It isn’t revolutionary to say that a writer has a quirk, or propensity that threads throughout her work: a recurring image, character, theme, trope, etc. It identifies her and can be both bane and strength. In Grace Burrowes’ work, it’s the officiously kind hero. When Burrowes’ first two histroms were published, The Heir and The Soldier, Miss Bates, early in her romance reading journey, read them with relish. By the time she read Burrowes‘ seventh Lonely Lord, Andrew, the officiously kind hero was at saturation point, as Miss B. scathingly wrote about in her review. That quirk/trope/image/style that identifies can also stultify, or stall a writer, or turn to caricature – unless she brings new life to it. Grace Burrowes’ foray into contemporary romance takes a steady writerly predisposition and puts it in a new world, the contemporary world of the courtroom drama of family law and practice.
We meet our heroine, Hannah Stark, dining with her seven-year-old daughter, Grace. Dinner consists of a meagre hot-dog and no seconds. Hannah worries about the mortgage payment on her Maryland country home and modest Prius. We sense money is tight. Hannah interviewed at the Knightley brothers law firm and, though she’s loathe to practise family law, she’s willing to try, if only at the thought of her mere two-months-worth of mortgage funds. Our hero, Trenton Knightley, one of three, Mackenzie and James the other two, like Hannah, is a “coper.” He single-dads his seven-year-old daughter, Merle, with the help of his three brothers, on a horse farm not far from Hannah’s place. The protagonists come to romance with painful pasts. We learn that Hannah is a child of social services and the experiences therein left her hurting. Nevertheless, she’s a harried but wonderful mom and hard-working, incisive, and caring lawyer.
Trenton is a typical Burrowes’ hero. An early incident between Hannah and Trent signaled to Miss Bates that Burrowes was writing to her preferred type. Hannah’s first day on the job sees her feeling woozy, nervous, and anxious. A near-tumble out of her Prius in the law firm’s parking lot has Trenton humour her out of her anxiety and ensure she has a cup of tea and biscuits. On her day observing court, he takes her to lunch and makes sure she eats well, then orders comfort cocoa and chocolate mousse. He is, in other words, Burrowes’ typically, officiously kind hero, a fusion of old-fashioned manners, brusque care, handsome face, and hard body. While Miss Bates tired of this Burrowes prototype in her histroms, the new contemporary context and quaint appeal worked in A Single Kiss. This boded well for the novel’s other aspects and left Miss Bates predisposed to hug a Burrowes’ novel to her bosom in a way she hadn’t in a long while. A peculiar reversal occurred: while the officiously caring hero in Burrowes’ histroms strikes Miss Bates as anachronistic: all the modern projected onto the past, he turned out beautifully in this contemporary romance. Maybe because Trent admits to his “old-fashioned” manners?: walking Hannah to her car, opening her door, steering her by an elbow, courting her, also leveling her kitchen cabinets! What’s anachronistic in histrom is nostalgic fantasy-fodder in Burrowes’ contemporary. Miss Bates wonders why Burrowes didn’t find this niche earlier.
Hannah and Trenton are likeable protagonists, even in their double whammy angst of woundedness and skittishness around romantic love. Hannah’s been rejected and hurt terribly in her childhood and youth. Trenton underwent the divorce from hell. The ex, in that most annoying of contemporary romance givens, is a nightmare: sadly, Burrowes makes her a negligent, cold fish of a mother, ruthlessly ambitious about her career, rapacious in using Trenton, then spitting and stomping on his heart … and, it turns out, to add insult to his masculine pride, a lesbian. This felt yuckily discomfiting for Miss B. and kept the novel from making her keeper shelf. Burrowes didn’t dwell on this and Miss Bates managed to bypass it, like an old rag left on the floor … you know it’s there, you’ll have to pick it up, but you can enjoy the shiny for now.
Hannah and Trenton are heart-felt and fun: their love and attraction are poignant and the reader truly wishes for their happiness. They also share some snappy dialogue: while it looked in the first quarter or so that Trenton was going to act the “nursemaid,” as Burrowes heroes are wont to do and Miss Bates argued in her last critique of a Burrowes’ histrom, he backed off nicely. Burrowes adds nice zing to their relationship without losing the rueful humour: “His heart rate was making a fuss, though, and so was the retired soldier in his briefs.” But not too much to prohibit playing knight when Hannah’s unfortunate history in the child welfare system returns to haunt her. Or too much to lay his heart and life on the line for her: “She expected questions and prying, and he offered her exclusivity, for however long their interest in each other lasted. Handed it to her, in blunt, simple words, like a knight knelt before a princess, no ceremony, no rhetoric, but plenty of dignity and heart.” Trenton’s courtship and care, not too cloying or officious, won Miss Bates over. His hands-off, give-her-space love for Hannah, his care for when the child services’ feces hit the fan, show a hero who also serves who works in the background and discloses.
Burrowes is a romance writer who doesn’t sneer at, or fear sentimentality. This is evident in her portrayal of children: who are, at best, precocious; and, at worst, saccharine. Family court certainly gave her an open forum for child portrayals: the court room kids, however, were excellent. Hannah’s girl, Grace, and Trenton’s Merle were too precious and whimsical for Miss Bates’ taste. Burrowes does not mince words, however, over evil: the genuine nasty that children and women can and do undergo – all the more reason for knights like Trenton and his brothers. In a note to the reader, Burrowes worried that her court vocabulary and procedure might be confusing, or turn off readers: au contraire says Miss Bates. Miss B. enjoyed the courtroom drama and slow-burning tragedy of families unravelling. It read real and it read interesting. Hannah’s ordeals and subsequent consequences were believable and sad. But so were her strength, her resilience and her love and kindness. She and Trenton are one of the most well-matched, likeable couples Miss B’s read since … well, truth be told, just last week, in Romain’s lovely Joss and Augusta. What didn’t feel natural in Burrowes’ A Single Kiss was the caricatured villain, or at least how he was able to exact revenge on Hannah, as well as the neat way all the threads of her life tied up at the end. The romance was sweet, winsome, and charming. Despite its minor flaws, Miss Bates thoroughly enjoyed Burrowes’ contemporary romance and read it in one sitting. In Grace Burrowes’ A Single Kiss, Miss Austen says we find “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Grace Burrowes’ A Single Kiss is published by Sourcebooks. It was released on January 6th and is available in e and paper at your preferred vendor. Miss Bates is grateful for an e-ARC from Sourcebooks, via Netgalley.