Comfort Reads and the End of an Era: With a Mini-Review of Janice Kay Johnson’s IN A HEARTBEAT

In_A_HeartbeatWith 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.

Tabitha_In_MoonlightThe 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.

15 thoughts on “Comfort Reads and the End of an Era: With a Mini-Review of Janice Kay Johnson’s IN A HEARTBEAT

  1. Miss Bates, Fascinating review.
    I have read the JKJ book and enjoyed it and can’t remember if I’ve read the Betty Neel story. Every now and then I have a yen to dig out a vintage Betty Neel or Essie Summers. Then I find myself enjoying the beautiful writing but annoyed by the 80’s plot devices of beautiful but devious “other woman”, big misunderstanding (if only the H and h sat down and had a real conversation like adults!) and, in Betty’s case, I wish the RDD ( rich Dutch doctor) would just tell the girl he’s keen on her.
    Despite these reservations, you have inspired me to search out a copy of Tabitha in Moonlight! I’m glad to see you seem to have your reviewing mojo back.

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    • Your kind words are much appreciated! I do feel like more of my reader-self. I think reading is such a strong identity, that it feels strange when it seems to be coming undone. But Neels always restores my faith in the genre.

      I acknowledge those “tics” of hers and they are duly noted as I’m reading, but I think that Tabitha has a lot less of that. And the hero, at least, this is frustrating at times about Neels, has a good reason to keep mum. The other woman is obviously NOT a rival (but Tabitha is a bit dense about this) and the gaslighing is psychologically astute and well done. I think you might enjoy it! *crosses fingers*

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      • I’ve finished Tabitha in Moonlight and enjoyed it. I think it is one of her best though it is awhile since I read a Betty Neels. ( I will need to drop over to The Uncrushable Jersey Dress site and check out the posts and reviews to refresh my memory.) I agree with you re less of the usual “ tics” and the cleverly done gaslighting. My only criticisms are that that it did drag on a bit and I wasn’t impressed that Marius appeared to share his intentions regarding Tabitha with others (the men and her old Nanny) before he sealed the deal with the girl. That seemed a bit arrogant.

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  2. No, no, no! Do not roll your eyes in a couple of weeks for your comparisons between JKJ and Neels. You’ve inspired me to hunt down JKJ with your lovely, thoughtful review of both these writers. I think this sentence is ingrained in my heart and head forever because it not only so beautifully, succinctly summarizes both writers’ styles (and inspires me to read JKJ!) but also pays homage to two writers who’ve brought you to this thoughtful, considered opinion: “…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.” That is indeed Neels’ forte. Brava, I say, brava!

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    • It is so lovely to share La Grande Betts love with you! And Tabitha is an absolute gem, isn’t she? I agree: and I’ll try not to roll my eyes. I can overlook the cryptic hero, evil OW, and naive heroine for Betty’s moral centre and well, food descriptions, clothes, furniture. She was a great connoisseur of beauty and goodness.

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  3. I have a love/hate with Superromance–IMO, some of their authors should’ve been offered single titles (Karina Bliss, Sarah Mayberry, Tara Taylor Quinn) with HQN or MIRA and others were just kind of…eh, okay. Also, they suffered from the worst covers for so many years, most of which didn’t even relate to the style or emotional depth of the stories. And then there was that there was no consistency to the heat level so you never knew whether it was going to be a hot, sexy story or a closed bedroom door. The paperbacks became impossible to find, which probably also led to the demise of the category. I confess I’ve never read this author, I hope she finds a new “home” for her stories.

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    • Oh, I would highly highly recommend JKJ. She wrote wonderful Supers from early on: Maternal Instinct, Snowbound, With Child, Whose Baby, and I loved this present one, as well as To Love A Cop.

      Your critique is spot-on about Super-romance, a case in point is the horrible horrible cover for this one. The tuque on the hero: WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? LET’S MAKE HIM A DORK!!

      I’ve never read TTQuin: which ones would you rec??!!

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  4. The only consolation (and I mean ONLY) is that JKJ wrote a ton for SuperRomance and her backlist is so ginormous I’m unlikely to ever get caught up. But so much of what Kim said. Why Harlequin didn’t offer JKJ a MIRA contract to publish “book club-like fiction” is something that boggles my mind. The joy in JKJ is the “realness” of her characters and her conflicts. Good Lord that woman writes some dynamite conflict. Heck, you can literally pick almost any of her Supers, repackage it in trade paperback with a “women’s fiction-y” cover and voila! But, whatever. Nobody is asking Wendy.

    Ahem.

    I haven’t read it – but she recently self-published a romantic suspense novel (Home Deadly Home). I’m curious to try it as some of her Supers did have light-ish suspense plots to them.

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    • The ways of Harlequin are an utter mystery to me. Why isn’t Sarah Mayberry writing for them? Or Karina Bliss? Or Molly O’Keefe??!! Another Superromance writer I love is Kathy Altman, gone.

      JKJ has a lot of cop heroes and that’ll segue well for her for rom suspense. She also has some Superromance that are so light on the rom, they really are more mystery.

      I’d like to give her self-pub rom suspense Ye Ole MissB. Reader Test …

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  5. Willaful. JKJ has found a new home in the Intrigue line according to her comments in the letter to readers at the start of In a Heartbeat. Since there often was a romantic suspense like plot to many of her books this may prove a good fit.
    Super Wendy, I have read all five of her self published romantic suspenses and enjoyed them. The latest ( Home Deadly Home) is good IMO.
    Some people who posted above mentioned they haven’t read any JKJ. Miss Bates mentioned some good titles to which I would add Marriage Made in Court and Finding Her Dad. Luckily she has a big backlist because once you start, if you enjoy the first few, you will probably search them all out !

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  6. As an aficionado of both JKJ & Neels, I really enjoyed this review! I am so happy JKJ is keeping publishing. I think I have read all her self-pub romantic suspense & really enjoyed it. (I noticed at some point that in ~90% of her books, at some point the heroine is described as wearing a ‘sacky’ garment & I kinda love keeping an eye out for that tic when I read her.)

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    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it and thank you for saying so! I admit that I haven’t rolled my eyes yet at making the connection, so I’ll stand by it. I was happy to discover from commentators that JKJ has self-pubbed. The more JKJ we have to enjoy, the better the world is. Oh, now, I look forward to the “sacky” garment (can’t be terribly attractive) tic too!!

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