I’m glad that Emilie Richards’ next book, Prospect Street, will be released in hardcover. This multi-talented author deserves a wider audience, and the richness of her novels will make the hefty hardcover price easy to justify. But when her new fans start searching for her previous releases, I don’t think that Fox River should be at the top of their lists. I’ll admit that I had reservations as soon as I learned that the book was set in rural Virginia and populated with wealthy estate owners whose social season revolves around fox hunting. I much prefer the racial issues of Iron Lace and Rising Tides, the exotic Australian setting of Beautiful Lies, and even the gritty Cleveland streets of Whiskey Island. So if Fox River was a letdown, it was partially a matter of personal taste.
The novel opens with a memorable scene. Maisy Fletcher, her maternal fury in full display, storms the psychiatric hospital where her daughter Julia Warwick has been admitted, at the urging of Julia’s husband, Bard. Julia has been blind since a recent fall from her horse, but medical tests have revealed no physical basis for her condition. Bard has insisted that Julia’s stay at the clinic is in her best interest, but Julia knows that the real reason for her admission is Bard’s embarrassment at having a wife who is less than perfect. Fortunately, Julia’s mother is a fighter. Maisy goes head to head with the officious psychiatrist in charge of the clinic and eventually Julia leaves the facility. But instead of returning to the house she shares with Bard, she retreats to her childhood home with her 8-year old daughter, Callie.
If Julia thinks she will have a quiet recovery at home, she’s mistaken. Shocking news soon rocks the bucolic community of Ridge’s Race. Christian Carver, imprisoned for the past nine years for murdering Julia’s best friend Fidelity, is about to be pardoned because a condemned drifter has confessed to the crime. Christian was a promising young horse trainer at a neighboring farm, Julia’s first love - and Callie’s biological father. But Julia and Christian haven’t spoken or written to each other since the day Julia took the stand in Christian’s defense, only to waver momentarily and contribute to his conviction.
Before Christian and Julia can recapture their lost love, Julia has to battle the inner demons that are causing her psychosomatic blindness, ponder the fate of her loveless marriage, and tell Christian the truth about Callie. Christian, meanwhile, fights to recapture his good name and embarks on an amateur investigation to uncover the truth behind Fidelity’s murder, although he is warned by his few friends not to rock the boat.
I’ve come to expect only the best from Emilie Richards, so I was a little disappointed by the tried-and-true themes used in Fox River - the wrongly-imprisoned man, the child he doesn’t know about, the woman who marries hastily and unwisely. Richards acquits herself honorably through her characteristic strong, insightful writing, but the baseline plot never fully engaged me. A great deal of my frustration was attributable to Julia’s character. While Christian traipses around, investigating the decade-old crime, Julia is too passive for most of the novel. Granted, she is doing a lot of soul-searching and her blindness limits her physical activity, but she pales in comparison to the charismatic hero. When I started rooting for a beautiful horse trainer to snap Christian up and away from Julia, I knew I was in trouble.
Fortunately, Maisy, Julia’s mother, is a wonderfully vibrant character, a free-spirited woman with a new hobby every month who refuses to let Virginia’s elite hunt on her extensive grounds. She may be scattered, but she’s tougher than she appears. A long-time widow, her second husband Jake has brought her years of contentment, but there is a barrier preventing her from loving him completely. To keep the sightless Julia entertained, Maisy reads her passages from an unpublished novel she has written. This novel holds the keys to both Julia’s and Maisy’s healing as the connections between the fictional characters and their own problems emerge.
The last 200 pages of this lengthy novel are its strongest, as several secondary characters are seen in a new light and the mystery behind Fidelity’s death builds to a shocking climax. But I closed the book wishing I had experienced more Maisy and less Julia. Compared to Whiskey Island, which featured a sexy ex-priest, a no-nonsense female bar owner and a mysterious vagrant/hero, Fox River was too mundane But if you’re an Emilie Richards fan, you’ll want to read it, and I’d also recommend it to those who enjoy the beauty of a well-trained horse or the thrill of the hunt.