Anne Henry’s Cinderella Mom isn’t the type of book I usually pick up these days, but it came in a box of old Harlequin Americans I bought a while back so I figured I might as well give it a try. I was planning on giving it just a few chapters, only to wind up reading the whole thing in one sitting. This was easily the most enjoyable series romance I’ve read in some time.
Army Major Julian Campbell never intended to return to Murray, Oklahoma, the town he ran away from when he was 17. As an orphan he was raised by an aunt who didn’t want him and showed him no kindness, in a small town where a shy, skinny kid didn’t fit in. After he left he never spoke to his aunt again, so he’s surprised when he receives news that she passed away and he is her sole heir. And so, twenty years after he left Murray, he comes back to settle her affairs.
Shortly after his arrival, he meets Sara Cate, a waitress at the local diner. He can’t help notice how attractive she is, but at first he believes she’s the wife of Big Ben Cate, the prototypical high school football star and one of the few people who was nice to Julian in high school. Then he learns Ben died a few years earlier, and Sara and her two children live with her in-laws. Though he doesn’t plan to be in town for long, he can’t resist asking her out. For her part, Sara is both flattered and excited for the first time in a long while. Her life had become stagnant and lonely, and Julian’s arrival in it brings back feelings she never thought she’d experience again. But neither her children nor her in-laws react well to the relationship. In addition, Sara’s life is tied down to Murray while Julian’s career means he cannot stay, which puts into question any future they might have together.
This is a character-driven book, one where the drama rises naturally from these people and their relationships. At first glance it may not look much different than most of the series romances currently in bookstores. It features a military hero, a heroine with children, and a small town setting. But it is different. Quite simply, it’s better. The ingredients may be familiar, but these never feel like stock characters and situations. The author makes these people vivid and empathetic creations who come to life as distinct individuals, not mere types.
I liked the subtle differences from the way these elements typically play out. Julian isn’t the usual macho, testosterone-driven military hero. He’s actually a beta hero who works as an administrator in an army hospital. He may have grown into a tall, robust man, but he still displays some shyness and the lingering wounds of that kid who never fit in. Sara’s marriage wasn’t entirely happy, but Ben isn’t painted as a terrible person. If he hadn’t died, they likely still would be married. In addition, this isn’t a book that perpetuates the “small town good/big city bad” stereotype. Julian has no interest in staying in Murray, and it’s clear there’s no place for him there. This is presented as perfectly reasonable and understandable.
The main characters have a certain maturity that I very much enjoyed. Both are in their thirties and have some life experience, and they act like it. To put it simply, they feel like grown-ups in a way that isn’t always the case in the genre. All of the characters also have the complexity and fallibility I appreciate in fiction, which made them feel a little more realistic than the norm. I didn’t agree with all the choices that Sara made, and some readers will likely take issue with at least one in particular, but I always understood why she made them and felt she was trying her best to do the right thing given the circumstances. The problem is, she’s too busy ensuring her family’s happiness at cost to her own. There’s a key moment early in the book when she thinks about her family that sums up her character perfectly: “Everyone is happy but me,” Sara thought. And if changing her life meant making the others unhappy, she wouldn’t feel right about it.
At times she does come perilously close to playing the martyr (a label I’m sure some readers will bestow upon her). But those choices are part of her gradual growth process, as she slowly realizes that being a mother doesn’t mean completely sacrificing what she wants to please her family. She has every right to be happy too. This is the book’s theme (how nice to read a romance novel with a theme!), about a woman’s right to be more than just a mother and to have her own wants, and it’s one subtly and effectively portrayed by the author. The story has an undercurrent of wistfulness and longing, touching on the topics of missed opportunities and unfulfilled dreams. One moment late in the book where Sara’s father-in-law thinks about his own mother is particularly poignant.
Sara’s children are spoiled, but in a realistic way that prevented them from becoming overly annoying. They’re still basically good kids. Sara’s mother-in-law serves as an antagonist at times, opposing Sara’s relationship with Julian, but she’s not portrayed as a bad person. In fact, the first time we see her is when Julian runs into her again for the first time. She greets him with a hug, and he thinks, “He was so bound and determined to think ill of Murray that he had forgotten some nice people lived here.” But she’s also comfortable with the way things are and is hostile toward anything, namely Sara’s relationship with Julian, that would threaten the status quo. This doesn’t make her evil; it makes her human. There are moments where she’s unkind to Sara and times when she’s supportive, all of which makes for a complex character. As with all the characters, she too grows over the course of the book.
Henry’s prose is warm and inviting, drawing me in from the very first scene of Julian arriving back in Murray. She gives a perfect sense of this small little town that feels true to life. The book takes place over a year, a longer scope that I liked, though some readers may object to the use of the Long Separation at one point. Cinderella Mom is a simple, heartfelt story about people finding love and dealing with the complications that causes. I felt for these people, cared about their problems, and ultimately found the book quite touching. It’s books like this that keep me digging into my TBR pile for old gems. I found one here.