Reading Sand Castles is a bit like watching a slow-motion train wreck. You canít look away from the inevitable dissolution of a marriage, but itís not an enjoyable experience, much less a romantic one. Talented author Antoinette Stockenberg has gradually changed her genre from paranormal romance to womenís fiction with a touch of suspense. Frankly, I liked her earlier incarnation much better. But if this is the only way to read her work, Iíll take it.
Wendy Hodeneís quiet, content life suddenly becomes much more exciting when her husband Jim wins millions of dollars in the lottery. So why isnít Wendy blissfully happy, now that financial worries are a thing of the past? For one thing, she and Jim disagree on how to spend their windfall - she wants to remodel their modest Rhode Island home, but he wants to put the past behind them and buy a mansion - and a boat, and a motorcycle. Wendy is uncomfortable with her family membersí requests for money, but Jim likes being Mr. Bountiful. And strangers keep coming out of the woodwork, claiming to be Jimís long-lost friends and lovers. But the strangest consequence of the Hodeneís 15 minutes of fame is just around the corner.
Meanwhile, a woman named Zina sees a picture of the lucky lottery winners in the newspaper and gasps in amazement. She has been searching for a man named Jimmy Hayward for years and is sure that Jim Hodene is the man she once knew. Zinaís brother, Zack Tompkins, concerned that his sisterís tenuous mental health canít stand another disappointment, agrees to track the man down and let Zina know if itís ďher Jimmy.Ē But Zack doesnít tell his sister his real plan. Taking advantage of the Hodeneís need for construction workers on their remodeling job, the erstwhile builder hires on and monitors the family. Jim Hodene is indeed Jimmy Hayward, and he has a lot of explaining to do. But Zack is caught in a dilemma. He wants revenge on Hodene/Hayward, but he doesnít want to hurt Wendy, whom he quickly comes to admire. If he tells her the truth about her husband, will she turn to him for comfort or turn on him in anger?
Itís pretty obvious early on in the novel that Jim Hodene is a fraud, although the details of his wrongdoings only emerge gradually. The suspense comes from trying to figure out whether heís evil or merely misguided. Thereís an air of mystery surrounding the Tompkins siblings as well. Zina is a fragile, gentle soul who relates best to the cats she cares for at the local animal shelter, while Zack is a bitter loner. What happened to these two to make them withdraw from normal human relationships? Stockenberg has proven herself to be capable of crafting a tight, suspenseful plot, and Sand Castles doesnít disappoint in that arena.
However, the characters and the romance are weak, a disturbing trend first noted in the authorís previous release, Tidewater. I miss Stockenbergís earlier, pluckier heroines. Too many of her recent ones, including Wendy, are oblivious victims who are lied to or gas-lighted by the men who are supposed to love and cherish them. However, Wendy does take charge of her life about halfway through the novel, and her interactions with Zina prove her to be a compassionate, fair-minded person. I liked her quirky sense of humor, a Stockenberg trademark, and her initial banter with Zack regarding the truth about missing socks is charming and creative. Even if her plots are veering towards soap opera territory lately, at least Stockenberg can still write lively dialogue.
The romance between Wendy and Zack doesnít satisfy - the switch from betrayed wife to new lover is too abrupt to be believable. And although Zackís motives are good, his reliance on lies and blackmail greatly diminish his appeal as a leading man. Similarly, the rushed ending glosses over the feelings of Wendyís ten-year-old son and the fate of delicate flower Zina.
Sand Castles is fairly standard, acceptable womenís fiction but I wish Stockenberg would return to the juicy supernatural romances of her earlier novels. Sheís talented enough that I will probably keep reading her work, but her skills are ill-served by these melodramatic plots.