Dear Sonya Clark:
I bought this novel on an impulse after reading your tweets about not seeing the small town life you knew represented much in the small-town romances you’ve read (even though you enjoyed the books). Most of the year I live in a not-wealthy state with a lot of small towns in which people are mostly working class. I suspected that this would be a book in which a heroine who was a waitress putting herself through college as a mature student would feel authentic, and I was not wrong. But it is a lot more than that. This leisurely, insightful, deeply satisfying book is one of the most enjoyable romances I’ve read in a while. When I finished I wanted to go back to the beginning and start all over again.
Note to readers: Before I continue, I want to alert readers that important elements of the story involve miscarriage and adoption. Both are discussed in the early chapters, so I’m not giving anything away. I found the way the issues are integrated into the text to be thoughtful and effective, but they are gut-wrenching. Not because there is anything explicit (in both cases the events are years in the past), but because their effects are so convincingly depicted.
The chapters alternate POVs between Daisy, the aforementioned waitress, and Wade, a washed-up country music star who is screwing up his latest gig when the novel opens. This first chapter is terrific, because the reader sees exactly how self-destructive Wade is and why he is that way, but while we sympathize with him we don’t have to put up with him kidding himself. Wade knows what he’s become, but he can’t see the road back. So Wade’s story is finding that road and taking it, a journey that begins when his longtime manager tells him to take the summer off, dry out, and figure out how to have a productive career again.
Daisy, on the other hand, has her life together in the face of tough odds. Her mother and sister were both teenage mothers and her brother’s most regular job is dealing pot. Daisy’s entire life is about not following in their footsteps and building a future for herself. Being treated with respect is a high priority for her, right after supporting herself and getting through college loan-free, however long that takes. So when Wade, drunk again, disrespects Daisy while she’s his server, she lets him have it even though it costs her her job, which she values.
Wade, who feels guilty and somewhat horrified at what he’s done when he sobers up, is able to get Daisy her job back by promising to play in the bar/restaurant (it happens to be the place where he learned to perform in public and which set him on his path to fame). This throws the two of them together several nights a week and they develop a friendship that slowly turns into more.
The washed-up singer-songwriter and the gorgeous waitress is not a new setup, but both characters feel like individuals here. The alternating POV lets us learn a lot about Daisy and Wade as unique people, not just as halves of a future couple. They both have complex histories and their family and friend relationships are as important, especially in the early parts of the book, as their interactions with each other. An important theme running through the story is that they need to be comfortable with themselves and make life changes and decisions for their own sakes, not for someone else, and that emphasis is sustained even as their desire to be together grows. It’s a balance of a romance (because the emphasis on the relationship) and their individual journeys, which I found very satisfying.
Daisy and Wade meet warily, slowly drop their respective guards and get to know each other, and eventually give in to the fact that they are falling hard. Given that this is a small town, that means they have to deal with all the people they know in common, as well as their interested and interfering families. All of these relationships are well done and none of them fall into stereotypical behavior. Wade’s youngest brother hates him, with reason (a reason Wade fully recognizes and accepts), but over the course of the novel they find a way to manage that. Wade’s mother is a pillar of the small town, but her concerns about Daisy and Wade aren’t the ones you’d expect (or the ones either Daisy or Wade expect). Issues that are often handled bluntly in the genre (adoption, miscarriage, mother-daughter relationships, ex-wives) are all treated insightfully here. I kept waiting for the stereotype hammer to drop, and it never did.
The writing is strong. In the early chapters of the book in particular, I was repeatedly struck by sentences and phrases that just nailed the characters and the story. Wade’s POV struck a difficult balance between creating sympathy for the character while being honest about his flaws and the extent to which his problems were self-inflicted.
“I need to work,” he repeated. Not so much for the money. Mostly so he wouldn’t wind up standing still and staring at the walls, thinking too much. That never worked out well for him. “I can take a few days off if you want, but I don’t need more time off than that.”
“You were fired for being drunk on stage, and it’s not exactly a secret. I couldn’t book you anywhere right now even if I wanted to. And I don’t want to.” Becky took a deep breath and shifted her coffee cup between her hands. The tiny lines around her eyes were more pronounced than usual, which meant she was angry. That never worked out well for him, either.
“There were extenuating circumstances.” He wanted to take that back as soon as it was out of his mouth.
Becky seared him with a look that burned all the way down to the soles of his boots. “You’ve been getting worse for a while now. Don’t try to deny it.”
Wade pushed his coffee away and angled his chair so he could look directly at the fountain. He leaned his elbows on his knees and watched the ducks swim laps and play in the water. Better to face the ducks than Becky. She wasn’t wrong, and as much as he wanted to, he couldn’t deny it.
Because the story takes as much time with Wade and Daisy separately as it does with them together in the early sections, the romance between them is a slow burn, with plenty of sexual tension. And then, once their relationship gets going it really takes off. The sex scenes are steamy and explicit, but completely integrated into the development of their relationship. The last part of the novel deals with how they will reconcile their individual ambitions, and the resolution works.
There are all kinds of themes that run through the book which I haven’t touched on: Daisy’s relationship with her mother, her sister, and her best friend (who has her own difficult issues to deal with); the complicated relationships we have with our creative instincts and processes, seen through the prism of Wade’s journey; the way we manage loss and bad choices, and how even choices we know are the right ones can leave lasting scars. I don’t feel as if I’m doing the book justice, maybe because I’m still thinking about and processing all these threads.
After I finished, I went to read more about the author and I discovered that this is one of those rarities in the genre today: a standalone novel. Clark has written a number of books in the paranormal and SF subgenres, but this was a departure and she doesn’t have plans to write more. I’m sorry for that, because it feels like a book of the heart, and I’d love to read more small-town romances like this one. But that’s her call, not mine. I’m just grateful that I found this book and had the opportunity to spend time in the world Clark created.
And can I just say how much I loved the cover? I almost never pay attention to covers, but I think this one influenced my impulse to buy and read. It provides Exhibit A that a hero can be fully clothed and totally sexy. Grade: A-