Ana Seymour's latest Harlequin Historical, A Family for Carter Jones, is a pleasant sometimes poignant read, mostly sweet, warm and funny, with just a hint of sadness. If recent media hype has led readers to expect torrid love scenes from Harlequin, this is the book to disprove that notion. The best aspects of this book have nothing to do with the physical act, though the issues Seymour addresses, including illegitimacy and loneliness, family connections and dysfunction, certainly may be related to, or byproducts of, unadorned physical sex.
Jennie Sheridan and Carter Jones are a perfectly matched romantic set. Neither expects to marry soon, certainly not to marry for love. Jennie has the mindset of a nineteenth-century spinster. She values independence and has no desire to accommodate a man. Raised by a couple who seem very much like 1960's hippies, she is trying to cling to her notion of "family" in 1880's Nevada.
After losing her parents to an influenza epidemic, Jennie is "mothering" both an illegitimate, twelve year old street-kid, Barnaby, whom her parents "adopted," and her younger sister, Kate, who has become the local pariah due to her pregnancy compliments of the proverbial traveling salesman. Kate Sheridan is about to produce the next generation of Sheridans, giving older sister, Jennie, new purpose in life.
Carter Jones, the illegitimate product of an "upstairs-downstairs" relationship, has come West after clawing and scratching his way to a degree from Harvard law. The little town of Vermillion will be his launching pad to a successful, respectable life. Unlike Jennie, Carter has not been part of a loving family. His mother was an embittered single parent, working as a cleaning lady with no energy or emotional reserves for Carter. He assumes he will marry eventually but only when necessary to further his political ambitions. Carter approaches his job and his personal relationships in a totally controlled manner, until encountering Jennie Sheridan.
While surrounding their children with love, a sense of independence and of self esteem, the elder Sheridans did not provide economically for them. Ever resourceful Jennie turns their one asset, the family home, into a boarding house. Their little town of Vermillion is in the midst of Nevada's silver-rush country, a day trip from Virginia City, and miners need rooms. Three of the most entertaining, though perhaps overly rose-colored, characters in this book are the three miners who board at Sheridan House.
Three women who are the self-appointed guardians of morality in the town decide the Sheridan sisters endanger public morals and set about to shut down the boarding house. Carter Jones is the new, ambitious prosecutor for Vermillion and vicinity. Armed with a court order interpreting a brand new zoning ordinance, the ladies demand Carter shut down the Sheridans. Thus begins the Carter vs. Jennie saga.
This book is best when the characters are interacting far from bedrooms or any spot which might substitute for one. Aside from the excellent interactions between Carter and Jennie – from their shouting matches to their first tentative kisses – the most memorable scenes occur between Jennie and her boarders, whom she affectionately refers to as "silverheels," between Carter and those men, and between Barnaby and Carter.
This book came to a screeching halt for no apparent reason, leaving several loose ends when the last page is turned. Kate and her baby daughter, Caroline, are left hanging as part of a misfit household. With the exception of one crucial conversation with Carter near the end of the book, which could have occurred between him and any one of the other secondary characters, Kate is a boring character. Her wanna-be beau, the misguided, but sincere, Lyle, matured and exhibited some admirable tendencies in the course of the book, but at the end he was in the same spot where he began, dismissed by the Sheridan family as one of the bad guys.
Perhaps if this had been a longer book, the author might have been able to develop these secondary characters more fully. Regardless, if you are in the mood for a gentle book which deals with some important issues, I recommend reading A Family for Carter Jones.