My understanding of Harlequin’s new Next line is that the stories are about the “next” phase of a woman’s life and may or may not be romantic. Fans of Cheryl Reavis’s romances will be happy to know that while Blackberry Winter reads a bit more like women’s fiction, there’s still a nice little romance inserted within.
Loran Kimball’s mother Maddie is dying. Since Loran was born illegitimate almost forty years ago, it’s just been the two of them against the world. Times were hard, especially in the beginning, and mother and daughter share a strong bond. But, in a way, Maddie, or at least a part of her, has always been a mystery to Loran. In an attempt to always look forward, Maddie kept the secrets of her past to herself. Loran has never known who her father was or where Maddie came from. Maddie simply erased her past from their lives. So it’s a bit of a shock to Loran when Maddie decides to take a sudden road trip to a little out-of-the-way North Carolina mountain town.
Hidden up there in the hills are plenty of old stories, stories of family betrayals, true love, and lost opportunities. Loran’s past is there, and maybe even her future…
The book’s central focus is Maddie’s decline and Loran’s reaction to it. Maddie is a bit mysterious, and many of her secrets remain so. But rather than simply spelling out for the reader how mysterious she is, Reavis shows it, or rather doesn’t. Maddie has almost all of her important conversations “off screen.” Loran knows she’s having them, and even sees her having them, and it drives her nuts. This is her life and her mother, and really, shouldn’t she be informed about the critical details of her mother’s life and death? The reader feels the same frustration because the same details are being withheld from her. It’s an interesting author trick Reavis pulls off – making the reader feel completely in sync with the main character as she reacts to another character – and well done.
As usual Reavis’s prose is smooth and engaging. Loran is a very down-to-earth protagonist, and her reactions to the situation as it unfolds are natural and real. The book’s main conflict, dying and how it affects those left behind, is somber, and parts of the book are quite sad. Clearly the author has empathy for those who have to go through this grim process. But there are also lighter, more joyful moments, and some funny ones as well.
Reavis also does some fun things with dialogue. As a “flatlander,” Loran speaks English in its mainstream American vernacular incarnation. The mountain folk of North Carolina speak it with more hillbilly overtones. I’ve read hillbilly English before in Romance. When it’s done badly, there’s nothing you can do but wince and toss the book. Here, however, it’s clever, fun, and illustrative of character and lifestyle.
While romance isn’t the book’s central focus, Loran does encounter it unexpectedly in Meyer Conley, a man who seems to be everywhere just when she needs him. Meyer has some dark times in his past, but they make him more empathetic, not less. Fans of beta heroes will like Meyer very much. The love scenes between Meyer and Loran are subtle at most, but there is some very nice chemistry between them. The story of the long ago romance between Maddie and Loran’s father eventually gets told as well.
Blackberry Winter is the first Harlequin Next offering I’ve tried. The characters are a little bit older and their problems are more typical of middle age than youth, but this story has appeal for anyone who likes stories about families or who, like my mother, loves books about small towns filled with quirky characters. If Reavis’ story is in any way indicative of the quality of the Next line, that would be encouraging news for readers of women’s fiction in all of its many forms.