With much sadness, I read Janice Kay Johnson’s note on her Superromance, In A Heartbeat. It is her last, alas, and the category is no more. I’ve loved so many of JKJ’s Superromances, especially the early ones. I read In A Heartbeat with enjoyment, for it is JKJ signature good. I didn’t always love the category’s authors and found some tedious, but I loved the idea of what it represented: a fantasy-based genre coming as close to realism as it could.
I read Betty Neels’s Tabitha In Moonlight at the same time as I read Johnson’s In A Heartbeat and, given Neels’s comfort-read status, I expected some dissonance. In the end, I wasn’t surprised to find none from two authors whose moral impetus is writing about decent people doing good and falling in love. I guess the only difference, given Johnson’s preference for realism, is that her characters do the best they can, in often difficult circumstances. Betty Neels’s characters are about being the best they can.
On the surface, the two romances are unlike. Neels tells the story of doctor Marius van Beek and plain-Jane nurse Tabitha Crawley. There is a nasty step-mother and -sister for Tabitha, but also a glorious sailing holiday with Marius, nicely chaperoned by two beloved elderly patients. Johnson’s story is more complex, but shows her penchant for throwing her hero and heroine together under the unlikeliest of circumstances: in this case, single-mother widow, Anna Grainger, moves in as housekeeper and nanny to the very man, divorced Nate Kendrick, whose daughter, Molly, Anna’s husband, Kyle, saved, only to drown in the raging river.
It’s funny how both novels’ plots revolve around the loss of a home and the making of a family. In Neels’s Tabitha, Tabby has lost her childhood home, Chidlake, to her evil step-family, while Anna is left no choice but to take Nate’s offer of employment when she discovers her husband left her and the children without means to keep their house. While sentiment drives Tabby’s love of her childhood home, her nurse’s salary doesn’t allow her to purchase it. Economic necessity and the frightening possibility of homelessness drive Anna to accept Nate’s offer, an offer she initially sees as “blood money” to assuage guilt at Nate’s neglect to be present at the camp activity that saw his daughter dare the dangerous river. But it’s more than assuaging guilt for Nate, it’s a desperate measure to ensure Molly’s safety and comfort. Nate has discovered that his ex-wife has a drinking problem and he needs Molly out of her custody and care and into his. Except he works – a lot. Part of the story Johnson wants to tell is the story of two people dealing with failed marriages – Anna’s because of Kyle’s death and the subsequent reckoning of realizing her husband was a good, but feckless man; Nate’s because he married a woman he was attracted to, but didn’t love, and then was too often absent from her and Molly’s life.
How did I reconcile the fantasy of Neels’s doctor-nurse comfort-fantasy romance to Anna and Nate’s guilt, grieving, and parenting woes? Johnson does a marvelous job of two compatible people, caught in unlikely if not untenable co-habitation, slowly make their way to love. Despite all these surface differences, I still think Neels and Johnson have more in common than apart. For one, Neels and Johnson promote a culture of care. Marius and Tabby are care-givers: they take care of the broken, often elderly people in their care. They care for their bodies, but they also preserve their dignity and make them feel needed and useful. And, in the background, are characters who in turn had once cared for them: Tabby’s nanny, who lives with her, provides meals, support, and love; and Hans, who stepped in as father-figure when Marius lost his parents. Nate and Anna take care of their children: they negotiate, soothe, mediate, and hold puke bowls. In the background are Anna’s grandparents who took her in when she was orphaned. In Nate’s background are his loving, supportive parents. It is no wonder how easy it is to envision both couples living long, happy, supportive, and loving lives together.
The final way I found meaning in both these romances was in something the heroes did. Johnson’s and Neels’s heroes wait for their heroines, for different reasons, but the same ends. Nate and Marius are about patient-loving-kindness and it is an incredibly moving, attractive quality in a hero. Marius waits for Tabitha to mature: to be ready to give and receive love because she sees herself as equally worthy and deserving. Tabby is down on herself, having been gaslighted by her step-mother and -sister. Marius doesn’t tell her she’s worthy and deserving, he waits, by giving her warmth and attention, to realize it herself. He waits so that she can choose him freely. Nate also waits for Anna. He waits for her to grieve for her husband, much as he wants her, desires her, and wants to marry her and make their disparate families into one.
Maybe in a few weeks I’ll roll my eyes and wonder what I was thinking drawing these connections. Right now, however, it all makes sense to me. Linking the verisimilitude-loving Johnson to the fairy-tale-bent Neels (with the evil step-mother and -sister, it’s no wonder Marius calls Tabitha a “Cinderella”) is the heart of the genre and that would be the heart itself: mysterious, knowing, giving, fulfilling, and loving because these are four people bringing good to the world, doing good in it, and finding joy in each other and the people they’ve been given to succor, care for, and love.
As for my and Miss Austen’s ratings, you should read them both. We give them a hearty rating of “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
I read a ratty old copy of Tabitha In Moonlight, which I’d purchased myself. It was published originally by Mills and Boon in 1972 and then by Harlequin. Janice Kay Johnson’s last Superromance, In A Heartbeat, is also published by Harlequin Romance. It was released on April 1st and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an In A Heartbeat e-ARC from Harlequin Books, via Netgalley.
P.S. I hate the dorky JKJ Superromance cover with the same intensity I adore the vintage Neels cover.