Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tuesday Review: Willowleaf Lane

Willowleaf Lane
By RaeAnne Thayne
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: June 25, 2013

Charlotte “Charley” Caine has been a minor character in earlier Hope’s Crossing books, most notably in Currant Creek Valley as a woman Sam Delgado dates once before he and Alex McKnight become a couple. Charley has been overweight for much of her life, but within the last eighteen months, she has made significant lifestyle changes that resulted in a substantial weight loss. A thinner, healthier Charley has more self-confidence and finds greater joy in clothes shopping, but her new svelteness has not healed all the damage from the years when she was shy, fat, awkward, and hopelessly in love with a cocky jock whose carelessly cruel words broke her heart.

Spencer Gregory grew up in Hope’s Crossing, working several jobs from the time he was twelve to keep utilities turned on in the small, dilapidated house where he lived with his alcoholic mother. One of those jobs was at Dermot Caine’s Center of Hope café. Dermot was kind to Spence, not only giving him a job but including him in activities with his own sons and helping pay for expenses connected with the sports teams that were the bright spots in Spence’s dismal life. Dermot’s only daughter, Charlotte, was kind to Spencer too. For four years, the younger Charlotte helped him with his English assignments, keeping his grades high enough to maintain his eligibility for football and baseball. Billie Gregory died of liver failure shortly before Spence graduated from high school, signed a multimillion dollar contract with the Portland Pioneers baseball team, and left Hope’s Crossing with no plans of ever returning.

Smoke Gregory, so christened by the media for his smokin’ hot looks and his fastball, enjoyed a decade of wealth, fame, and adulation before everything fell apart. First, a career-ending injury left him addicted to prescription pain medication, necessitating a bout in rehab. He had just returned as the Pioneer’s pitching coach when a scandal broke over charges he was selling steroids and other drugs, charges that almost led to a prison sentence. The day the judge threw out the charges, his supermodel wife drowned in their swimming pool, and Smoke Gregory went from being a hero and media darling to being vilified as a drug dealer who may have been complicit in his wife’s death, an object lesson in all that was wrong with professional sports.

The man who returns to Hope’s Crossing with his twelve-year-old daughter Peyton is far removed from the arrogant kid who left. Humiliated and humbled, he is grateful to Harry Lange for giving him a chance as director of the town’s new recreation center. Although he doesn’t need the money, he does need the feeling that he’s accomplishing something with his life, and he needs a chance to repair his relationship with his daughter, who is still grieving for her mother and holds Spence responsible for her mother’s death. Spence is determined to reclaim a relationship he let deteriorate while his career soared and his marriage to his high-maintenance, needy wife disintegrated.

Spence doesn’t even recognize Charlotte Caine when he first sees her, but he’s attracted to the curvy beauty immediately and uses every excuse to spend time with her. Charley tells herself that she hates Spencer Gregory for his betrayal of the fifteen-year-old girl who thought he was her friend and for the way he let down her father and all those in Hope’s Crossing who viewed their favorite native son as a hero. She wonders why of all the streets in all the world Smoke Gregory had to end up a few doors from her house on Willowleaf Lane.  But she can’t ignore him, the feelings he awakens in her, and even the reluctant sympathy she feels for a man in whose innocence she begins to believe. She also feels sympathy and kinship for Peyton since Charley remembers all too well what it was like to be a young adolescent girl who had lost her mother at a time when she needed her badly. But can Charley learn to trust Spence, and can Spence surrender all his secrets and find a permanent place in Hope’s Crossing?

Raeanne Thayne’s fifth Hope’s Crossing book is packed with sympathetic, complicated characters and an abundance of issues. Charlotte’s weight issues and her transformation are handled with impressive insight. First, her motivation to change her lifestyle stems from the emotions resulting from her brother Dylan’s brush with death from injuries sustained in battle in Afghanistan. Nearly losing her brother opens her eyes to the risks she’s taking with her own life with weight-related high blood pressure and a possibility of diabetes. Then, Thayne shows Charlotte’s self-awareness of the factors that contributed to her weight gain. Although Charlotte owns Sugar Rush, a gourmet candy shop, her downfall is not her famous fudge or hand-dipped chocolates but the comfort food her father serves in his café, food that represents for Charley the safe, warm, loving world of family life before her mother’s death. Also, although she has reached her goal weight, Charlotte is repeatedly described as “curvy,” suggesting that her ideal weight is what is right for her body type, not some model thinness unattainable for most women.

Some readers may grow impatient with Charley’s inability to forgive and forget an incident that took place more than a decade ago when she and Spence were teenagers, but Thayne makes clear that that vulnerable girl is still part of who Charlotte is. Charley can’t allow herself to believe that Spence is truly attracted to her because “the fat girl who still lived inside her skin” wonders if he’s using her again.

Except for learning to trust Spence and overcoming her fear of being hurt again, Charley’s growth occurs before the book opens. Spence is the character who grows the most. Although his earlier experiences have humbled him, it is what happens to him after he connects with Charley and begins to see Hope’s Crossing through her eyes, after he focuses on something larger than himself that he becomes the man he was meant to be. He was never the villain the media made him out to be, but he is a better, more complete human being by the story’s end.

Subplots involving Peyton and Dylan add further complications to a story already layered with Charley’s issues with weight and body image and the tangled, temptation laden world of professional sports that has been Spence’s life. Peyton’s eating disorder, her way of controlling a world that turned to chaos in the wake of her father’s disgrace, her mother’s death, and a move away from everything that was familiar, is resolved in Willowleaf Lane, but Dylan’s depression and adjustment to life with one arm and one eye remain to be addressed in a future book.  

Thayne has given her readers another Hope’s Crossing book that offers a richly emotional tale of people facing real problems in a real place. Life in Hope’s Crossing is no idyll. Bad things happen to good people, and while the town is filled with decent people who are caring and compassionate and eager to help, it also has its share of people willing to think the worst and quick to move to hurtful judgments. Both elements make it a town I believe in and look forward to visiting again. If you’ve read earlier Hope’s Crossing books, you should not miss an opportunity to see old friends and read a strong, moving story. If you haven’t read any of the Hope’s Crossing books, Willowleaf Lane can be read as a standalone. As for me, my Hope’s Crossing keepers now number five, and I’m expecting to add a sixth in late October when Dylan’s story, Christmas in Snowflake Canyon, is released.

Beginning with the success of Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series, almost every small-town series seems to have one or more characters who is a veteran dealing with the physical and psychological wounds of war. Do you see this trend as patriotic, or do you think it has reached the point of overkill?

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