Everett’s Sanctuary Island echoes some of the best that contemporary romance offers without being overly derivative: a touch of Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s generational complications, a nuance of Kristen Higgins’s humour, a nod to Nora Roberts’s mystical Chesapeake Bay, and a hail to Shalvis’s loveable secondary characters. Everett stands equal to any of these authors’ series. And, she carries earnestness and genuine love for the genre. Miss Bates has minor quibbles, but overall, she urges you not to overlook Everett’s story. It is an accomplished, promising romance novel. Among the many sweet contemporary romances buffeting readers, it’s one of the best Miss Bates has read this year. It deserves an audience and Miss Bates hopes readers flock to it. The writing stands a notch above most; the characters are believable, likeable, and flawed, inhibiting the typical small-town romance’s saccharine quality. The setting is beautifully portrayed and carries a lovely suggestion of mystique.
Sanctuary Island, off the coast of southeastern Virginia, is a safe harbor that gathers characters to its healing bosom. When the novel opens, city-gal, career-driven Ella Preston and her free-spirited, unwed, pregnant baby sister, Merry, are on the ferry on their way to re-unite with their estranged mother. (Their father took them away 15 years ago to prevent their mother’s alcoholism from damaging the girls further. As the eldest, Ella bore the brunt of that damage to protect Merry.) Ella is keeping her heart in check after years of therapy, but determined to support her soft-hearted, quixotic sister, who yearns for a relationship with their mother. Ella’s convinced that they will experience nothing but heartbreak on this journey. Their mother, Jo Ellen Hollister, has redeemed her life a hundred-fold and wants to bring her girls close enough to love as fiercely as she can. (She reminded Miss Bates of Dean Robillard’s mother, April, in SEP’s Natural Born Charmer.) Sanctuary Island is largely Ella’s story as she learns to relinquish her emotional coolness, open herself to love, and give her soul to the healing beauty of the island and its wild horses. The love interest arrives in the form of her mother’s over-protective handyman, Grady Wilkes, former élite search-and-rescue officer, who carries his own scars and vulnerabilities, both visible and invisible.
The narrative set-up is handled beautifully in the first few chapters. There is no backstory dump; Everett ekes it out in dribbles, naturally flowing from the characters’ dialogue and private thoughts. The island’s allegorical nature is established with lovely descriptive passages that don’t drive the point home ad nauseum. Note, for example, Ella’s approach to the island, “it was almost surreal to stare at … pristine beach, empty of everything except a couple of sandpipers hopping comically through the foam of receding waves … the wind so briny Ella could taste it … Gulls swooped and shrieked, their white wings glowing in the morning light.” The island’s power is further voiced by the eccentric King Sanderson, who says to Ella, “This island … it’s good for what ails you. It’ll change your life, if you let it, but like any great healing – it comes at a price.” Everett establishes her story with description and dialogue; there’s no room for schoolmarmish “don’t tell, show” critique. She is a writer in control of her material. It may not be original, but she’s thought it through and executed it as she saw fit.
The characters shine through. They are loveable; even when they’re not behaving well, they remain sympathetic. Everett writes mature, adult characters true to themselves, who admit when they’re wrong, or have wronged or misjudged someone, make amends, and change for the better. More than anyone, the heroine has to re-evaluate the way she’s relating to others. Everett establishes her characterization beautifully when she makes Ella’s motto “the unscheduled life is not worth living.” Later, she is described as “self-sufficient, dismissive, and poised.” How the island, the wild horses, her mother, and Grady foil Ella’s sang-froid is one of the most interesting aspects of this novel.
What of Grady, the hero? He’s big, good-looking, reliable, loyal, honorable, protective, and as skittish as the island’s wild horses. He falls hard and immediately for Ella (though she actually falls for him; you’ll know what Miss Bates means within the first few chapters. It’s quite a funny scene!) Everett develops a very interesting conflict: as a successful real estate developer, Ella sees the potential for Sanctuary’s economic growth, particularly her mother’s debt-ridden inheritance of the ancestral home. Grady, having found refuge in Sanctuary to escape the very things Ella pursues in the city, is about conservation: of the native habitat, the island’s pristine landscape, its wild horses, and anything to do with her mother, who was the key to his healing when he first arrived. How this conflict plays out is essential to their courtship; how it’s resolved is Ella’s vindication. Grady makes a heart-wrenching sacrifice and follows with a fine grovel. Ella doesn’t let him linger there long: she’s a good, compassionate person. As the island heals and soothes her hurt and unresolved anger, the great person she is emerges, especially vis-à-vis how she helps Grady release the stranglehold of past regrets and by letting the wonderful Jo into her heart and life.
Miss Bates enjoyed Everett’s lovely use of metaphoric language. Here’s one lovingly-rendered example that illustrates Grady and Ella’s burgeoning attraction, ” … as she stood there in the circle of his arms and stared up into his eyes, she felt a connection unfurling between them like the tender, green vines creeping up the side of the house … something inside her opened up, a tightly closed bud stretching toward the first sunlight of spring … The moment went taut, suspended and fragile between them, as if they were holding something delicate and infinitely breakable in the cradle of their bodies.” Images of birth and new life culminate in the final unifying image of Grady and Ella’s love, “Grady … hauled her up to his chest … she twined herself around him like a climbing rose.” Miss Bates adored the horticultural as well as horsey imagery, which some might say hovers on the edge of maudlin. Miss Bates thought its charming delicacy was balanced with witty, honest, even painful dialogue and the characters’ inner revelations.
Lovely as this portrayal of Grady and Ella’s courtship may be, Miss Bates does have one cavil. It is one that she extends to sweet romance in general and not solely Sanctuary Island. Everett’s novel clearly aligns itself in the closed-bedroom-door arena of the kisses-only romance. In an inspirational romance, the hero and heroine do not share physical intimacy beyond a kiss and hand-holding. There is no reference to sexual desire, though physical attraction may be acknowledged and some tension conveyed. However, no matter the extent to which the inspirational author indulges this minimal physicality, the hero and heroine remain chaste. Not so the closed-bedroom-door romance, as in the case of Sanctuary Island where (see Jessica Hart title Miss Bates reviewed) the reader is “cheated.” Grady and Ella are not chaste; it seems to Miss Bates that, in this and other cases, their physical intimacy can serve to enhance and complete the evolution of their emotional bond. Something is left unexplored and undeveloped in the reader’s mind; there’s something about the characters that we are not privy to. The pleasure of the romance novel is not necessarily frequent and gratuitous love scenes but the privilege of being a part of every aspect of the protagonists’ courtship. When a vital element is left out, as opposed to it not occurring at all, then the reader, yes, feels robbed.
Miss Bates’s other minor quibble is the “loose-thread syndrome” that marks the series novel and is the series writer’s bane. Interesting characters are introduced and dropped, such as Harrison McNamara, Jo’s love interest, and his angry teen-age daughter, Taylor. Taylor is a vibrant character and Everett gives the initial impression that she’ll play an important role. Other than serving as a catalyst to certain events, she is dropped, as is Jo’s long-suffering suitor. Gosh, did Miss Bates ever want more of them! These are sequel-mongering figures, as are Merry, the new-born Alex, and a certain handsome, taciturn veterinarian. Sequel-mongering is just the way things go in the series-ridden romance universe.
Lastly, with Miss Bates’s interest in the “inspirational” nuances of all romance novels (see her analysis of one such here), she’s always attuned to a romance novel’s ethos. In this case, it centres on Jo, the girls’ mother, and her recitation, as a recovering addict, of the serenity prayer. It is used thoughtfully, without preachiness. All the characters have to own up, admit they’re wrong, and make make amends, or changes. What appealed to Miss Bates the most here is reflected in the Dostoevsky quotation that she includes in her blog’s margin, “The world will be saved by beauty,” as it is manifested in the healing, untouched, idyllic beauty of the island and its wild horses. The combination of these two ideas: the healing power of nature and the willingness to forgive and change on the characters’ part makes for this novel’s ethic of reconciliation, hope, and love.
Miss Bates read Everett’s Sanctuary Island over a couple of hot summer days and enjoyed every minute of it. She can say with confidence that herein is “a mind lively and at ease.” Emma (Quibbles or no, she looks forward to Everett’s next novel, Shoreline Drive.)
Miss Bates received a generous e-ARC of this novel from St. Martin’s Press (via Netgalley) in exchange for this honest review. Sanctuary Island is available as of July 30th in the usual places and formats. Gift yourself a lovely summer read!