|My 3-heart review of Wedding Ring, the first installment in Emilie Richards’ “Shenandoah Album” series, ended with the hope that the talented author would add something special to make her next release stand out from the myriad of well-written women’s fiction books. Endless Chain more than fulfills that hope. This powerful, densely plotted story brings the Southern novel into the 21st century. While the hero and heroine may be a little too close to sainthood, their romance is hard to resist, and the wonderful secondary characters help make this a richly satisfying read.
Despite the strong immediate attraction between Sam Kinkade and Elisa Martinez, a relationship between the two appears doomed. Sam is serving what amounts to an exile as a minister in rural Toms Brooks, Virginia after leaving his Atlanta pulpit in a cloud of disgrace. Although his wealthy, glamorous fiancée has stood by him, she expects Sam to do his penance and find another high-profile urban position soon. Sam, however, has become deeply involved in his new community, especially the rapidly growing Hispanic population. His plan to provide a church-based after-school program for immigrant children has met with mixed reviews, the negatives ones coming from a few vocal congregants who think the new Americans don’t belong anywhere near their town.
Into this volatile mix comes Elisa Martinez, a beautiful, mysterious Latina who takes on the position of church sexton although it’s quickly obvious that she is too well-educated to be scrubbing pews and moving chairs. Sam is attracted to her good looks, intelligence and courage, which is apparent at their first meeting when she defuses a potentially violent situation regarding the Latino program. But Sam still has a fiancée, albeit one from whom he feels increasingly distant, and Elisa makes it clear that she cannot become involved with the handsome minister. She refuses to talk about her past or her reasons for coming to Toms Brook, fearing that Sam will be endangering himself if he knows the truth. Her growing association with the church’s quilting society and the story she gradually learns about another star-crossed romance that took place 150 years ago start to weaken her resolve, but Elisa is still determined to protect Sam even as the couple acknowledge that they’ve found a love for a lifetime.
The delights of Endless Chain are almost endless. First and foremost, hats off to Richards for addressing the changing face of our country, where the melting pot now reaches even the rural corners. She paints a fascinating and realistic portrait of the issues that arise as Latino immigrants move into a community. There is resentment and suspicion but also the opportunity for a rich new tapestry of combined cultures. The resentment isn’t all one-sided either; while it’s not surprising that one of the church deacons wants the new residents to go back where they came from (although he doesn’t mind using them as underpaid laborers in his construction business), it is less predictable that the boyfriend of Elisa’s best friend Adoncia chides her for becoming too American too quickly. But the changes bring together intriguing new possibilities for friendships; watching spirited senior citizen Helen Henry (a major character in Wedding Ring) playfully compete with Adoncia about who had the hardest childhood is a hoot. I never knew Richards had such a sense of humor, but the quilting bee’s recording secretary minutes that begin several chapters are hilarious as well.
Sam and Elisa are almost too good to be true. Both are selfless, hard-working and generous. Richards gives Sam a few notable quirks, including a collection of unusual objects and horrible taste in food, but it’s harder to flesh out Elisa because she reveals so little about herself until the novel’s end. Although Christine, Sam’s fiancée, remains an obstacle to their relationship for much of the book, it’s obvious that she is a goner from the moment we first meet her when she name-drops a Senator and complains about her perfectly normal but ordinary rent-a-car. If you like romances with external forces keeping the lovers apart (in contrast to that awful hate-at-first-sight that implausibly turns to love), you’ll melt at Sam’s sweet gestures and earnest, steadfast courtship, as well as his courageous behavior at the novel’s dramatic climax. After all of that build up, it’s disappointing that Richards provides a rather abrupt ending, but perhaps we’ll see more of Sam and Elisa in the series’ next novel, Lover’s Knot.
There are other memorable, well-developed minor characters who populate Endless Chain, including Tess and Mack from Wedding Ring, and a few intriguing women who are strong candidates for main subjects in future Shenandoah books. I’m not a quilter, so the patterns that are available for purchase to accompany the books in this series don’t appeal to me. I’m just here for the brilliant writing from this innovative author.