A Desperate Hope
Accurate, detailed historical tales can be hard to come by which is why I treasure the work of Elizabeth Camden. Her newest novel, A Desperate Hope, is the third in her Empire State saga, a series that revolves around the history of clean water in New York. This story works fine as a stand-alone novel, although you get a much more thorough picture of the history if you read all the books.
The city of New York is growing and requires more clean drinking water. Various solutions have been looked at but the state determines that the best choice is to build a reservoir in the valley where the town of Duval Springs currently stands. The citizens of that community are deeply displeased with this decision but having exhausted all legal options they have no choice but to relocate. Alex Duval, their current mayor, is determined to do all he can to make the move as easy as possible for everyone.
Eloise Drake loves her job as an accountant for the New York State Water Board. She finds numbers soothing and delights in knowing that her abilities are contributing to the important work of providing clean water for America’s largest city. However, when her boss asks her to go to Duval Springs to calculate the value of the homes and businesses being demolished to make way for the reservoir, she is less than pleased. She grew up in the area and as a naïve teen had had a passionate affair with Alex. When her wealthy, powerful guardian learned of their liaison, he had Alex beaten and sent Eloise to a convent in Arizona. It was a harsh lesson and one she has never forgotten. She is prim and proper now, as well as sedate, cautious and rule-abiding. She is reluctant to return to the scene of past sins – and possible current temptation – and goes only under duress.
While Eloise is aware that she will see Alex – since her project specifications include the fact that he is mayor – seeing her comes as a complete surprise to him. He had tried to contact her after her guardian’s thugs had essentially driven him out of town but had never been able to find out where she was. Their relationship had never been a fling to him and this reunion immediately stirs up all the old feelings. The fact that they are on opposite sides of the issue regarding the community’s destruction is not a deterrent to Alex. He’s a dreamer, a mover, shaker and risk taker who goes full steam ahead towards what he wants and only counts the cost later. Right now he wants Eloise back and he is determined to convince her that theirs is a love for the ages.
This difference in approach – Eloise’s cautious, planned and detailed method of living and Alex’s rambunctious grab life by the horns attitude – initially serves as a barrier between them. That doesn’t last long, though, since Alex’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre quickly have Eloise aiding him in his latest scheme to help the townspeople. But while Alex and Eloise are able to set the past behind them and embrace the vision of a better, brighter future, not everyone agrees. It isn’t long before they find themselves battling outside forces not just to save the place they love or their relationship, but their very lives.
During the first half of the story, Ms Camden does a nice job of convincing the reader that these two disparate characters bring out the best in each other and belong together. I was especially grateful that Alex and Eloise didn’t blame each other for their messy past. They each accepted that it took both of them to get into the trouble they found themselves in and forgave both themselves and each other for the mistakes made. But while their past relationship is well handled, the future of it felt less sure to me. Something happened during the resolution of the mystery portion of the book that caused me to wonder if things would really be better for them going forward. While Eloise has worked hard to help Alex salvage what he can of his community, when she asks him for help to prove someone close to her innocent, he rejects her. Since this happens in the last quarter of the book, I can’t get into details over what occurred or how it’s resolved, but I will say that Alex’s behavior was unkind and petty. It tarnished the HEA, since Eloise had spent the whole book assisting him and he fails to do anything meaningful in return. He’s quick with empty romantic gestures – flowery speeches and declarations of undying love – but the equal measure of give and take I like in my love stories just wasn’t there. That didn’t ruin the book for me but it did take some of the shine off my overall enjoyment of it.
Fortunately, the overall appeal of the novel is helped by the amazing historicity, which is interesting, detailed and woven into the story in a skilled, engaging manner. I learned a lot about clean water and the difficult decisions faced by government officials and townspeople when one community must be asked to make sacrifices for the sake of another. Both sides of the issue are shown and we see that everyone has valid, reasonable points.
Ms. Camden typically sticks to light references of God and benign theology in her novels, and that happens here. Something slightly different from other novels of this genre is that the tone toward sin is far from the usual hard-line stance of Inspirationals, which insist on complete purity or a strong amount of shaming for those that don’t toe the line. In A Desperate Hope it is treated as a reality that humans are far from morally pure and the concept of repentance over repudiation is stressed.
A Desperate Hope is a nice reunion story with well-drawn protagonists. It’s also a great reminder that much of what we take for granted now – clean water, the right to hold a job of our choice – is due to the brave women who came before us and fought hard for those rights. I would recommend this tale to anyone who loves historicals that interweave their romances with real history.