A Touch of Forever
Jo Goodman returns us to Frost Falls, Colorado with another instalment in her Cowboys of Colorado series, A Touch of Forever.
New York native Roen Shepard is an artistic journeyman jack-of-all-trades and the introverted black sheep in his high-society family. He is currently employed as an engineering surveyor for the Northeast Rail Company and the NRC is planning on putting a track directly through Frost Falls, which is why Roen is going to be stuck in Colorado for the next six weeks.
The last thing Lily Salt wants to do is give the NRC an inch – or Roen her time. A widowed mother of four bright, active children ranging in age from five to twelve, Lily’s been taking care of her brood independently ever since her physically, emotionally and sexually abusive alcoholic husband passed on in a fire. Her goal is survival, and boosting her flock to brighter futures. She knows exactly what a man like Roen is about, and no matter how much of a shine Lizzie, Hannah, Clay and Hamilton take to him she isn’t about to change her mind about his interloping ways.
But Lily and Roen are constantly placed into each other’s orbits. First Clay wants to become an odd jobber for the NRC and Roen takes him on as an assistant, which requires Lily and Roen to become friendly. Then someone tries to shoot him while he’s on the job with Clay, possibly a result of anti-railroad ranchers who don’t want the railroad to encroach on their land. And lastly, Roen receives a telegram which leads him to believe that his someone from his complicated past is returning to finish the job she started years ago.
Victorine Headley is an ex-paramour of Roen’s; and jealous, snobby and unable to accept their break-up, she shot him in the thigh – which wasn’t what she’d been aiming for. Roen’s solution to the problem is simple – since he believes Victorine is coming to Colorado to propose marriage to him, he and Lily should enter into a marriage of convenience to forestall her. In return, Roan agrees to tutor Lily in mathematics – something she believes will help her to get on in life – and Lily goes through with it, still hiding some big secrets about the trauma she’s experienced.
As Victorine approaches Frost Falls, Lily and Roen’s marriage slowly becomes less than platonic. But Victorine has a percolating surprise for the newly-weds, and it doesn’t involve a Derringer. Teaming with a rumored corporate spy looking to take down the NRC, Victorine has intentions that are far from pure for the both of them.
Sadly A Touch of Forever falls below the high watermark of Goodman’s usual creative threshold. While it’s not a bad romance, it relies on tropes and clichés that are well-worn and don’t allow the author to show off her usual sense of originality.
Roen and Lily are another of Goodman’s taciturn man/strong woman combos. I liked Lily a lot; her determination to plunge on and be a good mother and live freely and with joy was understandable and made me care. The PTSD from the abuse she had suffered was well-researched, and her tendency to self-harm was also portrayed with sensitivity. I loved that the town in general adored her and tried to protect her.
Roen is a good man, sturdy and true buy annoyingly avoidant, a little more bland and less compelling than the usual Goodman hero. I love how well he embraced step-fatherhood and life as a husband, and his determination to help Lily.
Their romance was pleasant, but had a low-boil sort of chemistry. I love how devoted they eventually became to each other, the banter between them turning into affinity and love. From about the second quarter of the book onward, they worked for me and worked together quite well as a team.
The true heroes of the narrative are a real surprise; Lily’s kids. From earnest Clay to playful Lizzie to serious Hannah and outgoing Ham, they were all delightful in their own ways.
But A Touch of Forever has two big problems. The first is its plot. Roen knows how dangerous Victorine is – she tried to shoot him in the dick, after all – so involving Lily and her family, people he’s becoming more and more fond of by the day, in his problems felt like an odd choice to me. He’s exposing this vulnerable widow to a selfish and somewhat psychotic woman who tried to injure him. This isn’t a smart or healthy move and feels like a plot point engineered simply to get Lily and Roen into their marriage of convenience.
For large chunks of the narrative, we’re stuck with Victorine, Goodman’s least-subtle and perhaps worst villain ever. Victorine is a racist on top of being a liar, with no interesting angles or depth at all – one can see the plot twist about her little ‘surprise’ coming from feet away. Her accomplice was much more interesting and creepy, and I wish he’d been the volume’s solo villain.
Aside from the abuse and self-harm that Lily suffered, Goodman addresses racial harassment against Chinese immigrants in the form of Fedora Chen, who deals with town-wide prejudice and moves from working at the local hotel to becoming entangled with the Shepards. This is handled decently enough, and at least the action is centered on Fedora and how she feels about, fears and battles against the attitudes that surround her. Unsurprisingly, this ties into the railroad development side of the plot, but while it condemns the behavior of railroad tycoons and the racism exhibited towards their largely Chinese workforce, it doesn’t go far enough in deconstructing the job that Roen takes pride in.
A Touch of Forever isn’t Goodman at her best, but still provides the reader with an interesting western romance, and a rare peak into Colorado life in the 1900s. It’s worth a read, though it isn’t a keeper.
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