Patricia Gaffney has created memorable, lively heroines in romance novels such as Crooked Hearts and Wild at Heart, but her latest Women’s Fiction novel is weakened by a passive heroine who never engaged my interest or my sympathy. Fortunately, however, the novel’s secondary characters, a group of senior citizens, are much more intriguing, providing a realistically balanced view of aging.
At age 32, Carrie Winger still lives with the grandmother who raised her after her musician mother abandoned her. Although once a member of a local orchestra, Carrie quit when her severe stage fright got the best of her and now supports herself by giving piano lessons. Things in her quiet, staid life begin to change when her Nana decides to move to Wake House, a fading but elegant convalescent home. There, Carrie meets grumpy Cornel Montgomery, vivacious Thea Barnes and Henry Magill, one of the few non-elderly residents. After her overly energetic Jack Russell terrier, Finney, bites one of the residents, Carrie meets animal trainer Christopher Fox, who seems to offer Carrie the opportunity to have the normal social life and romance that was always outside her grasp. But as Nana’s eccentricities become less manageable and Carrie is faced with other unexpected milestones, changes that were originally temporary start to look more permanent, and Carrie’s sheltered life may be impossible to reclaim.
Some readers cried foul when Gaffney eschewed historical romance novels for hardcover mainstream fiction, but I thought she made the transition effortlessly, maintaining her talent for interesting plots and characters. The Goodbye Summer, however, is her weakest effort to date. Carrie is dull and pathetic, a rare 21st century woman who can accurately be described as a spinster. She grew up both grateful to and embarrassed by her artist grandmother, and has never lived alone until now. The novel allegedly portrays her blossoming into a more vibrant, active woman, but her transformation is agonizingly slow and frustrating. She is also faced with almost unbearable losses, dragging the story down further. The tortured hero she meets is tormented by a tragic accident that left him damaged physically and emotionally; he and Carrie are wounded souls whose pairing seems more therapeutic than romantic.
With all of these concerns, why don’t I rate The Goodbye Summer even lower? The answer lies in the secondary characters, who give voice to the realities of aging in a remarkably honest, effective manner. They’re neither the dotty, zany old folks nor the tragic Alzheimer’s victims seen in far too many novels; instead they’re genuine people looking back on their lives and trying to maintain as much dignity as possible. Their varying points of view about aging are represented by Thea, who claims “I love being alive more, not less, the older I get,” and by Cornel who bemoans the fact that as senior citizens “We’re invisible. Nobody looks at me, I might as well be smoke.” As Carrie develops a hobby writing up the Wake House residents’ biographies, the reader learns that their lives have been filled with joys and sorrows, and that even though they may be limited physically, they still have hopes and dreams. I don’t know if Gaffney was fortunate enough to have grandparents who were models for her characters, but she certainly deserves thanks from the older generation for her compassionate, wise portrayal of their unique circumstances.
When the secondary characters overwhelm the hero and heroine, you know the novel is inherently flawed. Gaffney has written much stronger books and undoubtedly has other compelling stories to tell, but The Goodbye Summer is not the author at her best.