Dear Ms. Lane,
I am a long-time fan of the Harlequin Romance line, so when you offered Dear Author the opportunity to review your debut novel I was happy to volunteer. And when one of my favorite blogger-reviewers (and RWA Librarian of the Year!), SuperWendy, gave Soldier On Her Doorstep a positive review, the book moved to the top of my TBR. I agree that your book has some real strengths, but it also had a number of shortcomings. So my reading experience was mixed.
Alex Dane has returned to the United States after serving several tours of duty overseas. Lisa Kennedy is a widow and mother who lives in Alaska and is putting her life back together after her beloved husband William was killed in action eight months earlier. They meet when Alex comes to Lisa’s home to pass on a last message from William and give her a few treasured belongings. Alex and William served together, and Alex was present when William was killed, but he refuses to talk further about that incident or his wartime experiences.
One of the great strengths of this story is the characterizations. Lisa is still grieving for William, but she is trying to move on with her life, as she knows William would have wanted her to do. She is a cookbook writer, and she is also focused on helping her six-year-old daughter Lilly through her own trauma: since finding out her father would not be coming home again, Lilly has not spoken. When Lisa realizes that Alex has no family of his own, she persuades him to stay in a cabin on her property until he decides what to do next. She is intrigued by and attracted to Alex, and despite William’s relatively recent death, she isn’t ashamed of her desires, but she is careful not to rush into anything. Lisa is a refreshingly level-headed and likable heroine, and Lilly is a sweet, sympathetic little girl.
Alex is a truly tortured hero. He is filled with guilt about the circumstances of William’s death and he is very much alone in the world. He is not a fake loner; you really make the reader feel his sense of isolation and his guilt. His ability to empathize and connect with Lilly, and his fear of doing the same with Lisa, are both sensitively depicted.
Unfortunately, while the characters and the storyline were appealing and well done, I found the writing style and the setting much less satisfying. The writing style relies heavily on internal monologues and exposition, and I felt as if you (and the characters) were telling me their feelings rather having me experience them through their words and actions. For example:
She got up. Her feet seemed to lead her on autopilot toward the door. There was something forbidden about what she was doing. But she didn’t stop. Just seeking him out felt like she was prodding a sleeping tiger.
It wasn’t like she’d never gone out looking for him before, but today was different. Today she was haunted by the look in his eyes earlier in the car. Today she was a woman thinking about a man. Today she was fighting the widow who loved her husband still. Today she just wanted to be a woman who happened to like a man.
Lisa stopped before stepping outside to check her hair. She ran her hands across it, making sure her ponytail was smooth. She pressed her hands down her jeans and fiddled with her top.
She had no idea what she was doing. Why she was looking for him. But she had to see him. Had to prove to herself that there had been something between them in the car today. Something she wasn’t imagining. Something that was worth feeling guilty over.
Readers vary in their style preferences, and your approach may work well for others, but I found it distancing and at times monotonous.
A bigger problem for me than the style was the evocation of the setting. I love about reading contemporaries with a distinctive setting because I feel as if I am learning about a new place, if I don’t know it, or visiting a familiar context, if I do. I feel a bit unfair in my criticism here, because while most readers aren’t going to have much first-hand knowledge of Alaska, I have family there and visit frequently.
I didn’t recognize Alaska as it was portrayed in this novel. The flora and fauna you describe are found in many places in the northern part of the North American continent, but they aren’t common in most of the state, and while I enjoyed the bear encounter, Alex’s night of “sleeping rough” was close enough to a normal camping night that it didn’t convey the sense of risk and trauma that I think you intended.
Moreover, the way you describe the local society in which Lisa lives doesn’t sound like the communities I’m familiar with. Alaska’s small towns there (we’re talking less than a thousand people) are pretty close-knit. Residents are spread out, few people are wealthy, and winters are harsh, so they need to rely on each other. There are suggestions that the town residents won’t approve of Lisa and Alex, but their suspicions aren’t fully explained and the storyline never goes anywhere.
These flaws pulled me out of the book at key times, but even so, I was able to enjoy the characterizations and the poignancy of the story. I’m not convinced that Alex is over his traumas, but Lisa seems like someone who can help him through them. I definitely plan on reading the second book in this series. Grade: C+
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