Journey of the Heart by Elissa Ambrose
(Silh. Sp. Ed. #1506, $4.75, R) ISBN 0-373-24506-8
While I did not, as the editor gushed in the foreword, find this a “five tissue story,” I can say that first-timer Elissa Ambrose has written an absorbing, unconventional book with complex, intensely realistic characters. It has some difficulties, and I think it’s more of a relationship story than a romance, but anyone weary of recycled fantasies full of cardboard cutouts should find this a refreshing change.

Laura Matheson has returned to Middlewood, Connecticut, for the funeral of the aunt who raised her after her parents died in a car crash. What she hears about Aunt Tess confuses and intrigues her; little of it fits her impressions of the cold, distant woman who reluctantly took her in.

At the funeral, Laura also sees her ex-husband, Jake Logan. Jake’s first wife was Laura’s close friend, Cynthia, with whom he had a child, Cory. Cynthia died when Cory was a baby and, just eight months later, Jake and Laura married.

Although they’d known each other since childhood and secretly nurtured feelings for each other through the years, Jake and Laura’s insecurities created difficulties and miscommunications that they only ever seemed to leave behind in bed. Diagnosed with cancer about three years into the marriage, Laura’s illness exacerbated the relationship’s structural weaknesses. She left for treatment in New York City, seeing neither Jake nor Cory (who adored his stepmother) again, until now.

Laura and Jake quickly discover that their feelings for each other remain strong - and passionate - but that they also still carry a lot of baggage.

In fact, it is their preconceptions that largely form the barrier to a reunion between Jake and Laura. As in life, their notions about each other are based partly in truth and partly on mistaken interpretations of each other’s words and actions and this is what brings the characters into such vivid focus, so I watched them stumble through their lives with equal parts of affection and exasperation. There were moments when my heart went out to both Laura and Jake, and times when I wanted to knock their heads together - just like my real friends.

I say this is a “relationship” story because the majority of the book is not about a burgeoning romance but about Laura and Jake working through the obstacles that stand in the way of romance. This is not necessarily a bad thing - it certainly made the eventual romance more credible.

Having said that, however, I thought the transition was a little abrupt. Laura’s main objection is that great sex is not a great foundation for a relationship. While I applaud this perspective - one that too many romance authors prefer to ignore - both Laura’s character development and the momentum of the story get bogged down in it; she can’t move forward because Jake does nothing to change her mind. As a result, the middle third of the book becomes a little too static as we watch the characters go around in circles. Then, when Laura finally gets a new perspective, it feels a little abrupt.

There are a couple of excellent secondary characters. Jake’s son, Cory, has the mercurial temperament of a troubled but intelligent pre-adolescent. The author does a great job of making his contradictory actions feel consistent with his personality, although I was disappointed that the many hints at possible deeper psychological issues ultimately led to nothing.

Fascinatingly, the author also built an interesting picture of Aunt Tess who, even after death, had a pivotal role to play in Laura’s life. Laura’s friends, Cassie and Ellen, were less successful. Although we’re told that they were very different women, they play almost identical roles in the story - at first to bludgeon Laura with their disapproval and then to become unaccountably supportive.

Journey of the Heart is unusually challenging for a category romance, which is one of the things I liked best about it. Those of you who prefer a lighter touch and a little less authenticity in your romantic fantasies will likely not find it to your taste. But for anyone who’s looking for a little more honesty and a little more gritty reality, I recommend you give this book a try. I’ll be watching for her next one.

--Judi McKee

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