REVIEW: Donna Alward’s SUMMER ON LOVERS’ ISLAND and The Winter of Their Contentment

Summer_On_Lovers'_IslandDonna Alward’s foray into longer contemporary romance is akin to Sarah Morgan’s: coming from wildly, deliciously wonderful categories to extended characterization, detailed setting, and broader themes with mixed success. Readers, like Miss Bates, who adored their categories, followed them, if not happily, then trustfully into new romance territory. Alward and Morgan never fail to deliver heart-stirring and thoughtful romance, however, and surprise readers in the varied ways they use romance conventions. If you enjoy Morgan’s Puffin Island, you’re sure to like Alward’s also Maine-set Jewell Cove. Summer On Lovers’ Island is fourth in the series, after The House On Blackberry Hill, Treasure On Lilac Lane, and novella, Christmas At Seashell Cottage. It stands alone, but Miss Bates enjoys Alward’s small-town world, especially how she imagines and imbues it with a strong sense of its historical past and interconnected characters and families. Her premise is strong, each novel illustrating a character’s growing pains entering small-town life new, or anew in Treasure‘s case, and meeting, not always cutely, a long-established, town-native mate. Lovers’ Island‘s heroine is newcomer Dr. Lizzie Howard, on leave from her high-powered ER position at a big-city hospital. She agrees to take Charlie’s, her best friend’s, maternity leave practice for a few months, a practice Charlie shares with veteran and goldenboy-hometown-hero, Dr. Josh Collins. Lizzie’s got him pegged when she considers his star status at Jewell Cove’s Fourth of July baseball game, “Local star, hometown hero, Jewell Cove’s favorite son.”

Alward’s theme in her longer contemporary romance, as important as love/romance/ relationship, is family and belonging. When Dr. Lizzie Howard arrives in Jewell Cove, she self-describes as “adrift” and “alone.” Charlie, her Jewell Cove connection, is the sole person she feels knows her. Alward’s depiction of their friendship captures the long-standing, “talk-about-anything-and-everything” quality to women’s friendships. But Charlie is married and pregnant and her time is limited. Lizzie’s depressed state has several sources. She mourns her beloved father, Dr. Russ Howard. As an only child, she’s deeply attached to her parents. Russ was her confidante and career mentor. In the course of the novel, Lizzie realizes how much pressure she exerted on herself to live up to her father’s expectations, or what she perceived were his expectations. She comes to realize how they were self-imposed. She also arrives in Jewell Cove as a stop-gap to returning to her ER position, on hold because of an ER oversight, resulting in a patient’s loss. Lizzie is haunted by this if not negligent moment, definitely one she could’ve handled better. Moreover, mourning the death of her father is compounded by her mother’s “loss”. Though living, Rosemary Howard suffers from Alzheimer’s. Lizzie’s elegant, loving, devoted mother is child-like, needy, petulant, and confused. There’s a terrific scene when Lizzie visits her in the care facility, heart-breaking and true-to-life. Lizzie arrives in Jewell Cove demoralized and sad. But she’s a woman who cherishes her independence. When she appears in Josh’s medical practice office, she’s coolly professional and excellent at her work.

Thanks to Lizzie’s demeanor, Josh pegs her as an urban snob. This sets a nice opposites-attract tone to their initial interactions and later serves as a thorn in their romance rose garden when they realize she craves the ER’s adrenaline over his laid-back family practice. Josh too is steeped in family and belonging, at least ostensibly. He’s surrounded by love, support, protectiveness and care in the form of two sisters, mom, best friend, Rick, married to sister Jess, and oodles of cousins. His town places him on a hero’s pedestal, his service to his country and town ensuring respect and admiration; his warm manner, adoration and indulgence. But Josh too, while he comes across as connected and tied to town and family, holds himself aloof. We learn he lost his wife in Afghanistan. His marriage was problematic and haunts him with love, guilt, and regret. Erin, his wife, was in love with Tom, his cousin and hero of Blackberry Hill. Moreover, Erin was less than honest about her feelings and relationship; Josh has the added humiliation of knowing only Tom’s integrity stopped her from having an affair. There are further lies and betrayals on Erin’s part (not infidelity), but spoilers! Suffice to say, their marriage on the rocks, Erin left for Afghanistan after bitter words were exchanged. When she didn’t return, Josh’s ability to work through mourning her is compounded by guilt and anger.

Lizzie and Josh come with painful, difficult issues. Once they get past the urban versus rural rancour and move into banter territory, their exchanges are fun. Overall though, the novel’s tone is somber. Their woundedness and standing-apartness bring them together. Lizzie’s struggles are rawer than Josh’s and his sympathetic ear and strong shoulder serve her well. Lizzie’s grief and loss of confidence are ones Josh has also borne. She’s aware she’s “lost her dad, lost her edge, and screwed up.” Once she and Josh strike a friendship, she finds a willing and ready ear. Josh understands the need to be good, responsible, the one who handles all with equanimity and competence. Like Lizzie, Josh suffers from feelings of inferiority. Initially, Lizzie’s presence in his office and town exacerbate this. She, at least on the surface, is too much like his ambitious, Jewell-Cove-is-too-small wife: “Josh felt entirely inadequate. Erin had been that way, too, at first – an air of accepting nothing less than the best. Growing up rich and privileged seemed to bring with it a general expectation of standards and this Elizabeth Howard had the same way of looking at him that made him feel just a little bit … lacking.” Lizzie and Josh start their relationship with pride and prejudices on both parts.

When Josh finds Lizzie crying for her father on the beach and takes her out on his boat to Lovers’ Island, their relationship takes a wonderful turn towards friendship. This is one of Miss Bates’ favourite romance moments: the first reversal that comes before the betrayal and dark night of the couple-soul (thank you, Pamela Regis, always). In Josh and Lizzie’s case, as in Austen’s Darcy and Lizzie, it comes in the form of a private thought, a change in the way the heroine and hero conceive of the other. Here is Josh’s reversal about Lizzie:

“I lost my dad when I was young,” he offered. “It was also really sudden. I know it can throw you for a loop, especially when the presence has been a strong one. It’ll get better, though.” He smiled at her encouragingly, and when she looked at him, her lashes slightly damp, something changed inside him. She wasn’t the uptight city girl who drove into town in her flashy car and made judgements. In that moment of honesty, Lizzie Howard went from being temporary coworker to friend. And Josh always made sure to look out for his friends.

Josh is a healer who looks beyond the body to what else a person needs to heal. He’s generous and kind and able to admit when he’s misjudged someone, as he does here. It is lovely that hero and heroine realize friendship before love. Miss Bates enjoyed how Lizzie’s reversal about Josh comprises how she thinks about a career in medicine:

She was starting to like him. Sure she’d been surprised by his casual dress and manner at the office, but she’d also come to see that he set exactly the right tone for the clinic. He built relationships and trust with his patients, patients he would see year after year, unlike doctors who worked behind the revolving door of an emergency room.

Doctors like her. These are lovely, thoughtful moments in likeable protagonists. Miss Bates applauds Alward when she portrayed Lizzie’s desire to return to the ER, even with her new-found appreciation for family practice and how it fulfills and serves. Lizzie doesn’t have to come over to Josh’s perspective, or give anything up to have him in her life in the end. (Her ambitions and interests are not subsumed by a superior small-town lifestyle. It’s nice that she gets Josh, an ER, and Jewell Cove.)

It is from this revelatory moment on that Miss Bates’ enjoyment abated. The romance narrative, and this is especially challenging in contemporary romance, needs things at stake between hero and heroine, either being together, or apart. In Josh and Lizzie’s case, other than a mild sense that Josh is her boss (not really), that she’ll be leaving, that they don’t want the town gossip or matchmakers to learn about their affair, there’s not much at stake. They decide on a friends-with-benefits relationship. Bleh. It doesn’t fit who they are. Alward does a fine job of showing why FwB arrangements don’t work for protagonists who have to come out of character to be a part of them. Alward is a nuanced writer and she promptly acknowledges how her hero and heroine care about each other. They’re just not “uncommitted sex types.” Firstly, because they really are friends, there are feelings there by definition. Secondly, because it doesn’t really jive with their values. This is a great jarring disconnect to the FwB resolutions we often see in contemporary romance as a way to get hero and heroine together. Moreover, Miss Bates has to admit that the romance felt flat, not entirely believable, not urgent. Josh and Lizzie could have as easily ended up maintaining a friendship as sustaining a marriage. When the HEA comes in the epilogue, however, it does make sense how they work things out and it is conceivable they’ll make each other content. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Misses Bates and Austen, however, would maintain that the tensest, most interesting of the Jewell Cove novels thus far remains the second, Treasure On Lilac Lane. As for Summer On Lovers’ Island, it merits an “almost pretty,” Emma, and a return visit.

Donna Alward’s Summer On Lovers’ Island is published by St. Martin’s Press. It was released on May 5th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates is grateful to St. Martin’s Press for an e-ARC, via Netgalley.