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
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