Miss Bates thought Colleen Coble’s Rosemary Cottage an innocuous read. It’s heavy on the mystery, light on the romance and faith. The writing is weak, but the suspense is tense and interesting in places. Because Miss Bates reads for the “romantic” in “romantic suspense,” she didn’t enjoy it all that much and hankered for more emotional intimacy between the hero and heroine. Miss Bates did work up quite a bit of curiosity about the mystery and read through pretty steadily to the end. She’d guessed the culprits, but not the revelatory and quite surprising twist. Coble’s novel kept her interest, but didn’t capture her heart.
Rosemary Cottage centres around the mysterious deaths of the hero’s and heroine’s siblings. Amy Lang arrives at her family’s summer retreat, Rosemary Cottage on Hope Island in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, still grieving the loss of her brother, Ben. In this beloved place, she hopes to heal and establish a midwifery practice. Curtis Ireland, a Coast Guard officer, is guardian of his deceased sister’s, Gina’s, baby. He’s noticed Amy in the past and been attracted to her, but the knowledge that his niece, Raine, is Ben’s secret daughter deters him from pursuing her. Amy suspects that Ben’s death by shark attack was not accidental and convinces Curtis to help her bring this to light. Curtis, in turn, carries bitterness against Ben for not marrying Gina or taking care of Raine. Gina left him with sole custody of Raine and he hasn’t told the Langs about her for fear they will wrest custody from him.
His attraction for Amy and her kindness and friendship leave him torn between keeping or revealing the truth and he does, not far into the narrative, tell Amy about Raine’s paternity. From hereon, a near-death experience and trail of money, power, and corruption bring Amy and Curtis closer and closer to the convoluted, sordid truths of their siblings’ lives. In the process, they discover how difficult it is to really know others, even those you love the dearest and feel closest to. They also fall in love, argue, harangue each other, are caught between loyalty to their burgeoning relationship and what they owe their siblings, struggle with their conscience, and fear, especially Amy who harbors a secret of her own, making themselves vulnerable to the other. They are caught between the past, hence “rosemary is for remembrance” running as a theme throughout, and breaking free of the past to forge a common future. Even though this novel is more suspense than romance, wedding bells replace rosemary sprigs by the end. How convincing Curtis’s and Amy’s avowals of love are is up to the reader, but Miss Bates wasn’t satisfied.
Two quite likeable and interesting characters, Curtis and Amy, are swallowed by the plot of this “romance” novel. The most compelling passages are evident in the hero’s and heroine’s struggle to come to terms with the past. Curtis is a great guy: loving to his niece, affectionate with his Aunt Edith, funny, good-looking, useful to and beloved by his community, and for goodness sake why wouldn’t he be, he rescues tourist nincompoops from the sea. He knows how to wield a surfboard and can match Matthew McConaughey any day for sun-bleached locks. (Not that we see much of them; he spends most of the novel obsessively sporting an annoying “Harley do-rag” that drove Miss Bates nuts.) When the novel opens, his struggle with keeping Raine a secret from Amy’s family is compelling: he knows telling them is the right thing to do, but he’s afraid that their money, influence, and power will take her away. He caves early on and the issue is resolved, but what follows, i.e. Curtis as amateur detective, isn’t nearly as interesting. Amy too is initially appealing: she struggles with unresolved grief; her profession is fascinating. She’s funny, loving, and gentle. Her interest in herb gardening and holistic medicine are intriguing. How she came to be the person she is (despite indifferent parents) and her ruminations on all that her life has entailed: including an emotional defense mechanism that keeps her from revealing her innermost self to others is fascinating. As in Curtis’s case, this rich characterization gives way to solving the mystery of Ben’s and Gina’s deaths. In the process of, these characters’ development is not fully explored. When Amy in particular faces some truths about herself at the end, they are much less convincing because we haven’t enjoyed the journey of how she arrived at them.
The external conflict of Amy/Curtis vs the mystery consumes the more absorbing inner conflicts of these two characters. It also plays havoc with their romance, which is truncated at the end of each chapter with new revelations regarding the mystery and/or some block that involves expressing their loyalty to their sibling rather than getting to know each other, or giving in to attraction. (Miss Bates recognizes that this is a convenient strategy with the minimal physical contact that inspirational romance entails.)
The faith element of this novel is very mild. The good characters go to church, but the actual goings-on of the services are never recounted, not even the readings or sermon. The good characters pray when things are bad and they’re bad throughout most this novel, but the prayers are short and not too fervent. Miss Bates has gone on and on in the past about the lack of ritual in inspirational romance (see her post on Charlotte Lamb), but the faith element here is more etiolated than ever. There’s a much better articulated post on this subject at My Extensive Reading.
The ethos, however, is deeply conservative. This comes through in particular when characters, including her brother Curtis, talk about Gina, the deceased sister and Raine’s mother. It appears that Gina had a reputation as a promiscuous woman who became a “good” woman when she had a conversion experience. Virtue is equated not with kindness and care for others, but with chastity. The dialogue, already problematic because it is stilted and stiff, of the “good” characters makes them sound like prigs. Though Miss Bates is not rating this novel as such, this aspect of it was particularly “badly done.”
In the end, Miss Bates offers faint praise because those elements about romance that she loves were left by the wayside. Since she is no longer the avid mystery reader that she was, the overwhelming emphasis on the mystery here leaves this novel only “Tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park, as a recommendation. If you like your romance and faith light and your mystery constant, then Rosemary Cottage would definitely be a book for you.
Coble’s Rosemary Cottage is available on July 9th. It is published by Thomas Nelson and available in the usual formats and places. Miss Bates received a generous e-ARC of this novel from the publisher via Netgalley for an honest review.