|Emilie Richards’ fourth novel in the well-crafted “Shenandoah Album” series is a realistic, thoughtful portrait of characters who grow and learn from a difficult situation. There is not much action in the 500+ page book until almost the very end, yet Richards’ keen understanding of human dynamics keep the pages turning. It’s not my favorite entry in the series, but it didn’t detract from my interest in the next installment.
Gayle and Eric Fortman have been divorced for twelve years – far longer than they were married – and they’ve maintained a cordial relationship that has allowed Gayle to run a bed & breakfast in the Shenandoah Valley and raise her three teenaged sons while Eric travels the world as a hotshot journalist, dropping into the boys’ lives on a sporadic basis. As the novel opens, Gayle is preparing to host a far different Eric from his usual cocky, adventurous self. After being held hostage in Afghanistan for weeks and threatened repeatedly with imminent death, a physically and emotionally traumatized Eric has asked Gayle to take him in temporarily while he recovers. This will also be a chance for him to re-establish a relationship with Jared, Noah and Dillon – and maybe Gayle.
Before Gayle and Eric can even broach the idea of resuming their relationship, Gayle must deal with the anger she never expressed at being forced to shoulder all of the parenting responsibility, and Eric must decide if he is finally ready to settle down in one place. Meanwhile, Jared, just graduated from high school, has a girlfriend who doesn’t want to take No for an answer to her sexual invitations, and an even bigger secret he can’t share with his parents. Middle son Noah is fiercely protective of Gayle and the most resentful of Eric. Youngest son Dillon, only an infant when his father left, hits the most poignant note as a gawky but enthusiastic adolescent who chases after Eric like a puppy, not realizing that his father doesn’t feel any connection to the boy who is basically a stranger. By the end of the summer, tough decisions have been made by almost every character, many of whom are embarking on previously unforeseen paths.
Touching Stars works best if viewed as a character study of several interesting people who are trying to act honorably in a difficult situation. The most engrossing subplots involve Eric and his sons, especially Jared and Dillon. In fact, the male presence in the novel is notably strong; even the historical subplot that Richards has utilized throughout the series to highlight her theme is narrated by a teenaged boy in the post-Civil War era who realizes that right and wrong aren’t always easy to parse when he is confronted with a mysterious stranger.
As Eric and Gayle struggle to re-define their relationship, each has a possible mate waiting in the wings. Unfortunately for the reader, neither alternative is given much space or, especially in the case of Gayle’s guy pal Travis, much of a personality, so it’s hard to root for them. The ultimate resolution to the Eric and Gayle situation may surprise some readers, but it arises naturally out of the book’s plot and is not unsatisfying.
While most of the book has a rather somber tone, there are some moments of humor as well, primarily in the form of a surprising parakeet and a lesson in where best intentions can lead. It’s also unexpectedly amusing that, although the book’s title reflects the name of a quilting pattern, Gayle is absolutely hopeless at the craft. The novel’s character who turns out to have hidden quilting talents is an unexpected one.
Emilie Richards has been one of my favorite authors for the past ten years, and I can’t imagine her writing a book that would be anything less than insightful and enjoyable. Touching Stars wasn’t my favorite in this series; in comparison to Lover’s Knot and Endless Chain it lacked richness and depth. However, I didn’t regret the time I devoted to pouring through its considerable length and I look forward to the next book, tentatively titled Sister’s Choice, due in 2008.