I had the wonderful surprise of winning a copy of Heart of My Heart at my writers' meeting last Sunday. Since this debut novel is an April 2008 release, it will be gobbled up while it's on the shelves this month. Stay tuned next week for my review of Christine d'Abo's The Bond That Ties Us. Ms. d'Abo's book is currently available at Ellora's Cave.
Today I'd like to treat you to my review for a very special debut novel by a very special debut author.
1 - Heart of My Heart is an Everlasting Love imprint from Harlequin Super Romance, released on April 8th. Stella is part of my RWA chapter, and a debut novel from one of my sistahs is a major deal.
2 - Stella MacLean was a member of RWA when I joined, and as I got to know her and listened to her writing workshops over the past five years, she shared with us her unparalled determination in the face of that elusive first sale. She held workshops on keeping one's spirit up, or keeping it fresh when one's writing voice seemed tired and uninspired. At one of the writers' retreats, she shared her writing history with us. To say that Stella's experiences have inspired me is truly putting it mildly.
3 - Heart of My Heart offers a longer-range romance following one couple through several decades. 'Discover how love is truly the adventure of a lifetime,' writes Harlequin about its Everlasting Love category. 'Because happily ever after is just the beginning...'
This is a big draw for me, as I love living through all the bumps in the road with a couple. In a traditional romance, there can only be so many bumps because by its nature, a romance shows us the start of a relationship. Everlasting Love books show the more complicated emotions that happen between a couple as they mature into the 'everlasting' part of the equation.
4 - We meet Olivia Banks, a high school senior in the 1960's who plays basketball and has won the first full scholarship awarded to a female student for the marketing program at Hastings College. She's in love with the son of her father's employer and hasn't quite grasped how much their social inequity will shortly impact her life.
5 - James McElroy is called suddenly to meet with his father, though it's the night of the prom and Olivia is waiting for him. James' father is cruel and unyielding. He refuses to watch his son marry beneath him and physically forces James to bend to his will.
6 - The core of this novel revolves around the willingness to believe in one's own feelings. The adults in the hero's and heroine's lives play on the 'wisdom' that young high school kids can't possibly know what's best for them. And Olivia and James themselves try to convince their own broken hearts to mend over the years - but without any success.
7 - I really, really love the flashback aspects of this story. As I've mentioned before, if this were a straight contemporary romance following the very same couple, I wouldn't find it as fascinating as when we get to skip back and forth through time. One scene shows Olivia and James as heavily smitten teenagers, one scene shows Olivia as a 20-something mother trying to make it work with a man who is not her beloved. The different facets of the characters' growth over the years is very well-handled. They don't simply change hairstyles with the fashions - they realize things about themselves, they grow.
8 - There's an absolute ton of sexual tension between Olivia and James. Whenever they're in a room together, I'm feeling it! This is a sweet romance, the high level of longing and uncertainty between the hero and heroine driving the story.
9 - Olivia's and James' most crushing differences come from their families' economic backgrounds. From a compatibility standpoint, this couple underestimates the power this will have over them. And I'm a sucker for class-difference romances.
10 - MacLean really knows how to end each chapter with an emotional hook. Like this, for example, a scene between Olivia and the man she married instead of James:
" 'But Alex, this is our life and my child-' Olivia heard her words, and flushed at the realization of what she'd said.
'You mean our child, don't you?' Alex countered, his voice tinged with recrimination.
'Yes, of course I do,' she said too quickly.
'Olivia, I'm Kyle's father in every way that matters,' he whispered, peeking over his shoulder to see where Sarah was.
'Of course you are, and I want us to be a family,' she whispered back.
There was silence between them as Olivia stared up at Alex. How could she have said something so stupid and insensitive?
'I didn't mean to make it sound like you weren't.' She reached for him, her hands clutching the smooth cotton of his shirt.
He nodded and his fingers folded over hers. 'Kyle is our son. My mother loves Kyle, and she wants to be part of his life. I agree that makes things difficult for us at times, but -'
'I realize she loves Kyle,' Olivia broke in, 'but I wish it was just you, me and Kyle.'
'Give Mom time to adjust...'
'She's had over a year, for heaven's sake!'
'She's alone. She has no one but us,' he answered.
Olivia hated to be ungenerous, but her mother-in-law's involvement in their lives was becoming intolerable. And there was nothing she could do about it."
11 - MacLean's secondary characters hold significant sway over the plot dynamics. I could never really guess how Olivia's husband Alex would react to things, nor Olivia's school friend Grace. And yet their reactions made all the difference to Olivia and James.
12 - The thing that I like most about this book is the way we meet the hero and heroine. Any longtime couple will see the inner person every time they look into each other's eyes. Readers can carry the teenage lovers forward into every scene, just the way Olivia and James do. Yet we've been there for all the growing and changing, so the later scenes have layers to them.
13 - I leave you with an excerpt. Enjoy!
" 'When did you get married?'he asked suddenly.
'That same year?' he asked, his voice flat with disbelief.
She nodded, but didn't meet his eyes.
She'd married just four months after he'd left. 'And all that time, I thought you were willing to wait for me,' he said bleakly.
'Or wouldn't,' he countered, all hope draining from him. 'So you were already married when I sent you the airline ticket.'
'Why didn't you tell me back then?'
She didn't reply.
If Olivia had waited, if she'd been willing to believe and trust in him, in their lives together... 'Would you leave your life behind for me now?'
He saw the truth in her eyes.
Tears soaked her eyelashes as Olivia continued to stare at him. 'Oh James, why didn't you call me or try to contact me when you got to Ireland? I called your house and they told me you'd left. I felt completely abandoned by you. I survived that and now you want me to pick up and leave the life I've made for myself.'
Seeing the sorrow in her eyes, James faced the fact that he was making a fool of himself by being here. 'Olivia, I've never wanted anyone but you, and I never will.'
'That was true years ago, James,' she said with finality.
But it hadn't changed anything for them. Was that what she was trying to tell him? 'You're right. I have no business asking you to leave your life behind for me.'
Her cheeks damp with tears, Olivia murmured, 'I'd give anything if we could go back, start over.'
He breathed in her scent, clinging to the moment. 'But we can't, can we?'
From the moment she told him when she got married, everything had changed. The anger and betrayal she saw in his eyes was unfair and undeserved, but she wouldn't defend herself to him.
Back then, she'd had no choice but to protect Kyle from the shame of illegitimacy, and she'd protect him again.
Her heart ached to tell James about his son, but telling him was out of the question now.
The trust between them was damaged beyond repair. Telling James about Kyle wouldn't change anything...except Kyle's life.
- Stella MacLean, 2008
Stay tuned to the next three Thursday Thirteens - following next week's review of Christine d'Abo's debut ebook from July 2007, I'll be reviewing ebooks by Red Garnier and Lillian Feisty.