by Sandra Steffen, contemporary (2004)
Zebra, $6.50, ISBN 0-8217-7557-X
Sandra Steffen's Come Summer has very familiar smalltown romance elements - the too-perfect uber-PC heroine, the kid that needs mothering, the wounded lawman hero, among other things - but it has a plot that is a little different from the usual. I find most of the story a little too sentimental for my taste but the author does a good job in taking the familiar and giving her own spin to the story. Fans of romantic dramas by Barbara Freethy and Barbara Bretton may want to give this book a look.
Readers rather icky about one twin marrying her (late) twin's lover may better approach this book with caution, though. Liza Cassidy is very close to her twin sister Laurel to the point that Liza dreams about a red-headed little kid that she is unaware that Laurel is carrying. Laurel has passed away when the story begins, and a letter from her to Liza, arrived five years too late, sends Liza to the New Hampshire town Alcott, where she learns that Laurel had a son with the town sheriff Jack McCall. The kid Tommie is five and unfortunately, suffering from leukemia. Liza has to tell Jack that Laurel - who ran out on him and Tommie five years ago - has died from a failed surgery to remove the brain tumor that Laurel never told Jack she had. Liza also wants to spend time with Tommie.
Jack at first mistakes Liza for Laurel. He is furious at Laurel's decampment five years ago but he is willing to start again with Laurel for the sake of Tommie and also because he's still in love with Laurel enough to be willing to understand what went wrong in the relationship and do what is needed to be done to make it right this time. In short, Jack is willing to listen after his understandable outburst of anger, which is good because I don't have a high threshold for arguments stemming from the lack of communication.
I really like the author's treatment of the emotional dilemmas Jack and Liza are facing. Jack's frustrations and feelings of helplessness where Tommie is concerned are strongly portrayed and he becomes a more well-rounded character as the story progresses. Liza can be a little too much on the uber-sweet, uber-maternal side but I can see why she is good for Jack and Tommie. Unfortunately, Tommie is precisely the kind of character that makes me fear for my blood sugar level. He's sick, he's too wise, he gets cute or sickly depending on what kind of the drama the plot wants him to cough up (sorry, I can't resist) - in short, he's not a realistic character as much as a sentimental Crippled Little Timmy mascot for Noble Special Sick Children Who Will Make People Cry And Cry And Cry everywhere.
The potentially heartbreaking and honest emotions in this book feel cheapened too by the author's blatant sequel-baiting (Jack has two brothers - one bad boy and one a preacher to complete the whole "lawman, playboy, and good guy" spectrum of hero stereotypes authors love to use for their trilogies) and the tedious, too-familiar twin-sisters angle (Liza is of course the prim and proper sister while Laurel is the free-spirited one). To be fair, Ms Steffen doesn't resort to outright blatant stereotypes where Liza and Laurel are concerned - she reserves that for the townpeople of Alcott instead - but there is enough stereotyping to prevent Liza from becoming more than a one-dimensional Understanding, Maternal, In Need Of Love character.
Still, there are some cathartic and heartwarming moments in Come Summer that make this story work very well. Ms Steffen actually makes me forget that the whole twin-sisters-share-a-guy thing can get really too much like a Jerry Springer topic because she manages to sell me the romance between Jack and Liza. I can only wish that the conflicts they experience in their path to a happily-ever-after are as convincing as the emotions they experience.
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