For some reason, there's nothing quite like the feeling of popping into the grocery store to grab something, and out of the corner of my eye the book rack flagged me down - and there, with all the other books, was the latest release from one of my writers' group members.
What a mega-thrill! Maybe it's because I went into the store for something food-related and I wasn't thinking about books. It took me by surprise, even though I knew it was coming out. So I just brought it up to the cashier like I was a normal person buying normal things. I watched her ring it through with such a feeling of secret excitement.
And then I got home, turned the first few pages - I laughed. I cried.
No wonder Shirley Hailstock, past president of Romance Writers of America, gave this review on Amazon:
"I hope Harlequin knows what a treasure they have in Stella MacLean. Her second SuperRomance, Baby in Her Arms, is the lifetime story of the love between deceased husband Andrew and his wife Emily. At the same time, it's the parallel love story of a second chance at happiness. MacLean weaves the two elements seamlessly together, making us love both the sensitive man that was her husband and the caring neighbor who harbors a quiet and sincere longing for the lonely woman next door."
1 - Baby in Her Arms is a Bundles of Joy imprint from Harlequin SuperRomance, released in March 2009. As a category romance, it has a limited shelf life in brick-and-mortar stores - and is likely already sold out - but is available for order online at Amazon.
2 - Stella MacLean's debut novel was Heart of My Heart, which followed the contemporary story of James and Olivia, while flashbacking to their initial romance and all the hills and valleys it survived. I really enjoyed the breadth of the story and the contrast between the young lovers and the mature characters they'd evolved into. Love is so much deeper when it is hard-won.
You can read my review here.
3 - The reason that Baby in Her Arms had me in tears so quickly stems from my own loss of my dad and my father-in-law in the past two years. Staying in the hospital rooms with my step mom and my mother-in-law as they said goodbye to their loves was very intimate and special, and it made the heartache of main character Emily very immediate for me.
4 - We meet Emily Martin, rushing to the hospital for the birth of her daughter's first child. The joy of this moment is painful for what it exposes in Emily's heart. Her late husband's presence is everywhere for her - by his absence.
5 - Andrew Martin was a trial lawyer whose family growing up were not the best at sharing emotions. Andrew subsequently falls into patterns he'd sworn never to share with his parents: work first, family when he could squeeze them in. When he developed cancer in later years, his inability to share his fear and grief with his wife drove him to write a series of letters which he addressed to his love - but never told her about. He told his best friend, however - neighbor Sam Bannister, a man whom Andrew knows carries a flame for Emily.
6 - Sam is a retired classics professor with "a penchant for reading Shakespeare out loud in his back garden during the summer." A widower himself for some years, he maintained a close friendship with Andrew, who had little time for non-work-related relationships as he tried to be the dad he'd never had himself, and the husband his wife deserved but didn't see near enough. A passionate gardener, Sam started to mow Emily's lawn when Andrew's illness became too much for that sort of thing.
7 - I really, really love the flashback aspects of this story. Straight contemporary romances aren't really my thing. There generally has to be something paranormal or highly original or quirky to get me interested in following a couple, such as getting to skip back and forth through time through Andrew's letters to Emily, and continuous flashbacks through different times in their marriage. Emily finds his letters when she decides to enter her late husband's home office and finally clear it out to use as a playroom for her grandchildren. Having the flashbacks come to the reader through both Emily's and Andrew's POV's is really effective. We get a he-said-she-said version of major events, which throws a revealing light on both of them.
8 - As a Harlequin SuperRomance, the sexual dynamics remain in the sweet category. But Stella MacLean's big strength is wringing the reader's heart with emotional punches, and you know I love stories that do that. Erotic escapades are referred to but not dwelled upon. She brings us quickly into complicated emotional territory instead.
9 - She intertwines subplots concerning two of Emily's grown children into the mix of Emily's recent farewell to her husband, the close-to-the-surface memories of their life together, and her emerging relationship with neighbor Sam. All in 239 pages. She excells at storytelling that gets right to the heart of things without sacrificing style, her wry voice or solid characterization.
10 - MacLean really knows how to end each chapter with an emotional hook. Like this, for example:
"I waited to hear more, but he said nothing, which told me there was something seriously wrong in his life. I wanted to jump in with a dozen nosy questions. 'I'll dust off my roaster and cook a chicken. To go with the chocolate cake.'
'You do that. See you Friday. Love you, Mom.'
How I wish Andrew was here. He'd be so happy to find out Jonathan was coming for a visit. Andrew loved to have the children home on the weekends, or anytime for that matter.
He and Jonathan enjoyed going fishing together. I can still see the two of them unloading the old Jeep we had years ago, their sunburned faces wreathed in smiles as they dragged their gear out of the back.
Thinking of Andrew made me wonder how he'd react to my tea date with Sam. And the fence. I could almost hear Andrew's throaty chuckle when I explained how determined Sam was to install one.
Would this desire to talk to Andrew, to tell him how I feel, what was going on in my life, eventually ease? Would I ever be spared the urge to compare my past with the reality of my present?"
11 - Stella MacLean had a long route to publication, which just goes to show all the yet-to-be-published writers out there: it's all worth it, in the end. Just read what one reader had to say when she wanted to read MacLean's backlist.
"I could have misplaced my mind LOL but I was sure that you have written more than two books. Am I right or have I really lost my marbles?? If you have written more will you please sent me the titles of them. I am currently writing a list of all the books I want or need to complete my collection." - Ashley Saunders
She has indeed written more than two books - but so far only two are in print. Not for long!
12 - MacLean has this to say about the writing process:
"Creativity is about adapting the reality of everyday living to the 'what if' of imagination. Creativity is not a one shot deal. It is nurtured by every event in life, whether large or small."
She takes the same approach with Baby in Her Arms. For Emily, love is not a one shot deal. Her marriage with Andrew took nurturing through every event in their lives, large and small. Now with Andrew gone, her neighbor Sam awakens feelings that don't belong to her past with Andrew. They whisper of a future - with Sam.
13 - I leave you with an excerpt. Enjoy!
I was on my way downstairs when I felt the need to go into the room we'd done up years ago for the twins.
The room's changed a number of times over the years, yet as I glance around I remember the yellow paint you and I put on the walls, and the Dr. Seuss characters we pasted above the wainscoting.
I'll never forget the look on your face when Dr. Reeves said he could hear two heartbeats. The drive home from the appointment that day was a once-in-a-lifetime ride. We were both in shock. How would we cope with two babies? Where would we get the money to buy all the baby things we needed - two of everything?
In the backseat, Jonathan talked about babies and how he didn't want too many of them. He had a friend in school with twin brothers, and that wasn't a good plan, in Jonathan's opinion.
Didn't we laugh as we listened to him.
How could I forget the Saturday morning you hurried into the bedroom and told me to get out of bed and come see what the twins were doing.
Somehow, they'd managed to pull their cribs close together and they were throwing stuffed animals back and forth.
Somewhere during those years after the twins were born, our nightly chats dwindled. I'd get home later, usually after the children were in bed, exhausted after a busy day. I'd be so tired I'd go to bed and sleep straight through the night, waking the next morning and heading back to the office for another long day.
As I write these words, I can hear you outside my office door. You're anxious to know if I'm okay, if I've had anything to eat this morning and if I'm ready to go to the Oncology Clinic. You'll scold a little about how I shouldn't have gotten up alone.
I'll stop writing for now. Maybe we'll have lunch out, or go to the bookstore, all the simple pleasures that keep me connected to the real world. Our world.
- Stella MacLean, 2009
Join me next week when I review Mirror Blue by Thomma Lyn Grindstaff.
Alica Audrey says You bring out the excitement of being in the know.
Shelley Munro says I always get a buzz out of seeing local writers on the shelves too.
I Beati says Good summer read if it creates that emotion so fast.