Where the Heart Is
by Sheridon Smythe
(Jove Friends, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-515-12412-5
***
Am I the only reader who is not convinced that Jove's "themed" books are a completely great idea? I don't mean the paranormal series. There are few enough of these books being published and Jove is clearly meeting a reader demand with its ghost and time travel lines. Rather, I mean the historical lines, like "Quilts" or the new-to-me "Friends" line or what I understand is to be an upcoming "Irish" line.

My experience with books in these lines has not been completely satisfying. Granted, my sample is small, but of the three books I have read, one was good, one was simply dreadful, and this new release is barely acceptable. It seems to me that one of two things may be happening. Perhaps, needing to publish books with a predetermined theme, editors find themselves having to accept marginal books just to keep the line going. Of perhaps, authors, having an understandable desire to get published, write to the theme specifications rather than writing the books they want to write.

Sheridon Smythe's Where the Heart Is is a case in point. The tag line on the back blurb sets the theme for the series: "When it comes to matters of the heart, you can always trust your friends." Frankly, had the heroine trusted her friend rather than stubbornly holding to her own misconceptions, the romance might have been more enjoyable. And then, maybe not.

The friendship chronicled in Where the Heart Is began when Natalie and Marla both lived in Ivy House, an orphanage in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Marla had the good fortune to be adopted at age ten, leaving nine-year-old Natalie behind. Now, ten years later, Marla is a happily married woman expecting her first child and Natalie remains at Ivy House, caring for an assortment of orphans.

Natalie has become the de facto head of Ivy House, because the matron in charge disappeared, with the orphanage's funds, when she learned that the founder had died. The founder's grandson and heir, Elliot Montgomery, is coming to Chattanooga to look into Ivy House's affairs. Natalie, fearing that he will close the orphanage if he discovers that the matron has absconded, devises a plan to masquerade as a sober older woman to keep her charges from losing their home.

In fact, Elliot is planning to sell Ivy House, but not because he wants to. His grandfather died deeply in debt, and Elliot needs the money from the sale to pay off his creditors and to get a stake to start over. He is accompanied to Chattanooga by his self-centered fiancée, Suetta. (Would a respectable young woman travel alone with her fiancée in the 1880s? I don't think so.)

Natalie's cover is blown when Marla's adopted son literally punctures it. Elliot is much taken by the brave young woman who is trying to save her home. He is even more taken with her when she falls out of a tree into his arms dressed only in her nightgown. Natalie is similarly smitten by the handsome young man, but concludes she has nothing in common with a rich gentleman, given her unfortunate origins. For her part, Marla decides that marrying off Natalie to Elliot is the best way to solve the problem of the future of Ivy House.

The fiancée promptly disposed of (she isn't interested in marrying a poor Elliot Montgomery), the path to true love is clear, except for that niggling problem of the fate of Ivy House.

I had a number of difficulties with this book. To begin with, the romance was one of those instant attraction affaires that rarely work for me. Also, I found the plot overly dependent on coincidences and contrivances. I guess it's not easy to develop a situation which will allow a proper heroine to overcome her scruples and engage in premarital lovemaking. But a dark cave? A rock slide? Her missing father's skeleton? A last grab for life before death? It was not the most successful (or the most comfortable) setting for a love scene.

Elliot is a satisfactory hero. He really wants to do the right thing, but his choices are limited. My biggest problem was with the heroine. Yes, Natalie is capable and loyal and caring. Also beautiful. But here she is, convinced that Elliot selfishly wants to sell Ivy House (she thinks his tale of having to pay his grandfather's debts is a lie), while at the same time she has fallen madly in love with him but spurns his attempts to do right by her and her charges. Really, Elliot deserves better treatment.

Oh, and all the while, good old Marla is trying to convince Natalie that Elliot is just the man for her. Oh, that Natalie had listened to her friend!

Would Where the Heart Is have been published had it not fit so neatly into the "Friends" theme? I can't say for sure. There are some sweet and touching moments in the book, especially those dealing with the orphans' desire to help Natalie find happiness. But wouldn't Jove serve romance readers better if they simply published the best historical romances that come across the editors' desks rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes?

--Jean Mason


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