Father for Keeps continues themes introduced in its prequel, A Family for Carter Jones. Author Ana Seymour has a gentle, humorous writing style but also treats seriously problems such as illegitimacy, social stratification and hypocrisy that have wrenching potential for families. I recommend this book to those who have read and enjoyed the prequel, with the caveat that Father for Keeps may be more satisfying if the books are read in tandem.
Again, the primary setting is Vermillion, a little town in Nevada's silver-rush country, close enough to Virginia City that residents can visit back-and-forth for dinner. The protagonists of A Family for Carter Jones, Jennie Sheridan Jones and her new husband continue to provide a home base for an odd lot - the "silverheels," three miners who board at Sheridan House, as well as Jennie's younger sister, Kate Sheridan, and her fatherless daughter, Caroline.
The surprise is that the man called upon to prove his mettle is not Lyle Wentworth, Kate's ever-present suitor, but Sean Flaherty who bedded, then deserted, impressionable Kate, leaving her alone to bear the ignominy of her unwed status. One day, when her daughter is ten months old, Kate opens the door to find Sean standing on the doorstep of Sheridan House.
After her initial shock, she is amazed, then thrilled to think this exciting, entertaining man has come back for her. Believing he knows nothing of Caroline's existence, Kate is convinced he is returning out of more than a sense of responsibility. Sean realizes Kate is unaware Jennie wrote him about Caroline, but is afraid to admit the truth for fear of losing her and his daughter.
They soon marry and head to San Francisco, a difficult move for Kate. The one thing that keeps her going is her belief that it is important for her child to be with her father; while the one thing that keeps her happy is the belief that Sean cares for her since he could not have known about Caroline.
While Kate knows Sean's father has a shipping business and some wealth, she is unprepared for the opulence of his lifestyle. She is also unprepared for parents, who have neither time nor sensitivity to their own son, the cattiness of young women who view a rustic girl jealously, or the manipulations of a mother who cares more for her social standing than her child's happiness.
Ultimately her husband's inability to stand up to his family and his tendency to try to escape his problems by drinking and gambling with his boyhood friends prompts Kate to head back to Vermillion. It is there that Sean will have to prove his worthiness.
Seymour does not shy from creating despicable characters when appropriate to her storyline. Harriet Flaherty, Sean's mother, is just such a character. The detour from Jennie and Kate's down-to-earth family home in Vermillion to Sean's parents' ornate, loveless mansion and his lonely, pointless life among the nouveaux rich highlights just what he might value in the simpler town and why he might opt to give up that opulent lifestyle.
Father for Keeps is the story of the maturing of both Sean and Kate. Unlike Jennie and Carter - with the exception of their most glaring faults - these two are not a even close to a nearly perfectly matched pair. Superficial, and not initially admirable, each becomes caring and responsible in the course of this book, prompted by their love for their child.
If I were a bookseller, I would display Father for Keeps prominently during May, the month for honoring mothers, and leave it displayed through Father's Day.