In her most recent Donna Alward review, Miss Bates declared Alward the “queen of domestic romance” in reference to her category novels. The first novel in her Jewell Cove series, The House On Blackberry Hill, written under a different publisher, introduced new elements to Alward’s winning category themes: a certain mysticism, a woo-woo-ness and preciousness that didn’t sit thoroughly well. Miss Bates is an Alward fan (from the moment she closed the final, sopping-Kleenex page of The Cowboy Who Loved Her, one of Miss Bates’ favourite category romances and one she’s often suggested to successfully turn readers onto the genre); she was ready to like Blackberry Hill. Treasure On Lilac Lane, however, turned out even better. Alward tempered the woo-woo with a gentle inspirational element, whisper-thin but moving nonetheless, cranked up the fleshiness, and re-introduced her signature working-class, or lower-middle-class hero and heroine, battered by life, struggling to find their way and waylaid by attraction, desire, and love.
Our heroine is Jess Collins, owner of the craft store, Treasures, in Jewell Cove, Maine. She is a member of the one of the long-established town families and comes with sundry siblings and friends. She also has a past from which she’s still recovering: the town charmer and her ex-boyfriend, Mike Greer, physically abused her until one frightful, dangerous night when her brother, Josh, rescued and took her to a women’s shelter. Only Josh is privy to her scars and secrets. Our hero is Rick Sullivan, honourably discharged Marine, whose service left him with a prosthetic left hand and whose mother, Roberta, recently died of cancer. Unlike Jess, Rick is without family, though he still maintains a modicum of friendship with Josh, Bryce, the town police chief, and Tom, owner of the town construction company, and hero of The House On Blackberry Hill (soon to marry the novel’s heroine, Abby). Rick was the town bad boy and had shared a kiss with Jess when they were in high school. He joined the Marines and left soon after. Now he’s back, grieving his mother and on a bender, haunted by events in Afghanistan. Jess, burned by Mike’s alcohol-fueled rages and blows, recoils from Rick and tongue-lashes him every chance she has, not without reason, but lacking in compassion. Needless to say, the paradise of couple-hood is not immediately obvious in these two.
When the novel opens, at Roberta Sullivan’s funeral, Jess musters some feeling for Rick: “Jess still had the blessing of her family around her. Rick had no one now. Her heart ached at the thought.” Rick is grief-stricken and very much aware of Jess’s censure: “Rick stole a glance at Jess Collins and tried to ignore the pain that squeezed his heart … His mom had been the only reason he’d come back … now she was gone. He was alone. Completely and utterly. But Jess was here, her black curls tumbling over her shoulders, her sharp gaze softened now with compassion … though her deep blue eyes were currently filled with pity, he knew that under normal circumstances, she would be spitting nails … Jess didn’t try to hide her disapproval or disdain these days.” The funeral scene and individual characters’ thoughts are a wonderful set-up: rife with possibilities as Alward once again portrays characters whose lives are ready for love and redemption.
Jess is a woman ready to love again and Rick needs love and companionship. But the conflict is unmistakable: why would Jess, though she’s attracted to Rick, want to be with someone whose alcoholism renders him volatile? Rick feels he’s hit rock-bottom; he’s also honest with himself about how guilt-ridden he is from his years in Afghanistan. He’s ready to lift himself out of the muddy waters of loss and grief. Jess struggles with loving someone she isn’t sure she can trust. Rick struggles with loving someone and screwing up, letting her down, as he feels he did his fellow-soldiers. Miss Bates loved these two characters. She felt for them. They were convincing: flawed and likeable, poignant and real.
Jess and Rick are thrown together when they act as Abby and Tom’s maid of honour and best man. They call a truce to ensure wedding peace. Jess exacts a promise from Rick that he won’t ruin the wedding by drinking. When he rises to the occasion, she’s impressed; and, the attraction is hot, on both sides. She also finds out that Rick fights his demons by painting beautiful glass images. She convinces him to paint some Christmas ornaments for the church bazaar. This necessitates some going back and forth to his place. There are lovely understanding conversations and one hot kiss. There’s also new-found respect and affection and there’s Jess championing Rick’s talent: “She looked around his studio. ‘One day you won’t feel like you have to hide all of this. What’s the old saying about putting your light under a bushel?’ Rick treated her to a sarcastic smile. ‘If you break out into a chorus of ‘Let It Shine,’ this conversation is over.’ ” Though it’s not thoroughly established how Rick came by his artistic knowledge, there are several things going on here that Miss B. appreciated. Firstly, in Jess and Rick, though their artistry is too cutesy, Thomas-Kinkade-y for Miss Bates, she valued Alward’s idea about the healing power of art, of making something beautiful and sharing it. She also loved the hint of inspirational sentiment from the Gospel of Matthew “Let your light so shine before men” that Jess echoes. And she really loved Rick’s humourous quip: here’s a narrative serious and heartfelt, yet rueful and self-aware in its characterization and sentiment. It doesn’t mean what Jess says is any less true, but it does mean the caricature of the small-town romance ethos is evaded … praise be! Later, there’s a minor scene when Jess is in church and muses how Rick isn’t ready to be there with her. It’s a lovely, realistic moment: it doesn’t exact his “conversion” in order to be with the heroine. Yet, it’s hopeful he may choose church-going for himself some day. Miss Bates is hopeful inspirational romance may be mitigated through these moments in romances that don’t purport to carry that banner.
Jess and Rick’s romance is difficult; he’s difficult; she’s judgemental. Nevertheless, they’re both loving, compassionate, possessed of a sense of humour and whole load of sexiness. There’s a lovely mystery around an heirloom Rick inherits from his mom. There’s a return to danger for Jess when Mike Greer reappears. There are also two broken characters in Jess and Rick who don’t do what they should to deal with their problems. Miss Bates is so glad Alward didn’t resort to magic woo-woo or wangs to fix what’s wrong. Rick must see a therapist about his drinking and PTSD; Jess must find a way to deal with Mike Greer through police and court channels. All of that is obvious; their journey there, however, is pretty terrific. Rick’s character suffers from he-doth-protest-too-much at not being good enough for Jess, not being worthy, or good at relationships. Miss Bates dislikes it when characters declare thus: it’s like watching someone tell you he can’t ride a bike when he’s pedaling away. Rick also has a few moments as an irrational asshole near the end. But he redeems himself beautifully in his declaration of love, devotion, and commitment to Jess. Miss Bates enjoyed this second Jewell Cove novel even more than the first; in it, she found evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Donna Alward’s Treasure On Lilac Lane, published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks, has been available since October 28th, 2014, in the usual formats, at your favourite vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from the publisher, via Netgalley.