Dear Ms. Korbel,
When I read Jane’s call for reviews of classic romances, I knew that I wanted to review your book, A Soldier’s Heart. I read it in the mid 90s and it stayed with me. I finally tracked it down and re-read it last year and was impressed with how well it held up. It’s the first romance with protagonists with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that I ever read. Twenty years, and many PTSD romances later, I still think it’s one of the best I’ve read.
The book opens with a prologue – an unnamed army nurse saves the life of an unnamed marine sergeant in an evac hospital during the Vietnam War. The story begins some twenty years later, with the marine, Tony Riordan, working up the courage to go introduce himself to Claire Maguire Henderson, the nurse who saved his life. Seeking out Claire is part of Tony’s healing – he’s spent years laying to rest his ghosts from Vietnam. He unintentionally sets off a crisis for Claire, who hasn’t dealt with her past trauma yet. Tony realizes that his appearance brought up repressed emotions that Claire’s not quite ready to deal with, so he comes up with a way for him to stay in town and help if possible. Claire’s renovating an old inn, and he just happens to run a construction company, and offers to do some of the renovations at cost. I liked Tony so much that I was willing to accept the convenient coincidence. He’s upfront with Claire, and everyone who wonders what he’s doing, that he’s there primarily to help her heal. He’s also honest with himself that he’s attracted to Claire.
Most of the story takes place over a period of several weeks, while Tony works on the inn. There’s not a lot of external conflict – most of the story is about Claire facing her past while falling for Tony. I loved reading about two adults cautiously, and then not so cautiously, start a new relationship. Tony and Claire are both forty-something single parents, with careers, support networks and responsibilities, and they act like grown ups. There’s a sub-plot involving Claire’s older child, 17-year-old Johnny, who’s learning to fly and wants to enlist in the Air Force. The story’s set during the UN intervention in Somalia in 1993 or 1994, and the build up of US troops in Somalia triggers both Johnny’s desire to join the military and Claire’s PTSD symptoms. While the main story arc is Claire moving from denial to asking for help with her PTSD, it’s not a dark story. It’s emotional, but there’s also humor and sweetness.
I really like the portrayal of PTSD, which is almost a separate character. I have PTSD (from childhood trauma, not military service). I can only speak for myself, but this book rang emotionally true. The focus of the story is on Claire. We see her dealing with nightmares, flashbacks, and rages. We see her telling herself that she has no right to be upset, and that she’ll be fine as long as she keeps busy. We get hints of Tony’s past struggles too, but he’s further along in his healing, and it’s not really his story. I suppose I could be annoyed by the fact that the story is set up so that the man knows more than the woman, at least about dealing with PTSD. But Tony’s character is written in such a way that he doesn’t feel like an overbearing romance hero, who knows what the heroine needs better than she does. He doesn’t come across as thinking that he has all the answers, either for her or for himself. I love that he seeks out help for Claire almost immediately, but waits until she asks before telling her about the resources he’s found for her. As he says, “I’m like the library Claire. Information’s all there for the asking. But I’d never walk into your house and demand that you read.” (p 181) I’ve played variations of both Tony’s and Claire’s roles in my life, as the giver and receiver of help recovering from trauma, and they both resonated with me.
Treatment for PTSD has changed in the past twenty years, so before I re-read A Soldier’s Heart, I wondered if it might seem dated. Because the story focuses on Claire’s feelings, and on her journey from denial to asking for help, rather than on her actual treatment, I didn’t find it outdated. Some of the discussions about women and PTSD, however, did strike me as old-fashioned. Tony’s surprise that women who served in Vietnam also had PTSD made me roll my eyes. For example, here’s a passage from Tony’s first conversation with his vet center counselor about Claire and his concerns about how to help.
He’d somehow always thought of the victims as men. The men had suffered and the women had soothed. The women had appeared like a gift in Nam, bright-eyed and brash and smelling like Dove soap. A reward for having survived the time back in the boonies, a reminder that somewhere in the world there was still grace and compassion.
He hadn’t considered, all these years, that the women had brought home their own nightmares home.
Well, he thought it now.
Tony sighed, wished he were a lot smarter. A lot.
“We’re stupid, aren’t we?” he finally countered….“I really screwed it up, man. Tell me what to do.”
“Same thing you do with any of the guys you’ve run across. Just be there until I can get you extra help.” (pp. 48-9)
The thing that made it work for me is Tony’s self-deprecating sense of humor and the fact that he’s helped other, male, vets before. This isn’t just about saving the poor little woman. I also really liked that once Claire admits she needs help and finds someone at her local vet center to work with, Tony consciously backs off and lets her heal without becoming a crutch for her.
A few things bothered me as I was re-reading it for this review that I don’t remember noticing the first two times I read it. I thought the beginning was slow and the initial set up requires a suspension of disbelief – if I didn’t know that Tony was a romance hero, I’d worry that he was acting like a creepy stalker. Some of the supporting characters seemed one dimensional or cartoonish, particularly Peaches, Claire’s overprotective, ex-con pastry chef. And the writing style isn’t to my taste. It reminds me of Nora Roberts, particularly 1990s era Nora Roberts. I’m not sure how to characterize it except that I find it a bit choppy and distancing. Here’s an excerpt.
Claire turned her attention to her surprise houseguest. He was a dangerously good-looking man, filling out that apron and T-shirt with disconcerting effect. Well-honed muscles and long, lean lines. The glint of a well-worn chain and medal around his neck, worn for purpose rather than decoration, betraying his lack of pretension. The kind of man any sane woman would want in her kitchen cooking her pasta. (pp. 58-9)
But while I noticed some problems, I didn’t really care about them, because I LOVE THIS BOOK. I was completely emotionally invested in the characters and swept away by the story. I love the two main characters. I love their honesty, vulnerability, and subtle humor. I love how Tony helps Claire face her past and begin to heal so they can have a future together. Hell, I even love Tony’s mustache. I completely believe that they’ll live happily ever after. I’m not a crier and A Soldier’s Heart had me crying in public.
I’ve read quite a few romances with characters with PTSD in the past 20 years, some good and some really bad. In my opinion, they can go bad in two ways – either by taking the PTSD much too seriously or not seriously enough. Either the past trauma completely defines and overwhelms the heroine’s or (more often) the hero’s identity to the exclusion of everything else, or it’s magically cured by true love and/or hot sex. A Soldier’s Heart avoids both pitfalls. Re-reading it reminded me why I keep reading PTSD romances, despite the duds that I’ve encountered, because when they’re done well, the emotional payoff is incredibly rewarding. This is a lovely book. Thank you for writing it. My grade is an A-.
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