Certainly I was aware of nightmare mothers, but it always seemed to me that they were balanced by some pretty terrific mothers as well. Take the mothers in Nora Roberts’s books for example. There’s Maeve Concannon, mother of Maggie and Brianna in the Born in series, whose bitterness is a blight on her daughters’ lives, and the truly evil Gloria DeLauter of the Chesapeake Quartet, a selfish, sleazy bitch who sells her own son and later blackmails him. But Roberts also created characters like the delightful Nadia Stanislaski, beloved by husband, children, and grandchildren and Stella Quinn, whose presence in the lives of the three lost boys she and her husband Ray adopted remains vivid and influential years after her death. My favorite is Anna MacGregor, not only a loving mother and grandmother to the large MacGregor clan but also a strong and independent heroine in her own love story, For Now, Forever. Of course, I can’t forget Violet Bridgerton, mother of Julia Quinn’s alphabetically arranged Bridgertons. She is so beloved by romance readers that many of them have begged for her story, although they seem divided as to whether she should remain a widow devoted to her husband’s memory or have a second chance at love. As I said, the good mother/bad mother ratio seemed reasonable to me.
But that changed with my late 2010, early 2011 reading. Suddenly I seem to be reading an astonishing number of books with mothers who were dead, ineffectual, or self-centered. The mothers of the heroines in Robyn Carr’s Promise Canyon and Wild Man Creek, Eloisa James’s When Beauty Tamed the Beast, Rachel Gibson’s Any Man of Mine, and Sabrina Jeffries’s How to Woo a Reluctant Lady are dead. The mother of the heroine of Anne Mallory’s One Night Is Never Enough is weak and useless to her daughters. The heroines of My One and Only by Kristan Higgins and Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart by Sarah MacLean were abandoned by their mothers. MacLean gives her hero a bad mother too, a cold woman who values name and blood more than her children. As balance, I had only the mother in Susan Wiggs’s Marrying Daisy Bellamy. Sophie and Daisy had their problems in other books, but in this one Sophie is a loving, supportive parent to Daisy and to the children of her second marriage. I read Marrying Daisy Bellamy early in the year, so by the time I finished Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke’s Heart last week, I was getting desperate to find a book with a good mother.
That’s when I read Already Home by Susan Mallery (Mira, March 29, 2011), a romantic women’s fiction novel that has not one but two good mothers.
Jenna Stevens has returned to her Texas hometown to build a new life for herself after a divorce from a faithless husband has left her questioning everything about the woman she thought she was. The erosion of her confidence in her culinary gifts leads her to open a cooking store rather than seek employment as a sous chef. Jenna lacks retail experience, and she makes choices about her shop that threaten its continued existence. Fortunately, she hires an assistant who possesses a creative flair and the retail knowledge Jenna lacks. With the help of this assistant and the unfaltering support of her parents, who adopted Jenna shortly after her birth, Jenna turns things around. She’s beginning to feel pride in her shop, a friendship is developing between Jenna and her assistant, Violet, and Jenna’s mother is there encouraging her and helping out in the shop.
Then one day a couple who look like aging hippies appear in the store and introduce themselves as Jenna’s birth parents. Jenna has no need for another set of parents. She sees her birth mother as a threat to her adoptive mother and wants nothing to do with this fading flower child who offers vegan recipes, messages from the Universe, and a second family, including two brothers. It is only at the urging of her adoptive mother that Jenna is even polite to her birth mother. But as she comes to know her birth mother, she grows to appreciate her and to understand that both her mothers have given her gifts that shaped her into the woman she is becoming. It is only this new understanding that prepares her heart for the man who is all she has dreamed of. The secondary plot centers on Violet—her troubled past, her determination to become more than she once thought she could be, the friendship she shares with Jenna, and the two men who enter her life.
The book is about the journeys of these two young women, and an essential part of their journeys is the relationships they have with their mothers and the mother-figures in their lives. Beth Stevens, Jenna's adoptive mother, is a conventional mother, one who loves her child devotedly and worries about her. He husband accuses her of having refined worry to an art form. Violet thinks of Beth as “the kind of woman who took in strays of all kinds,” and Beth does literally take Violet in and nurture her in ways Violet’s mother failed to do. Serenity Johnson, Jenna's birth mother, is an unconventional free spirit with a loving heart and great regret over giving her daughter up for adoption. She reared her sons with love, freedom, and “just enough rules to keep them safe.” Neither woman is perfect. Beth is illogical and surprisingly insecure, and Serenity is impulsive and sometimes insensitive. Despite their different lifestyles and personalities, they have some important things in common. They both fell in love at a young age, and they have built long, happy marriages with their first loves and created homes filled with “laughter and conversation.” They both love their children and want to see them happy.
One of the things that keeps me reading Susan Mallery books is that her characters, even those I don’t like, seem like people I might encounter in my world. They could be the guy across the street, my cousin’s cousin, or the couple at the next table in my favorite restaurant. I feel as if I know Beth and Serenity. Like Beth, my own mother was an accomplished worrier whose hugs “never let go too soon.” And I have a friend who raises organic vegetables, cooks vegan dishes, and gave her children unusual names, although not quite as strange as Wolf and Dragon. Life has taught me that good mothers abound and that they come in very different packaging. This book reminded me of that truth, not only through Beth and Serenity but also through two very minor characters, the mother and former mother-in-law of Jenna's love interest, who prove their devotion in practical ways.
Because Already Home is women’s fiction, Jenna’s relationships with her mothers and, to a lesser degree her fathers, and her friendship with Violet play a more prominent role in the story that would be true if the novel were a contemporary romance. But there are strong romantic elements, and the story concludes with the promise of an HEA. (Jenna’s guy was definitely a keeper, but it was her brother Dragon who captured my heart.) I found this book to have the same emotional appeal and layered characters that I’ve appreciated in Mallery’s romances for years. A satisfying blend of women’s fiction and romance, readers of romance novels and readers of women's fiction should find much to like in Already Home. Mallery has written another winner--and those good mothers make it even better.
What good--and bad--mothers from romance/women's fiction novels do you remember most vividly? Do you read women's fiction, or do you read only romance?