by Annie Smith, contemporary (2003)
Zebra, $5.99, ISBN 0-8217-7371-2
Like her Zebra debut Home Again, Annie Smith's follow-up book Autumn Leaves has enough dogs to make a dog person delirious with happiness. Home Again is too sweet for me, but this book hits all the right notes. It also deals with an unusual premise for a romance novel: the heroine of the story, Karen Matheson, is a pacifist and she has to deal with her daughter Katie enlisting in the Marines.
A single mother in her late thirties, Karen's life is simple - she takes care of Katie, she teaches dog obedience and training, and she runs the Newfoundland Dog Rescue. Over the years, she has gotten so used to taking care of everyone and her dog (quite literally, in this case) that she is stuck in a rut without her realizing it. Raised by hippie parents, she doesn't believe in war, she doesn't watch violent movies, and she is wary when her daughter begins taking boxing lessons at Steve Songer's gym. She tries not to speculate on anything unsavory like Steve having an affair with Katie, but what else can Katie mean when she tells Karen that she has someone she wants Karen to meet?
It turns out that Katie has enlisted in the Marines and decides to tell her mother only when the recruitment officer shows up at the doorstep. This sends Karen's well-ordered world into a tizzy. The second jolt to her well-ordered world comes from Steve himself requiring Karen to evaluate his American Staffordshire terrier Lennox. The city is making it very difficult for people to keep breeds deemed dangerous and Steve needs Karen to provide a fine evaluation of Lennox if he wants to keep his good buddy.
As someone once owned a Rottweiler that, trust me, cowered under the sofa when someone sneered at it, I can relate to Steve's frustration at the prejudice levelled towards breeds like the Am Staff. There are moments when the story threatens to stop being a story and turn into a Dog Have Rights Too tract, but this dog person reader has no complains. There are so many doggies in this book, it's disgusting how I cave in so easily to the charms of Autumn Leaves. Doggies that are happy and naughty, doggies that need help, they're all here.
I have some qualms about the way the author handles Karen's pacifist nature though. She reduces Karen's fervent opposition to violence into a psychological baggage stemming from Karen's own issues. The underlying message seems to be that pacifism is not a natural philosophy - you can't be a pacifist unless there's something wrong in your life. While the pro-military agenda in this book is not as overpowering as a typical Suzanne Brockmann book, for example, it is there nonetheless. Maybe it isn't the author's intention to stick up her finger at pacifism, but by her handling of Karen, she inadvertently does so.
But I find plenty to like in this story, dogs and Marines aside. Karen is a rather realistic woman in her late thirties - her relationship with Katie and her own mother have their ups and downs, but they come off as pretty realistic. Karen's reactions to the unexpected changes in her life are also well-done: her reactions are recognizable - I think I may have said and done a few things just like her - and her emotions are understandable. As a woman that has channeled all her energy and time into taking care of dogs while avoiding things she doesn't want to reflect on, Karen is the best character in this story as her actions and thoughts resonate with me. Ms Smith has done a great job as far as I'm concerned in creating a realistic heroine for her story.
Steve doesn't fare too well when it comes to depths and realism - he's obviously a fantasy hero. He's an ex-Marine that supports Katie in her decision and always has some wise advice for her as well as for Karen. Some of the things he say in this book are very, truly sweet and romantic. Even when he is singing in the shower, he makes that action seems so... well, appealing that I almost wished I have that man murdering music in my shower. He's definitely not real, although a Mr Rumsfield could look into getting the likes of Sam to teach military personnels the finer points of being a romantic ex-action hero gentleman. Steve comes off as too perfect and too wise sometimes, but to be honest, I don't have any complains when he plays the Marty Sue so well.
The secondary characters are almost uniformly sweet and supportive, from Karen's mother to her many friends and clients. Nonetheless, it's not entirely sunshine and fun as the author hints of the difficult times Susannah Matheson went through when her husband returned from Vietnam a changed man. Also, Karen doesn't pretend that being a single mother is easy. But on the whole, the story is more about making changes for the better instead of dwelling about the past.
Autumn Leaves is one of the increasing number of books that come off like hybrids of mainstream women's fiction and traditional romance - the hero and the heroine here don't actually meet until after a hundred pages have passed, although they are aware of each other's existence thanks to Katie. The strong bond of friendship between women and the bond between mother and daughter are arguably more prominent in this story than the romance between Steve and Karen, but at the same time, the romance is so sweet and filled with optimism that I never actually feel that the romance is inadequate in any way. Except maybe the love scenes, which will get a very mild PG rating from me, but even that is a mild complaint, really.
I find the book's handling of Annie's acceptance of Katie's career somewhat grating because the author chooses to portray Annie's beliefs as a psychological flaw. The writing can get repetitious at times as well. But on the whole, there is a charming and upbeat optimism in this story that appeals greatly to me. As a gentle story of love and family with dogs running all over the place, Autumn Leaves is a very pleasant read. Another plus is the plot and the characters not coming off as cookie cutter material.
If you like books by the Barbaras Freethy and Bretton as well as other established authors with one foot in the women's fiction genre and another foot firmly in the romance genre, hey, give Annie Smith's Autumn Leaves a try. The midlist market could always use a boost and I'd hate to see this book - or the author - slip through the cracks.
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