Small-town contemporary romance is ubiquitous. Miss Bates reads her fair share, especially when it’s by Donna Alward, or Virginia Kantra, who write wonderful contemporary small-town romance in their Jewell Cove and Dare Island series. Sarah Morgan’s Puffin Island series now takes its place next to Alward’s and Kantra’s. Morgan’s first title, First Time In Forever, doesn’t break any molds. It’s typical in characterization, narration, and setting. Miss Bates is interested in the small-town romance as a vision of utopia; she’d argue the hero’s/heroine’s role is complemented by the small town utopian ethos, even so far as to say some of the HEA work is done by its denizens. Our hero and heroine need help and the small-town comes through for them.
For now, Miss Bates sticks to plot and character basics. Emily Donovan arrives at coastal Maine’s Puffin Island a desperate woman, seeking sanctuary and anonymity, the anxious, uncertain, and recent guardian of a niece, six-year-old Lizzy. She meets boating/sailing club owner, tall, dark, and handsome Ryan Cooper, when he knocks on her door offering help, friendship, and smouldering sexy looks. Their encounter breaks open two people wary of love, commitment, and family. Their closed-off selves, cautious and doubtful, are healed as much by the virtues/values of small-town life as falling in love. Emily, in particular, experiences a conversion to small-town living. Ryan, by virtue of having been home for four years, is one of her guides. While he may be advanced in his journey, he needs to take the final steps to finalize/entrench his place on Puffin Island and those steps entail overcoming his commitment-aversion.
The Puffin-Island love is incipient in Emily and Ryan. Ryan is Puffin born-and-bred. When he was thirteen, his parents were killed in a car crush. He and his grandmother, Agnes, raised his three siblings. His four-year-old sister, Rachel, now the island’s first-grade teacher, was his particular attachment and responsibility. Eventually, he stretched his wings, left the island, experienced “life.” He became a Pulitzer-Prize winning war correspondent. When he was seriously injured, he wanted nothing of war zones. He returned to Puffin Island’s peace, community, and family feeling and made a life for himself sailing and running the Ocean Club. He identified as the island Lothario, with an aversion to commitment and children, the legacy of taking care of his siblings when he was a child. In a telling conversation with his embittered, soon-to-be-divorced visiting friend, Alec, Ryan declares, “A white picket fence can look a lot like a prison when you’re trapped behind it.” Ryan embraces island living, with its values of neighbourliness, support, a simpler, slower lifestyle, with its implicit critique of the pace and anonymity of urban living, the proximity of nature’s beauty in sea and forest, community-mindedness, and a place where you are known. Ryan’s small-town virtues’ missing piece is rootedness, belonging and commitment to his own family, ensuring the island’s future in the trinity of love, fidelity, and progeny.
Enter small-town doubting Thomas, heroine Emily Donovan and plot moppet of adorableness, Lizzy. Emily is not on Puffin Island by choice, but necessity. Her incipient attachment, however, came early as well. Daughter to a promiscuous, hard-drinking mother, Emily found love and shelter when she visited Puffin Island with her friends, Brittany and Skylar. Brittany’s grandmother, Kathleen, left Castaway Cottage to Brittany. Brittany, Skylar, and Emily swore they’d help each other out in any bind, using Castaway Cottage as a place to heal and think. Emily is hiding in Castaway Cottage with Lizzy at her friends’ urging. Emily didn’t know Lizzy until she found herself guardian when her half-sister, Hollywood-starlet Lana Fox, named her in her will. Emily feels ill-equipped to take on a child’s care when she admits to Skylar over the phone, “I shouldn’t be all anyone has. That’s a raw deal.” Emily is financially solvent and respectable; there’s something in her past, represented by her fear of the sea, she believes makes her a bad candidate for mommyhood.
Emily steeled her heart and petrified it when she lost someone she loved. Her guilt and self-blame in that loss only make her more determined to care for and protect Lizzy, though unable to love her. This is all bunk, of course: Emily is ripe for love and nurturing. She’s responsible, sensitive, and empathetic. She’s simply never had anyone care for her. With a mother like that, a pernicious romance convention, Emily learned to “nurture herself and protect herself.” She will do the same for Lizzy, never realizing those very acts drive her straight into loving the child. What the small-town setting, as represented by Ryan et. al., offers is what she’s never experienced: people willing to help, support, and who have her back. She doesn’t have to bring up Lizzy on her own. The essence of the utopian small-town ethos as envisioned by contemporary small-town romance.
The “island effect” lay dormant in Ryan and Emily, quietly anchoring them while they bopped on the world’s cruel seas. Emily arrives at Puffin Island from NYC, a place, she claims, never frightened her as Puffin Island does. Ryan is key to her release from her fears. He rescues her when the sea triggers difficult memories, helps her overcome her fears by taking her and Lizzy sailing and teaching her to swim. As the novel progresses, Emily comes to love the wind, waves, and craggy beauty of Puffin Island. Like the endangered puffins slowly being regenerated on the island, thus Ryan and Emily’s transformation by it. Four years ago, Ryan suffered a life-threatening injury when he and his photojournalist friend were bombed in Afghanistan. With his baby sister as nurse and rehabilitation “bully,” he recovered on Puffin Island. The island’s ability to resurrect soul and body are key to understanding the small-town contemporary vision of an ideal place. Evidence Ryan’s thoughts while sailing Penobscot Bay: “On a day like today he wondered why it had taken him so long to come back. Why he’d had to hit bottom before making that decision. He’d stared into the mouth of hell and might have fallen, had it not been for this place.” Interesting how Ryan is saved from hell, the hell of war and geopolitics, in an image of resurrection, the hand of Puffin Island reaching down to pull him out of the abyss. Now that he’s healed in body and soul, he “plowed all his money into the business and he was determined to make it pay, and not just because living here required him to earn money. The island had given to him, and now he was giving back.” [Italics, Miss B’s.] Even utopias have economic realities and they seem to be centred on the American ideal of the small-business owner and the idea of “giving back,” not in any social-welfare-state way, but as an individual responding ethically to his community.
Ryan’s community-minded givens must be conveyed to Emily, who, ironically, was a hugely successful management consultant in NYC. Of course, big-city cruelty and anonymity rendered her redundant at her firm when she received the call about Lana and Lizzy. When Emily arrives at Puffin Island, she holds to the notion that “life was cruel and unpredictable” (shades of Hobbesian “nasty, brutish, and short;” Emily finds her purpose on Puffin when her management know-how helps a single mom save her ice cream parlor). Ryan Cooper and the Puffin-Island community are about to teach her otherwise. Ryan appears (at the behest of his friend, Brittany, BTW) as Emily’s fixer. Other than rescuing and teaching, he brings groceries, and stuffies for Lizzy, “Ryan stepped closer, his voice low. ‘Tell me what he trouble is, and I’ll fix it.’ ” All Emily must do is believe in Ryan and the community of Puffin Island.
Emily realizes that her notion of “giving,” as exemplified by her urban state of mind and emotionally deprived childhood contrasts with Ryan and Puffin Island’s: ” … she realized that the furious pace of her life had stopped the past settling on her … Emotionally, she was bankrupt. She took nothing and had nothing to give.” With Lizzy’s love, Ryan’s care, and community support, Emily learns to replace nothing with something. The first step is to understand what it means to have community support and that means admitting you need help, learning to take the gift of help. This comes in the form of Ryan telling her what his and Agnes’s lives were like after his parents’ death: ” ‘We weren’t on our own with it. The islanders pulled together. We didn’t cook a meal for the first year. They set up a rotation, and every day something would appear. Things got easier once Rachel started school and the twins were teenagers. Thanks to our background, they were pretty independent, and there was always someone to turn to if they had problems.’ He’d had a web of support. He’d suffered, but he hadn’t been alone.” As Emily comes to know the islanders, as they help her in the same way and she accepts help, she gains in confidence and security (until she too “gives back”); witness Emily’s resurrection: “Suddenly she realized that she was standing in the street, laughing with a man as if this was her life. As if she were free to follow her instincts and impulses.” It’s so interesting how Puffin Island leaves Emily free “to follow instincts and impulses,” to live in the moment, in a kind of spontaneity, without the numbing ratiocinating that marked her life before-Puffin-Island. Her transformation is best noted by Ryan himself: “Emily went from hiding away in Castaway Cottage to being a visible part of the Puffin Island community.” Emily was adrift, then, cast away on Puffin Island, but images of separation become ones of wholeness, of natural beauty and the cyclic nature of life: “A month ago she hadn’t been able to imagine living here. Now she couldn’t imagine leaving … The charm of the island had sneaked up on her, like the slow merging of the seasons.” Her ability to live by her gut is reinforced in passages such as: ” … the desire to protect came not from duty but from somewhere deep inside. A place she hadn’t accessed for a long time.” It appears that being part of a community, having great sex (oh yes, folks, this is also a romance and a pretty good one), and living in proximity with the natural world give Emily the inner resources to do what she hadn’t been able to, love Ryan and Lizzy, protect, take risks, swim freely, and live in the moment.
The final movement of the wheel for the story to be complete is Ryan and his rejection of commitment to family. This comes from the last piece of the small-town romance’s utopian puzzle: the wise elder. For a small-town romance to work, as Morgan’s does, the main couple experiences the journey of attraction, desire, blockages to love, internal and external, separation, and the “dark moment,” when the probability they’ll be together seems insurmountable. Moreover, the community plays a role in the HEA; this often comes in the form of powerfully symbolic secondary characters, at least it does in Morgan’s romance (it’d be interesting to think about this in terms of other contemporary small-town romance; Miss Bates’ claims are neither exhaustive, nor conclusive). In First Time In Forever, Morgan creates two compelling figures: the romantic oracle, Kirsti; and, the wise, knowing elder, Agnes. They play a role in Ryan’s commitment to Emily and Lizzy. Kirsti is a bouncy, youthful waitress who works at Ryan’s “Ocean Club.” She Teresias-like recognizes Emily is the woman for Ryan the moment she and Lizzy walk into the club for waffles and chocolate milk. Ryan easily dismisses Kirsti’s youth and woo-woo ability. Miss Bates found her presence comic and utterly charming. This is not the case, however, when Ryan flounders under his grand-mother’s firm and loving understanding of why he’s feeling lost and confused about Emily and Lizzy. She leads him gently, lovingly, and with a twinkle in her eye to what he already knows in his heart: his love for Emily and Lizzy. In the small-town utopia, elderly figures, grand-parents, parents, aunts, neighbours, and animals are often given roles of importance and honour, lives of value essential to the cohesion of the community, no sad nursing-home loneliness in small-town romance.
There are justified critiques of the small-town romance’s quixotic vision of small-town life. But romance is about the possible over the probable, the working-out instead of the tearing-asunder and small-town romance has its role to play. On a strictly literary level, it is subject to preciousness and kitsch. In the end, its Edenic vision is about belonging, acceptance, support, and love, not the couple in isolation, but at work taking from, and giving back, to the community. It is a vision no different than urban-set romances: even in the big-lights-big-city milieu, people seek the small and liveable. But that, dear readers, is for another post (though one example is Kristen Ashley’s Law Man, where Mara finds the same support and love in her apartment complex, when she finds herself guardian to two adorable children, as Emily on Puffin Island.) Sarah Morgan’s First Time In Forever drags in the first half while she sets up her story and characters, but is complex and interesting in character and setting throughout. It’s sexy, funny in places, poignant in others, and written with ease and skill. Miss Austen says of it, “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma. Miss Bates awaits Morgan’s next installment in the Puffin Island trilogy, Brittany and Zach’s reunited-husband-and-wife story.
What are your thoughts on the small-town romance’s vision of community?
Sarah Morgan’s First Time In Forever, published by HQN Harlequin, was released on February 24th, and is available in “e” and paper at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to HQN Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.