Linda Goodnight is probably best known for writing inspirational category romance fiction. The Memory House, first in the Honey Ridge, Tennessee series, isn’t inspirational, though it contains similar elements and themes, such as how the past bears on the present, memory and its hold on the psyche, prodigality and redemption, grief, loss, joy, and love. It’s also a deviation from Goodnight’s category norm in carrying two narrative threads, one contemporary and the other, historical. Goodnight orchestrates these various components with relative success, making the “memory house,” a restored antebellum mansion now a present-day B&B and its peach orchard the focus of the dual narratives/romances.
Eli Donovan, 36, ex-con, prodigal son and black sheep, hies to Honey Ridge, at the behest of his parole officer, to take custody of a six-year-old son he didn’t known about. With a dead mother and ailing, failing great-aunt as Alex’s guardian, the down-on-his-luck and broken Eli must find a job and learn to be a father overnight. He makes his plea to Peach Orchard Inn owner, Julia Presley, who needs her orchard cared for and carriage-house renovated to ensure the solvency of her business with more paying customers than what she sustains presently. The gentle, sad divorcée Julia carries as great grief and regret as Eli: her son, Mikey, would’ve been fourteen on the day Eli shows up at the inn, were it not that he’d disappeared/been abducted six years ago. Eli and Julia are kindred spirits: broken and saddened by life’s circumstances. But they find, in each other and the magical Peach Orchard Inn, serenity and comfort, friendship and a sense of belonging.
Eli and Julia’s narrative is primary, though the secondary narrative thread underlies the “magic” found at Peach Orchard Inn: a comforting angelic spirit that visits its contemporary inhabitants when they’re at their lowest in the form of mysterious marbles appearing unexpectedly under foot, or hand, and gentle hands and voices. The marbles are at the heart of the secondary, historical romance that took place during the latter years of the American Civil War. The then Peach Orchard Inn was a gristmill and farm run by Edgar and Charlotte Portland. Charlotte was an English vicar’s daughter brought to the US by Edgar as his young bride. It is obvious that Edgar’s anger and cruelty are in opposition to Charlotte’s loving and gentle ways. Charlotte abhors the slave trade and finds a kindred spirit in Captain William Gadsden, of Ohio, whose Union company, injured and starved, make their stay at Peach Orchard Farm. Attraction and friendship grow between loyal, honourable, loving Will and desperately unhappy, despised wife, Charlotte. Will gifts the marble to her son, Benjamin and his best friend, Tandy. While Will and Charlotte’s hearts are given over to each other, their relationship remains proper and good. As Eli and Julia clean out the carriage-house for its eventual renovation, they discover Will and Charlotte’s correspondence. Marbles and letters combine to help Julia and Eli navigate their grief, regret, and new-found feelings.
Goodnight’s novel is a gentle one: with gentle characters and loving ways. Pain, grief, and regret mark much of their lives and, while they may be gentle, the world and other people are cruel and indifferent. Goodnight’s characters are idealized, both the historical and contemporaries ones. Her villains are caricatured: the twisted Edgar and a drunken lout, Valery’s (Julia’s sister) boyfriend. There aren’t any mysteries, or nuances to the characters. Miss Bates enjoyed them, but found them one-dimensional and predictable, as is the narrative, with every event leading to both HEAs visible pages ahead.
Eli and Julia find comfort in the beauty of nature, and many a night they wander the peach orchard for solace. They encounter, of course, each other; the scenes are tender and touching. Eli, in particular, is torn about being an ex-con and how undeserving he is of Julia. Julia, in turn, remains heart-broken, but her kindness and loving ways open to Eli and his lost, little boy. Eli struggles with his past prodigality and hesitates to let Julia close, or contact his parents, lest his past hurt them. These are very very decent people. Whatever Eli may have done in the past, he more than makes up for as he works to help his son and Julia.
In Miss Bates’ opinion, the strongest part of the novel was in the first half. Watching Eli struggle with working hard, take hesitant steps toward a woman, experience attraction, even when he’s doubtful and down on himself; his development is lovely. Equally so to watch Julia open her heart again. The inn and townspeople are drawn with lovely strokes of colour, light, and shadow, scent and gentle textures. Witness Eli’s rumination: “Since his release, he’d been mesmerized by nature. The rising sun, a fluttering butterfly, a dog sniffing tires. Nature brought a peace, a rightness to his tumultuous soul.” One of the strengths of Goodnight’s novel is her illustration of Dostoevsky’s “the world will be saved by beauty.” Again, however, a reminder that The Memory House is not inspy fiction, but Miss Bates would say that nature and the house’s woo-woo, less successful in its execution, stand in for the God of inspy romance.
There is, in the same vein, though not explicitly linked to faith, the resurrecting of Eli and Julia for love and laughter. This is often rendered in lovely ways; here is Eli’s response to Julia: “The corners of his mouth quivered like the stirring of a single leaf by a breath of air. His eyes lit … ” And, in turn, Julia’s response to Eli: “Deep inside Julia’s withered heart, a slow unfurling began, like rosebuds to the warmth of summer.” Again, their emotional awakening to love is beautifully rendered in natural imagery, two people who’d been described as “a reticent handyman and spiritless innkeeper.” As Miss Bates already stated, the house’s woo-woo Civil War spirits weren’t as successful, at least for her, nor was the secondary narrative thread. Will and Charlotte were etiolated as characters, though Miss Bates appreciated that Goodnight had a woman in a bad marriage fall in love; even while Charlotte didn’t betray her husband, she also didn’t deny her feelings.
The second half of the novel wasn’t as engaging as the first half when Eli and Julia got to know each other and as they worked on the house together and in healing a sad little boy. Alex’s healing was not brushed over and that was another strength to the novel. Grief therapy was as important to Alex’s health and happiness as the house woo-woo, and Julia and Eli’s love and care. Eli’s halcyon prodigal-son return and subsequent polish and success were not half as interesting as his handyman incarnation. But to say more would indulge in too many spoilers. Suffice to say that Linda Goodnight’s The Memory House was a solid read, tenderly written in places, sentimental and even saccharine in others. Miss Austen says of it, “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Linda Goodnight’s The Memory House was released by HQN Books on March 31st. It’s available in “e” and paper at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC, via Netgalley.