REVIEW: Karen Kirst’s RECLAIMING HIS PAST

Reclaiming_His_PastIn 1885 Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Jessica O’Malley discovers “a bruised and battered man,” “his celestial blue eyes” anguished and confused. She half-carries him to the cabin she shares with her mother, Alice. Jessica and Alice care for his wounds, but there is no healing for his mind. What- or whom-ever brought him to this state rendered such a blow to his head that man they call Grant Parker (from a dedicated Bible they found in his pack) cannot remember who he is, where he came from, what he did, or why he was left for dead on their homestead. Karen Kirst’s Reclaiming His Past contains elements that are some of Miss Bates’s favourites: a temperamental heroine, mysterious hero, an idyllic setting, and AMNESIA narrative! Kirst made wonderful use of the trope, so dear to soap-lovers everywhere, to say something about coming to terms with oneself and one’s past. She created a clever contrasting counterpoint between hero and heroine: Grant can’t reclaim his past because it’s a blank; Jessica, in turn, is haunted by hers. Grant and Jessica work together to find answers and lay ghosts to rest to forge a new, beautiful, and hopeful future. Grant struggles to figure out his identity and purpose, while Jessica struggles to put away her cynicism and suspicion. What they share, even when their exchanges are antagonistic, or problematic, is a prayerful stance towards God: whatever their trials, they call on Him for help and understanding.

Jessica and Grant are brilliant protagonists. They have depth. They think seriously about how to be kind, compassionate, and giving, but are not milksops. Miss Bates loved how Kirst made them such rounded characters. They have personality: their characters are permitted to bloom with quirks and weaknesses, but in turn with strengths and positive qualities. They’re fun and funny. Jessica’s belligerent response to Grant stems from a great disappointment in love. Her beau, Lee Cavanaugh, the man she loved and hoped to marry, turned out dishonest. A traumatic confrontation with the law, Jessica and her twin, Jane, caught in its midst, destroyed Lee. He died in Jessica’s arms. She alternately questions her judgement in loving him and feels guilt for his death. When Grant’s helplessness and proximity begin to foil the memories of Lee’s perfidy, how can Jessica help but question the wisdom of falling in love with a man who might turn out to be a criminal, married, affiancéd? And yet, Grant’s gentle humour, helpfulness, despite his injuries, respect, and care say very different things about him. Miss Bates loved how Grant gently and ruefully, with humour, often confronted Jessica’s pugnaciousness: ” ‘You are infuriating, you know that?’ ‘And you, Jessica O’Malley, are easy to rile.’ ” 😉

Grant and Jessica work to discover Grant’s identity. As in a lot of inspirational fiction, a tight-knit community is of the utmost importance to bringing about resolution to the couple’s dilemmas and opening up the future to and for them. Gatlinburg does no less for Grant, as Sherrif Shane and Jessica’s extended clan write across the country trying to discover who Grant may be. But the most delightful exchanges are those between Grant and Jessica as they play detective, using Grant’s natural abilities and talents to figure who he may be and what he did for a living. One of Miss Bates’s favourites is the following:

“You have beautiful hair.” His voice deepened. “Like a flame. Or a sunset.” Scraping a hand over his face, he grimaced. “That sounded better in my head.” She couldn’t help smiling. Funny, she’d done more of that in the past twelve hours than in the past twelve months. “I believe we can rule out poet.” “I believe so.”

Just in this minor exchange, the reader witnesses what Kirst achieves: a burgeoning attraction, no less physical for being “inspie,” a conviviality between hero and heroine, essential to the good marriage it looks forward to, and a sense of humour. Inspie doesn’t equal dour.

But it can equal serious, a certain gravitas, given Jessica’s failed courtship and Grant’s inability to make a commitment to her until he discovers his identify and the obligations it may entail. Jessica’s past is not a mystery like Grant’s, yet it weighs heavily and impedes her ability to trust and love. If Grant has to reclaim his past, Jessica must transcend hers: “The burden she carried finally became clear. Guilt was paralyzing her, the same way his past threatened to do to him.” To a certain less conscious extent, Jessica taking Grant in already began her journey. Her Good Samaritan act serves a two-fold purpose, which Miss Bates appreciated: … He has nothing. No money, no home, no past. He’s completely dependent on us for everything.” It establishes Jessica’s kindness, compassion, and charity; secondly, it renders the hero helpless. And that’s an important moment in the hero’s masculinity, one that Kirst has also done quite well in Miss Bates’s previous Kirst read, Married By Christmas. Possibly, Miss Bates speculates, all rom fiction contains an act of masculine domestication? Grant works hard to overcome his physical weakness, brought on by his injuries, because he’d like to act as helper to Jessica and Alice, because this is what a good man does. 

Miss Bates is fascinated by the tamely named “kisses-only” romance, of which Kirst’s is one and to which all inspie romance belongs. It is more difficult to portray attraction and physicality in kisses-only romance than more explicit fare. Kirst portrays Jessica and Grant’s desire for the other lyrically, beautifully. Here are two examples Miss Bates particularly loved:

Before he could guess her intent, she went up on tiptoe and pressed her lips to his cheek. He froze. Lightning-swift heat arrowed from her lips to the soles of his feet. He felt anchored to the earth, not by gravity, but by her.

Grant played in a way that allowed her to shine, showcasing her instrument’s capabilities. For their last song, she chose one that would put the emphasis on his abilities. There were several spots where she’d lift her bow from the strings and pluck them softly as he continued to play. As they played together, an inexplicable emotional connection wove through the music and joined them in complete harmony.

The two passages are lovely. In the first, a simple kiss on the cheek elicits that wonderful phrase of being “anchored” to the earth, not by “gravity,” but by the effect of the beloved. In the second case, Kirst can write about union through the power of music instead of sexual congress.

Miss Bates loved Kirst’s Reclaiming His Past (she even loved the cover!). With her reading side-kick, Miss Austen, she says it offers “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.

Karen Kirst’s Reclaiming His Past is published by Harlequin Books. It was released on February 9th and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, via Netgalley.

8 thoughts on “REVIEW: Karen Kirst’s RECLAIMING HIS PAST

  1. Hi Kay, I’m not a fan of of romances set in the 19th century south or inspies but I love your reviews! 🙂 and this one was great, from your glee in the “AMNESIA” trope to the quotes you used. I also like the way you remind us that romance isn’t trivial, but is a part of the most important things we do in our lives. I’ve had so little time for books lately, but reading about reading in your insightful reviews gives me a great deal of pleasure!

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    • Thank you so much! You are much missed; I’m very glad you dropped me a line here and what a line it is!

      Romance is about the most essential aspects to our lives: connection, understanding, forgiveness. Sometimes, the acrobatic cacophony of too-many love scenes erases these themes. I think inspie gets dissed for many and legitimate reasons, but like any romance trope or mode, some inspie authors get it “right”. I think Kirst is one of those.

      I’m sorry to hear that you haven’t had much time for books: that is so hard for a true reader as you are. I have a really onerous year at work coming up starting in the fall and I dread not having my reading life-line!

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  2. “Kisses Only” qualifier reminds me of another one at the opposite end of the spectrum. “For mature readers” always makes me wonder if *I’m* mature enough to read it. 🙂

    I agree completely with your assessment that it’s much tougher to portray attraction in a “kisses only” book, but lately those are ones which seem to work better for me. I’m not prudish or anything but, more often than not, I catch myself skimming love scenes. Too many times the emotional and physical arc feels jarringly out of sync to me resulting in a physical relationship that’s just too much too soon and an emotional vacuum between H/h. There’s little or nothing to build on, no friendship, no shared values, no common ground at all. Worse, it feels forced, as if it is divorced from the actual emotional attachment and love growing between a hero and heroine. Love scenes need to reveal something about both characters and push the couple’s relationship to a different level. Otherwise, as Yogi Berra said, it’s deja vu all over again. I think that’s one reason I fell head over teacup in love with Betty Neels’ books. I had to look for and note a particular gleam in his eye or a tone of voice to “see” how the hero was falling in love with his heroine and so I became more invested as a reader in their emotional and romantic attachment.

    As you know, I recently read REDEEMING LOVE by Francine Rivers (BTW, your “conversion” book list is pretty powerful and awesome, Miss B!) What a phenomenal book! When I finished it, I was very surprised to learn the version I’d read was a so-called “clean” version. I was equally surprised to read some reviews noting the conversion story arc overpowered the romantic arc without the more descriptive sex scenes. I was moved by the conversion story, literally to tears, several times, but I never felt the romantic arc between Michael and Angel/Sarah suffered for being less explicit. To me, it was a pretty good balance between the two. My version was a “kisses only” type of book, but I came away believing in both the spiritual journey of Angel as well as the romantic HEA for Michael and Angel/Sarah. Ahem. But I did find a copy of the 1991 version at the UBS and am looking forward to a reading comparison. Just for research purposes, you know. 😉

    Amnesia is a difficult trope, I think. It’s one of those love/hate things for me at least. I find it works better for me as a “rebirth” for a character who needs a redemptive/transformative story or if it’s just a really unusual take on an old trope. Charlotte Lamb’s HAUNTED is very much in the latter category. Jealous lover/fiery car accident/plastic surgery/mistaken identity/amnesia/gothic atmosphere all smushed together. When I read it, I just about couldn’t put it down and kept wondering how CL would write herself out of this predicament to make it believable. She did, and I did. Believe it, that is. I have Lynne Graham’s THE SICILIAN’S MISTRESS on Mt. TBR which, I understand, has the double whammy of amnesia and secret baby. Phew! That sounds like a wild ride to me. Tarquin Compton of THE AMOROUS EDUCATION OF CELIA SETON is another one that worked very well for me. To get to know Tarquin through Celia’s eyes and his own shaky memory brought more dimension and depth to his character.

    RECLAIMING HIS PAST sounds really really good, too, and am adding to TBR. Lovely review!

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    • I know I’m not mature enough to read it!!!!! I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s starting to skim love scenes: unless they further, or hinder the couple’s relationship, then it’s all a bit mechanical, isn’t it? And the writing is often not the author’s best. Now that I mention it, I’d be very interested to read a romance author’s anti-love-scene, one that sunders the couple instead of standing in for their emotional attachment. I think sex can do that in a relationship. There can be as much BIG MIS in bed as out of it. It seems that the rom in romance must always be situated in the physical, which is good and true if it’s accompanied by mutual respect and love. I think that Molly O’Keefe is quite good at portraying how love scenes can separate. My Draino on the braino isn’t powerful enough to help me cite specific examples (maybe Indecent Proposal), but that the feeling I get from O’Keefe’s love scenes.

      I love your Yogi Berra quotation and all the great recs. I have Celia Seton in the Moutainous TBR!!

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    • I agree completely.

      Another book that is kisses only (or close to it; book ends with wedding night) is Deanne Gist’s Tiffany Girl. It’s expensive and I bought it with an Amazon giftcard, but it is more sizzling and physical than most books with open-door love scenes.

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  3. Thanks for this review. I will keep Kirst in mind. While I feel similar to you about the conversion narrative at the heart of most inspies, I appreciate that they have to show a couple growing closer without the kind of physical intimacy too many books use as a shortcut these days.

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    • I think Kirst skirts the conversion narrative. While the hero doesn’t know who he is, he has snippets of his life return and one of them is the ability to pray. And the heroine is a Christian. Which, I think, is a better way to write an inspie than to require the conversion of a character for a relationship to be legitimized, even “narratively”>

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