REVIEW: Melinda Curtis’ SUMMER KISSES, Or Bridges of Sonoma County

Summer KissesMelinda Curtis’s Summer Kisses is the second romance that Miss Bates has read from Harlequin’s Heartwarming line.  If this and Sinara’s The Promise of Rain are the standard, the line offers some fine stories.  If Harlequin’s “Writing Guidelines” are anything to go by, “wholesome contemporary romances that celebrate traditional values, strong communities, family connections, and true love” (Oxford comma is Miss Bates’s), this would not be to Miss Bates’s taste.  Yet, she very much enjoyed Sinara’s and Curtis’s novels.  Of the two, Sinara’s is the more technically perfect: the writing is smoother; the characterization, more consistent; the structure, tighter; but Curtis’s novel is strong, interesting … flawed, but definitely worth reading.  Truth be told, Harlequin’s descriptor brings on fear of the insipid; however, these titles were engaging, portrayed believable dilemmas and difficulties, gave us intelligent heroes and heroines, complex family connections, and communities that were less cutesy than many small-town contemporary romances.  Thus far, Heartwarmings are like Superromances sans nooky.  They are also akin to the contemporary Inspired line without the prissiness or de rigueur conversions.  (Curtis’s romance narrative brought to mind O’Keefe’s “Notorious O’Neills” trilogy, a category favourite of Miss Bates’s.)  

In Summer Kisses, Curtis juggles many narrative balls and, as a result, drops a few.  Not all and not all time, but keeping them aloft is difficult.  The ball she drops most often, despite a few masterful spins, is the romance.  It’s not that it doesn’t work, or that the reader can’t imagine hero, Flynn Harris, and heroine, Becca MacKenzie, together, but there are so many angst-ridden strands to the story that, on a practical level, Becca and Flynn’s time together is at a premium.

Summer Kisses takes place in fictional Harmony Valley, in gloriously non-fictional Sonoma County.  Certified nursing assistant for the elderly, Becca MacKenzie, is interviewing with Flynn Harris, app geek and millionaire, to care for his fragile, dying grandfather, Edwin Blonkowski.  Becca lives out of a motor home, moving from job to job, accompanied by her adorable pooch, Abby.  Becca is one of the walking wounded: 

Becca MacKenzie was sweet and loveable and trustworthy.  At least, that’s what people used to say.  But that was before.  Before a Taliban bullet widowed her, before her smile felt scarred, before she got it into her head that everyone deserved the granting of their last wish. … What had she been thinking?  Not about protecting herself.  She’d been thinking screw grief.

Becca is “sweet, loveable, and trustworthy,” but she doesn’t see herself that way.  She’s still grieving Terry, her husband killed in Afghanistan, and is in trouble with a capital T.  Her soft heart and desire to make everyone’s last wish come true, her willingness to give totally of herself to her aging clients, has landed her in a pickle and some clients’ families are suing her.  Flynn, suspecting a fraud, doesn’t trust her on sight, but his grand-father does.  Flynn’s mistrust is coupled with attraction; when she starts taking care of his grandfather, her loving ways, gentle care, and wisdom win him.  That, and how she fills out spandex, “All’s well, said the sway of her hips.  Mission accomplished, said the swing of her long, black braid.  All woman, said the curves covered in black and pink spandex.”  She’s a looker, a “dark-haired, legally harried beauty.”  That, my fellow romance reader, is a sampling of how adept the writing is at times!  Pithy and pleasurable to read.

Flynn falls hard, but he has troubles too.  Not Capital-T-Becca trouble, but many things weigh on him.  Brought up by his beloved grand-father, Flynn knows but is unwilling to accept his grand-pa is dying.  He doesn’t know how to quit him.  He’s trying to build a winery with his business partners/friends, but he doesn’t know a thing about wine, or wine-making.  He’s hired a shifty, beautiful thief? fraud? of a care-giver and his sister, Kathy, in trouble though unwilling to tell him why, has dropped his eight-year-old nephew, Truman, on his doorstep.  His ex-con father, Joey, whom he hasn’t seen since childhood, is foreman to the company he’s hired to work on the winery site.  His grand-father has given him a special mission: to bring young, working people to Harmony Valley, for years home to retirees, devoid of cell phone or internet service.  Flynn’s an endearing hero: lanky and red-haired, he’s more geek than brawn, but he’s loving, caring, and terrified of losing the only person he’s had … until Becca.  There is a masterful memory/scene of Joey’s arrest.  There is no small-town smarm.  Truman is a real kid, vulnerable and exuberant all at once.  To Becca’s grief, trouble, and too generous nature and Flynn’s responsibilities add three scheming lady octogenarians and a slimy detective and try to sustain all those narrative strands with a potent romance … no can do.  Romance ball dropped.

In the end, Curtis’s novel is one of consistent angst, relieved by hot kissing on a bridge, occasional humour, and a really cute dog.  Moreover, while Becca is lovely for the most part, she does get too saintly, despite the lawsuit.  Miss Bates likes her heroines a little messed-up, or selfish, or sharp.  Becca is TGTBT (Too Good To Be True): she cooks, cleans, cares for children, the elderly, & animals, and never loses her temper.  And because of the disparate elements Curtis maintains, Flynn & Becca kiss and experience desire, but without courting, because other elements take up so much narrative space to experience them together, to make sense of why they fall in love.  They don’t talk, or spend time together.  There isn’t much of the romantic in this romance.  On the other hand, there’s something brave here, as Curtis tackles the issues of the care-giver’s role, easing an elderly person’s final days, and what grieving exacts of us.  Not sun-shiny topics, but she does them well.  The few romantic moments there are between Becca and Flynn are heart-stoppingly good, Miss Bates wishes there were more of them.  Their dearth also makes for an abrupt, too-neat, too-pat conclusion.

In Melinda Curtis’ Summer Kisses is evidence of a “mind lively and at ease,” Emma.  It has been available since February 1st where you usually purchase your romances in the formats of your choice.  

Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin (Heartwarming) for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.

Many a romance torments its hero and heroine with a difficult past.  Romance novels are about recovery, healing, etc. and this one is too, but there is a rawness here.  Do you recall romance novels that tackle a thorny subject honestly and without a thoroughly rainbow treatment?