AAR grade: A
Sarina Bowen’s first story in her True North series (known colloquially among bloggers as her ‘Grumpy Farmers’ series) is a lovely and lush romance set in the countryside of Vermont. Griff is a farmer. When his father passed away unexpectedly three years earlier while Griff was at college, his dreams for the future died, to be replaced by the day to day operations of his family’s farm. They have cattle, chickens, but most importantly, apples. 53 varieties of apple trees dot his lands, and are the farm’s main source of income. With a chemistry degree under his belt, Griff is making the most of his circumstances by using his expertise to create new original cider concoctions, hoping it’s the way to keep the family business afloat.
Back in college, he went a couple of bedtime rounds with Audrey, a party girl and freshman student. Though he wanted to pursue something more with her, she never returned his calls and his departure left that road untraveled. Now Audrey is back in Griff’s life in a completely unexpected way. She’s the new buyer for BPG, a large restaurant conglomerate in Boston that is looking for heirloom fruits and vegetables and other products from local farmers. Seeing her again reminds Griff of how lonely he’s been, and she feels the same zing of attraction when she’s near him. But Audrey is not planning to stay. Can Griff convince her that with him, she can have her cake and eat it too?
While Griff may not have wanted to be thrust in the role of head of the household so soon, he’s taken it in stride, his easygoing college life and football stardom long faded. He appears as a serious, determined young man, with a lot on his shoulders. He’s got the care of the farm animals, the orchards, and his family. He lives with his farmhand Zachary in the bunk house, a place where the temporary help also live during harvest time. His mother and three younger siblings live in the farmhouse, and they are a close knit group. His mother has an equal voice in the running of their livelihood but it is still Griff who worries most about the harvest, getting the money for his siblings college education, and the one everyone turns to when they have a problem. Though he might wish things were different, he’s pragmatic in knowing that there is no use crying over spilt milk. If he sometimes appears gruff and grumpy, it’s with good cause. Griff is a mentor to his siblings as well as his co-workers around the farm and the scenes with them show the depth of his commitment to their livelihood. When they take on a temporary farmhand who is a recovering drug addict, his willingness to give Jude a chance and befriend him speaks highly of his character.
Audrey is another story altogether, having been brought up without the love and support that Griff had. She only has her mother (her father was a sperm donor), a controlling and completely business focused woman. Audrey could never live up to her expectations, and flunking out of two different colleges didn’t help. When she finally succeeded at putting herself through culinary school (with no help from her discouraging parent), she was determined to look for a job on her own, one free of her mother’s influence. She gets one at BPG, but it’s not what she envisioned. She’s trained as a chef but they seem to stick her into any job where they need someone. No matter where she is working, she has a run of bad luck. Kitchen disasters, sexual harassment on the job, reservation nightmares – they all seem to befall her. Her boss at BPG gives her one last chance – to make some deals with Vermont farmers to showcase their home grown food in BPG kitchens. She would have thrown in the towel already but BPG has a contest every year for aspiring chefs and the chance to get funding for her own kitchen is what keeps her from seeking out another job. If she can make some good deals and keep her boss from firing her, she will still have a chance to follow her dream. .
Griff and Audrey together – well, surprisingly they make a great team. While their college hookup was spectacular in the sexy department, it was short-lived. Now though, the spark between them finally gets to become a full-blown inferno. While at first Griff is suspicious of Audrey’s motives (though she is up front about why she’s there), it doesn’t stop him from taking advantage of their proximity to remind her of how good they are together. The sex scenes between them are super hot and Griff’s way of taking charge pushes all of Audrey’s buttons – the good ones. Audrey is uncertain of her future but not about this. She’s quite willing to engage in a heated affair with Griff while she’s in town. She cautions herself not to fall in love though, knowing that his life on the farm and her dreams of a restaurant in the big city aren’t compatible. But fate has a way of taking control when you least expect it. I love the way their relationship progresses, from the initial lusty hookups to the deepening of their friendship and genuine affection between them. Griff and his family’s honest appreciation of Audrey’s cooking talent and his belief in her go a long way to building up her self-esteem and her realization of what she’s willing to do to be happy.
The setting is definitely a big part of the attraction of this book. It’s obvious that the author did a lot of research or has intimate knowledge of Vermont and its natural abundances, and the descriptions of orchards, farm life, and the relationship of people to the land make the story come to life. Reading it will make you want to hunt down your local farmer’s market and imbibe heartily of their offerings. And it’s not enough to have Griff’s life as a farmer all played out – no, the heroine has to be a chef! The food Audrey prepares throughout the course of the story is mouth-watering – I guarantee you’ll be hungry reading this book, and wishing you could try some of the food and drink within. Then there is the visual description of the land – the gorgeous green mountains, the lush countryside, the peaceful air – it all adds up a place that you wish you could visit.
With its combination of unique and likeable characters, beautiful setting, and a sexy romance Bittersweet is the first course in what promises to be a delectable series.