I never knew I was a fan of the tropish goodness of a marriage-in-trouble romance until I read Nicole Helm’s Bride For Keeps. It’s not that I avoided the trope, it’s just not one that’s done often, or at least favoured by the authors I tend to read. One of my earliest reviews was of Ruthie Knox’s marriage-in-trouble novella, “Making It Last.” There was an edge to Knox, an anger, that made the marriage compromise, no matter how cheerfully I tried to review it at the time, about diminishing the hero and heroine. This is not the case for Helm’s category-length romance.
Bride For Keeps opens with a family bombshell for the hero: the diagnosis of his father’s MS accompanied by the revelation that he is the product of his mother’s affair. Dr. Carter McArthur is floored: he has striven to be the perfect son, to stand in his father’s medical and community footsteps, giant, important, arrogant footsteps. His one rebellion, his one out-of-perfection decision was to marry wild-child Sierra Shuller.
Carter’s identity crisis comes just as his foundling marriage is settling into the danger zone of familiarity if not breeding contempt, definitely sowing doubt about, not love, but the ability of surviving the day-to-day grind. Sierra, on her part, has come down from the headiness of being married to this perfectly educated, perfectly responsible, perfectly controlled man, a bastion of community respect, a pillar that holds up everything staid and honourable. And Sierra is anything but: she rants, pouts, and throws tantrums. The wilder Sierra behaves, the more indulgent and soothing Carter has responded. This the pattern their marriage has settled into. It’s not good. There is a reckoning and Carter’s reeling from his “father’s” truth-telling sets it in motion.
When the novel opens, Sierra is struggling with Carter’s emotional withdrawal. Contending with his own pain, upholding his notion of what his masculine husbandly role is – to shelter Sierra from his struggles – Carter shuts her out. Sierra wants to reach out, to share Carter’s pain, but she’s afraid she won’t measure up to what he needs, won’t be enough, won’t be the exalted image of what his family would’ve wanted Carter to find in a wife. Sierra is immature and Carter is behaving like a cold fish. Balancing humour and angst, Helm’s tells the story of how Carter and Sierra work their way back to a place of understanding and renewed love. Her fulcrum is the key to how romance tears the hero and heroine asunder, only to build them back up again: the betrayal. Carter betrays Sierra by withholding himself; Sierra betrays Carter by leaving him and withholding herself. Helm does a great job of getting her hero and heroine to be brave enough to expose their vulnerabilities to each other in acts of trust, by opening up and speaking honestly … because they realize what is at stake: their love withering; their marriage, ending.
I loved Carter and Sierra, I loved them apart, and even more, together. I thought they were real, angsty and funny, messed up and put together, arguing, open and honest and raw. But Helm’s novel, really more novella, was pretty much done by their reconciliation. Then, as filler, she had not one, but three epilogues, with baby, with other people’s babies, with all manner of stuff. I read the fillers, I nodded at the fillers, I didn’t particularly enjoy the fillers. And that left me with a moue of disappointment and pulled one of the year’s most emotional reads down several notches. With Miss Austen, I would say Helm’s Bride For Keeps offers “real comfort,” Emma.
Nicole Helm’s Bride For Keeps is published by Tule Publishing. It was released on April 16 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Tule Publishing, via Netgalley.