give it an A, quibbles and all.

Final Grade = A-


Unknown said...

Oh, I love this book (I even guest reviewed it at DA when they were doing classic romances). I'm so glad you liked it.

I agree that the romance gets lost in the rest of the plot and Tony conveniently being a contractor required a suspension of disbelief. And there were other little niggling flaws that I noticed on my 3rd reread, but mostly I love this book so much that I'm willing to overlook the little stuff.

I first read it in the 90s, either as a library book, or (more likely) standing in the book aisle of the supermarket and it stayed with me. I'm sure it was the first book, let alone the first romance, that I ever read with protagonists with PTSD, and it's still on my short list of best PTSD romances. I found it again a few years ago and was kind of surprised and pleased to discover that it's so well loved by other readers. And I was pleased that it held up so well.

Unknown said...

I really liked this one, I only read it in the past year. but if I remember correctly, this is available on for those who are having trouble laying their hands on it.

Lynn Spencer said...

I sooo need to read this one. I'm a big fan of Korbel, but this is one of a few I haven't read yet. When I read her backlist, or some of the other 1990s Intimate Moments books, I get so nostalgic for that line. I like the Rom Susp line, but IM had a bit more meat to it, or at least the best of their books did.

Keira Soleore said...

I love this book. It's such a complete departure from the type of books I normally read that I was skeptical of taking it up. But Sunita insisted, so I did. And was I glad I did! It was one of my best books of that year.

azteclady said...

I need to get my hands on this one--I'll try, thank you for the suggestion, Erin.

I love those older category romance that broke all the 'rules' and did it so well.

Phyl said...

Count me as another who's like to read this. Your review reminded me of the TV show China Beach, too. It sounds well worth tracking down.

nath said...

I was actually wondering how old the characters were :P Trying to do the maths LOL. That's interesting. I like the hunky guy with a mustache on the cover LOL. While it seems to hold up pretty well, it's still interesting to see how much our society has changed....

Seems like you're on a roll, 2 A- books in a row!!

Wendy said...

Yes, it is on - so that's a good way to track down a copy as, from what I've heard, Dreyer is still working on digitizing these Korbel titles she's gotten the rights back for. If she's at RWA this year I'll have to see if I can track her down and get an update :)

I've heard good things about her Dreyer books (both the thrillers and the historicals) but her Korbel categories truly seem to be beloved by so many readers. In fact, she won three RITAs under her Korbel name - so obviously she was doing something right in the category format. I'm looking forward to tracking down more of her work.

Lady Jessop said...

Just got myself a used copy of this book as I have been thinking about it ever since I read this review last week. I love me some 90s romance.

Wendy said...

Lady Jessop: Considering it's age I thought it held up really well. I hope you enjoy it!