Thief of Words

Shenandoah Summer
by John Jaffe
(Warner, $24, PG) ISBN 0-446-53154-5
John Jaffe is the pen name for husband and wife team Jody Jaffe and John Muncie. Their debut novel, Thief of Words, was a charming romance about two middle-aged people surprised by unexpected love. When I reviewed the semi-autobiographical story, I wondered if the mystery novelist and newspaper editor had more stories to tell once they had adapted their own unconventional courtship into fictional form. Sadly, the answer is no. That doesn’t seem to have stopped them, however, from writing another novel. Frankly, they should have quit while they were ahead.  

Shenandoah Summer is the worst type of melodramatic romantic cliché, with very little to recommend it except a pretty setting. We have our heroine Alyssa Brown, a Washington D.C. drama teacher who cherishes the summers she spends on her northern Virginia farm. We have our hero Tug Palifax, a New York City artist who has lost his inspiration and seeks refueling at Limespring, an artist colony located near Alyssa’s farm. We have Alyssa’s husband, Darryl, a cold-hearted scientist. Mix in a Big, Sad Secret about Alyssa’s past and you can paint this one by numbers. Will Tug learn to create from the heart again? Will Alyssa be torn between the man she loves and the man she married? Will the Big Secret stand in the way of the couple’s happiness?  

Will you shell out $24 to find out the answers? I don’t think so. The romance between Alyssa and Tug might have been a little more compelling if husband Darryl wasn’t portrayed as a jerk from page one, when he calls her beloved “Finally Farm” a dump. A better novel would have given Alyssa a more difficult choice, but when Darryl disparages everything Alyssa loves about both the farm and Limespring while Tug immediately bonds with Alyssa’s favorite horse, the outcome is in little doubt. Even the occasional reminder of Tug’s almost-ex-girlfriend, a beautiful artist, isn’t much of a threat. The Big, Sad Secret is handled awkwardly too. I can understand the authors’ reluctance to reveal it until the novel’s climax nears, but they provide few clues about its nature for the vast majority of the story. The result is that the truth, when it’s finally acknowledged, has very little impact; we’re told that it has shaped Alyssa’s behavior choices, but we don’t fully feel or believe it.  

Because the utterly predictable romance isn’t enough to fill Shenandoah Summer’s 275 pages, the book also features the allegedly quirky and humorous fellow artists at Limespring. While these characters are moderately amusing, none of them make enough of an impression to be memorable. Much of their banter feels like the result of a private joke that only the Jaffes would understand or appreciate.  

The Shenandoah Valley, a popular choice for novelists these days, is an attractive setting for a romance. I just wish the Jaffes had something more interesting to tell than this trifle. If you’re a die-hard fan of Kristin Hannah’s or Nicholas Sparks’ dramas, you might consider trying Shenandoah Summer, but if you want something more creative and heartfelt, stick with their debut, Thief of Words and pretend you didn’t know there was a follow-up. I hope that Jody and John are very happy together, but I would suggest that they save any additional stories until their novel-writing skills are more fully developed.  

--Susan Scribner

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