Miss Bates will always love Donna Alward’s categories, but her move to longer contemporaries offers readers uneven results: some books, reviewed here, have been great; others, so-so. But Alward’s depth and sensitivity will also see Miss Bates’s return to her books time and again. She did so with Alward’s second Darling, Vermont, contemporary romance, Someone To Love.
Willow Dunaway, owner of The Purple Pig Café, is Darling-born and raised. An unhappy childhood and adolescent trauma saw her leave Darling for years. Now she’s back with a new-found contentment in her business, yoga practice, and embracing of serenity. Willow has fought a long, hard battle to come back from some devastating experiences and the semi-colon tattoo on her forearm proves it to herself daily. She has found many things in her re-found hometown that she sought: friendship, community, and purpose. She does not, however, date … until she meets widowed single-dad and firefighter, Ethan Gallagher. In some delightful initial exchanges, Willow’s flower-child, vegetarian ways clash with Ethan’s carnivorous alpha-tendencies.
Ethan has also had his share of pain and heart-ache. Unlike romance’s conventional my-first-wife-turned-out-to-be-a-disappointment, Ethan married a woman he loved and was devoted to deeply, as devoted as he is to his work and sons, Connor and Ronan. With Ethan’s sister, Hannah, and sister-in-law, Laurel, as Willow’s two best friends, and Willow as the owner of one of the cuter breakfast-and-lunch-spots, their paths are bound to cross and cross they do with mutual contempt and sparring, but a spark of attraction also evident. Willow finds Ethan “cold” and “unapproachable,” thinks of him as “Stick-Up-His-Butt.” As she watches him with his sons and interacts with him and the boys, she realizes he’s also loving and kind, albeit in a grumpy way. Ethan’s “grumps”, however, come from grief, loss, and fear … and, in an interesting twist, from having his masculinity subsumed by his identity as a father. Willow may be a pain in the butt to his “Stick-Up-His-Butt,” but she’s also the first women, since his wife’s loss, to make him feel like a man.
All of this is well and good, except Ethan and Willow, as a couple, coming from such woundedness, are not always plausible. Alward treats this believably: with doubts, fears, and Ethan’s and Willow’s personal demons taking precedence over the romance. Miss Bates would say that the novel edges towards women’s fiction, if it were not for Ethan’s POV. Ethan and Willow are a case of opposites-attract, but it’s not cutesy: is that to Alward’s credit? Or a reader may find the novel distinctly unromantic. When Willow thinks, “They were too different. Too damaged. He had kids. She was a free spirit …,” she’s not off and it’s not one of those romances where the reader can say with conviction, “Ha ha, I can see they have more in common than not.” Um, no. They really are at cross-purposes. And sex doesn’t make things better, it makes them more complicated, as Ethan’s and Willow’s obstructive vulnerabilities come to the foreground.
In the novel’s second half, Willow’s seeming self-sufficiency and -regulation give way to needs to be loved and cared for. And Ethan as caretaker, for his sons and, for a long time, ill wife, gives way to a need to be free and take time and consideration before he commits. When these two desires clash, it’s pretty painful and Ethan behaves like an ass-y ignoramus and Willow, wilts. But Alward is a romance-writer stuck in a women’s fic universe and she works things out between them. Miss Bates, however, isn’t sure how convincing that is. It is convincing, however, when Someone To Love doesn’t end with a rainbow and wedding. And, true to her spinsterish, missbatesian ways, MissB does love a wedding and clear HEA. Will she still read the next in the series? Alward is too good a writer, too subtle, and too savvy about romance, for her not to. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates says of Donna Alward’s Someone To Love: “real comfort,” Emma.
Donna Alward’s Someone To Love is published by St. Martin’s Paperbacks. It was released in March and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from St. Martin’s, via Netgalley.