The Arrangement

The Gamble

Golden Girl

High Meadow

His Lordship's Mistress &
Married by Mistake

No Dark Place

The Pretenders

Royal Bride

Silverbridge

Someday Soon

 
That Summer by Joan Wolf
(Warner, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-446-61044-5
**
Joan Wolf has always been one of my favorite authors. A goodly number of her books rest on my keeper shelves. And I am not alone among TRR contributors. As I searched our archives, I noticed that most of her books have attained the coveted “Recommended” or “Keeper” status. At least such was the case until a little more than a year ago. Then, Wolf decided to try her hands at contemporary romances. It hasn’t been a wise move, in my opinion.

As I try to understand why Wolf’s contemporaries haven’t quite worked, I realize that her characters simply don’t seem very, well, contemporary. Nor do her plots. That Summer is a case in point.

The heroine is Anne Foster. She lived on Wellington Farm, the Virginia estate of a U.S. senator, where her father was the yearling manager. She grew up tagging along after the scion of the house, Liam. Liam was a couple of years older, but the two and his cousin Kevin had been inseparable. Anne had, not surprisingly, developed a teenage crush on Liam. Then, one summer evening, the lovely Leslie Bartholomew disappeared. While her body was never found, suspicion fell on Liam, Kevin and another young man. While no charges were filed, Anne’s protective parents sent her away to school. Anne had gone to college and veterinary school, and now practices in Maryland. Her father’s sudden death brings her back to Virginia and into Liam’s orbit.

Now, it would seem that Anne is a thoroughly modern miss. She is a successful professional, after all. But the fact is that her attitudes and behavior are more appropriate for a Regency miss rather than a 21st century woman. She still loves Liam so what does she do? She decides to try to make him jealous by spending time with Kevin (who just happens to have become a successful movie star). She pines and suffers for her love. She is not like any twenty-something that I have met.

Liam seems no more contemporary than Anne. He still sees her as his little friend, doesn’t seem to realize that she has grown up, is uncomfortable with his changing feelings. Again, perhaps such attitudes made some sense a couple of centuries ago. They don’t seem very contemporary.

Perhaps one of the problems with That Summer is that Wolf has chosen once again to write in the first person. We spend the entire story in Anne’s point of view. This is a difficult literary device to pull off successfully. Wolf doesn’t succeed here. We are treated to long descriptive, almost didactic, paragraphs that sound as if they belong in a textbook, not a romance novel. For example:

The following day, we started getting the younger horses ready to wear saddles. We began in a stall, where they felt safe, with someone just half laying across the youngster’s back while a helper maintained control with a lead shank. Getting a horse accustomed to weight on its back is trickier than one might think. Nature programmed the horse to fear weight on its back; in earlier times, it would mean that a predator, such as a lion, had leaped down upon it. Every instinct the young horse has goes on alarm when he feels the weight of a person leaning on his back.

Now, clearly Joan Wolf knows and loves horses. One of the plots of That Summer centers on the quest of Liam and his horse, Someday Soon, to win the Triple Crown. The racing world is a potentially fascinating setting for a romance. Indeed, Nora Roberts has used it with great success. But because we see everything through Anne’s eyes - and Anne is mostly ruminating about her unrequited love for Liam - little of the excitement and pageantry of the Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont comes across.

The second plot centers on the discovery of Leslie’s body and the reopening of the search for her murderer. Liam becomes a suspect. Again, the first person narrative means that we are treated to Anne’s reactions to this development, not Liam’s. I might add that Anne is just sure that Liam could not have killed Leslie, to the extent that she is willing to cover up significant evidence. Both Anne and Liam act in ways that again might have been appropriate in the past, but do not seem particularly modern.

My experience with a number of examples of popular historical authors’ ventures into the contemporary market suggests that the transition is far from easy. Life among current twenty- or even thirty-somethings is as removed from their experiences as life in Regency England or nineteenth century America. Hence, while their historical characters and plots may seem real, their modern characters don’t.

I hope that Wolf returns to her historical roots. Or if she continues to write contemporary novels, that she regains the form that has made her one of my favorite authors. That Summer is, I fear, a disappointment.

--Jean Mason


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