Veteran historical author Patricia Potter has crossed the border into contemporary romance. Will fans of her historicals follow her? Will The Perfect Family gain her a wider audience? While there are many enjoyable aspects of the novel, it didn't quite enchant me enough to gain 4-heart status.
Jessie Clayton's quiet life as a bookstore owner comes to a dramatic end as she receives the news that she may be the long-lost member of an Arizona ranching family. Fifty years ago, Harding Clement, the youngest of six children, left home abruptly and was never found. His wife and older brother had just been killed in a fire, and the official story was that Harding's disappearance was due to grief. Or was it guilt?
Jessie's father, whom she knew as Jon Clayton, was a bitter alcoholic who moved Jessie around from ranch to ranch as he found short-lived horse training positions. She has been alone ever since his death ten years ago, with her own legacy of guilt and shame to bear. Although she is reluctant to believe that she could be the niece the other Clement siblings have searched for, she has just enough of a dreamer inside her to agree to visit the family's Sunset Ranch in Sedona.
When Jessie meets her relatives, she realizes the situation is much more complicated than the homecoming of a missing heir. Her appearance changes the balance of power in the family, and important decisions about the future of Sunset could rest in her hands. Everyone she encounters keeps crucial pieces of the truth about her father from her, even Ross Macleod, her Aunt Sarah's adopted son, with whom Jessie shares a serious spark of attraction. While Jessie gradually puts the pieces of the past and present together, it becomes increasingly clear that someone is not happy about her emergence and wants her back out of the picture, dead or alive.
I understand that Potter is known for her strong western historicals, so it makes sense that she chooses a familiar setting for her first contemporary. But did she have to make Ross such a stereotypical hero? All of the clichés are here - he's a part-Apache loner who has a magical touch with animals and doesn't have anything to offer a "decent" woman like Jessie. Fortunately, his snarling attitude is curbed by Jessie fairly quickly, but he still has to play the poor, misunderstood black-sheep role too often.
Jessie fares much better in the author's hands. I truly felt her ambivalence - afraid to believe that she's found the caring family she's always dreamed of, but pulled into the family circle despite her reservations. A book lover, she keeps comparing herself to Alice in Wonderland, an effective metaphor for her surprising change of fortune.
Although Jessie's interactions with her new family, especially Sarah, are poignant, her romance with Ross is sometimes frustrating. They have some good interactions together, but there are too many "can I/can't I trust him?" moments. And I am so weary of heroines who, despite every indication that the hero is dying to make love, wring their hands and bemoan the fact that they've been rejected when said hero fails to jump their bones. Make no mistake, dear, if the guy was just kissing you senseless and moaning, "Good God, Lady," you don't have to whine four pages later that "She'd practically invited him into bed last night. And he hadn't wanted her. She flinched at the memory of his rejection."
I give Potter credit for creating realistic characters in the Clements family, with members who can actually hold two separate emotions at the same time - they want Jessie because of what she could represent to their personal needs, but they also genuinely come to care about her. Only one member is a stereotypical villain, and it's not easy to figure out his or her identity.
If Patricia Potter releases another contemporary romance, I might buy it if the plot interests me. However, I wouldn't put her on my "auto-buy" list yet, nor do I plan to go back and read her historical romance backlist, as I did when I discovered Pat Gaffney through The Saving Graces and Circle of Three. So to answer my original questions, I suspect that The Perfect Family may please die-hard Potter fans, and may earn her some new ones, but I doubt it will be a breakthrough novel.