It’s been a while since I read a Camden sort-of historical romance. I’ve also drifted away from inspirational romance, thanks to the end Harlequin’s Love Inspired Historical line, where many a favourite author resided. With A Desperate Hope, Camden has moved away from the inspirational (which was fairly “light” to begin with) and towards “Americana” à la Deeanne Gist. (I loved Gist’s Tiffany Girl, but haven’t seen anything from her since. This makes me sad.) But Camden is a solid stand-in and I enjoyed the 1908 upper-state-NY-set historical fiction with a mild romance running through it. Unlike standard inspirational fare, the hero and heroine, while they’ve believers, also have a youthful affair, the heroine had lost her virginity to the hero, and there’s a fair amount of ale-drinking. Hurrah for Americana: this felt more believable than the inspirational romance’s leached ethos.
A Desperate Hope has an interesting historical setting, indeed it’s the “hero” of the novel, even more so than the protagonists. The teenage Alex Duval and Eloise Drake wooed when Eloise sneaked out of her father’s castle-in-the-air (her father’s actually a cement-factory owner) to meet Alex in the woods of the nearby town of Duval Springs. When her father caught wind of their affair, he had Alex beaten and exiled and Eloise sent to an Arizona convent. Another non-inspie point in Camden’s favour: as Eloise had a serene, enriching experience with the Catholic nuns. Twelve years later and the novel setting proper, Eloise is a successful accountant for the city of New York and is sent to Duval Springs as part of the team that will see the town’s demolition, making way for a major reservoir project. Alex, in the meanwhile, after years in the army, is Duval Springs’s mayor. He and his former love and her volatile father are reunited.
Camden’s novel hinges on Alex’s scheme to save his town. While Eloise and her team are here to see the town demolished, Alex plans to move it, house by house, school, tavern, hotel, and church to higher ground. His scheme is wildly improbable, daring, and costly. That’s where Eloise comes in. He needs her help to make the financial end come true. With this premise, Camden sets her hero and heroine initially working at cross purposes, as well as having different approaches to life. Alex never lost his wild imagination, adventurousness, and penchant for dreaming in Technicolor. Eloise, on the other hand, became ever more cautious, careful, and rational. Through their cooperation to save Duval Springs, Camden shows how two different people bring their strengths to working in tandem to save a town and way of life. In the same way, when Alex and Eloise win their HEA, they will bring this spirit to their marriage and family. The saving of the town is a gargantuan affair and proved, at least to this reader, to be more vital and interesting than the characters. I liked Alex and Eloise and their opposites-attract pairing well enough, but they lacked chemistry. When oxen pulling houses and railtracks laid to carry homes to higher ground prove more compelling than a romance novel’s romance, well, don’t read it for the romance.
Camden continues to be a lovely prose writer. She brings the history of what is in actuality the Ashokan Reservoir project to life: I found the whole effort, with its setbacks, fascinating. I can’t say the same for Alex and Eloise. They were more interesting as the dreamer and pragmatist and the strengths they bring to Duval Springs’s salvation than they were as lovers. For example, witness what Alex says to Eloise when he shares his dream with her:
“If a cause is worth having, I’ll fight for it and make it happen. I can motivate people and drag them across the finish line. Your accounting ledgers don’t have a column for the size of a human heart. That’s where I come in.”
In the end, Alex comes to admire and acknowledge Eloise’s ledgers, that the town couldn’t have been saved without her. Eloise comes to recognize that to live fully, you have to step off the ledge, take a risk, with your career and heart. Camden brings them, beautifully, to the conclusion that “They’d rolled up their sleeves to work in tandem on a daring, desperate quest, and there was no one he’d [Alex’d] rather have beside him.” In turn, Eloise “was coming to admire the risk-takers who were brave enough to reach for the stars.” Just wish there was more chemistry, some smooching, and stolen moments in the woods.
Ultimately, Camden’s greatest romance is what America is, as exemplified by her hero, heroine, and the many townspeople who populate her world: “When you get knocked down, you pick yourself up and move on. It’s the Amercian way. You don’t whine. You don’t quit. You pick up and begin again.” Like I said, Americana. With Miss Austen, Camden’s historical fiction is “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Elizabeth Camden’s A Desperate Hope is published by Bethany House. It was released on February 5th and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-ARC from Bethany House, via Netgalley.