|Bright Eyes is the fourth in Catherine Anderson’s series of books about the Coulter family, but the first I’ve read. This volume starts off with the story of Zeke Coulter’s romance, then…mid-way through…takes a sharp turn and becomes a murder mystery.
Zeke is a domesticated rancher, a bachelor who has just moved into a home of his own after living with his parents, four brothers, and a sister most of his life. He’s put in a garden, and tonight he plans on doing a little gardening, then spending the rest of the evening putting up tomatoes for the winter. As he gets out of his pick-up truck, he sees a kid running away from the back of his house, headed for his next-door neighbor’s house. Zeke knows trouble when he sees it, and – sure enough – the boy has been vandalizing his place.
Eleven-year-old Chad Patterson has flattened his garden; thrown the ripe tomatoes against the side of his house, ruining a new paint job; broken the bathroom window and a sliding door; and kicked in the door to his storage shed.
Zeke is justifiably furious. He takes off after the boy but encounters his mother first. Natalie is already dressed for work at the supper club she owns, and the sight of her curvaceous body in a skimpy black dress drives all thoughts of boys and tomatoes out of Zeke’s head. Not for long, though. He sees some tomato pulp on the toe of his boot, and he remembers exactly why he’s there: $1,000 worth of property damage, plus the time he put into painting and gardening.
Natalie has just come out of a nasty divorce, and her ex-husband isn’t paying support, so she has no money with which to repay Zeke. That’s all right with Zeke; he tells Natalie that Chad has to work for him until he pays off his debt. Natalie is dismayed. She agrees that Chad can work for Zeke for the next three weeks, but she doesn’t want her son to miss church camp the fourth week. Her divorce has turned Chad’s life upside-down, he worked hard at church bake sales and car washes to raise money for camp, and she feels strongly that he needs to go. Zeke is adamant. He says if Chad doesn’t work, he’s calling the police. Period. So the next morning Chad turns up on his doorstep as ordered but unenthusiastic and sullen.
Once Chad and Zeke start working together, Zeke begins to get a better idea of why Chad is so angry. Chad’s father, Robert Patterson, has convinced Chad that he is second-rate, that he will never be as smart or as athletic as his dad. But what really opens Zeke’s eyes to Natalie’s problems is a visit from Chad’s four-and-a-half-year-old sister, Rosie. After Natalie goes to work that night, Rosie gives her aunt, Valerie, the slip so that she can help pay Chad’s debt with the fifty-three cents she has saved up for a Barbie dune buggy.
The following scene is totally captivating and completely unbelievable. In the course of a lengthy, and extremely unlikely conversation, this precocious child lays out for Zeke all the hardships Chad has experienced since the divorce, all of which stem from Natalie’s dire financial position. Despite some charming mispronunciations, Rosie also manages to outline Robert’s financial manipulations which have left Natalie almost “bank ruptured” and in danger of losing her supper club. Before Rosie leaves, Zeke has agreed to allow Natalie and Rosie help Chad work off his debt so that Chad can go to church camp. This means, of course, that Natalie and Zeke will be seeing a lot of each other, which is just fine with Zeke.
Natalie and Zeke’s romance must progress fairly smoothly so that by mid-novel, Ms. Anderson can shift her focus to solving a murder. This double-barreled story line worked well for me; Ms. Anderson didn’t have to employ any tried-and-true…and stale…ploys to draw out the romance unnaturally. The murder and its aftermath kept my interest even though some of the events struck me as unlikely.
What didn’t work well for me were some of the characterizations. My problems lay not with Natalie – she was the most complete character in Bright Eyes – or even with Natalie’s zany family, although I thought that in real life a little bit of Gramps (her grandfather), Pop (her father), her mother (Naomi), and her sister, Valerie, would go a long way. Zeke I found much less believable. Once he got over his initial anger at Chad, he was perfection in pants. Almost all his opinions toed the 21st century party line, and he took to child rearing with never a misstep. (If only helping an angry eleven-year-old were that easy!)
Finally, compared to Natalie’s ex, Zeke was a convincing character. While I can enjoy a villain I love to hate, Robert Patterson had zero redeeming qualities. His business practices were so sharp they were actionable, he neglected his children, he slept around: why did Natalie stay with him long enough to have two children seven years apart? That’s the mystery I’d have loved to have Ms. Anderson solve…or at least illuminate.
On balance, Bright Eyes is a pleasant read that didn’t live up to its heroine. I thoroughly enjoyed Natalie and liked her zany family, and the combination was strong enough to help smooth over the bumps in the story. The bumps were big enough, however, to keep me from rating Bright Eyes higher than three hearts.
--Nancy J. Silberstein