Desert Isle Keeper
The last time readers of Ms. Stacey’s Boys of Fall series saw this hero and heroine, they were getting to know each other on the hood of a car. Sam Levitt left town shortly after, expecting to never see Jen Cooper again. But when a request from a trusted mentor beckons him back to Stewart Mills, New Hampshire, the reunion is inevitable. Sam and Jen’s chemistry is never in question, but compatibility is. Can they work through the baggage of their pasts in order to build a future together? Homecoming tells their story, and does it while engaging new readers and satisfying returning ones.
Stewart Mills, NH is one of those towns to which time has not been kind. Manufacturing, once the backbone of the economy, has moved out of town and a lot of folks are scrambling to make ends meet. In previous books, the citizens band together to help raise funds for programs otherwise cut, but the economic realities of under-employed people permeate this book.
One part of coping with the harsh realities of town life is that football provides more than just a place to be for a few hours on a Friday night. The high school football team is a heartbeat of the culture and a key part of how the town raises its young men. So when Coach McConnell suffers a heart attack, the team cannot be left in the hands of just anyone.
Sam Levitt’s life is better because he was coached by Coach McConnell, no doubt. But his life is also better because he left Stewart Mills intending never to return. He had already been coaxed back earlier in the summer for a fundraising fest, but returned to Texas as soon as he could. When he gets the phone call asking him to come back and fill in as coach, he’s torn. His childhood was atrocious and he wants no part of living in Stewart Mills again, but Coach saved him and is not someone Sam can abandon. So, with a determination to make this temporary, Sam packs and heads back to New Hampshire.
Jen Cooper is an institution in the town. A guidance counselor at the high school, she is a surrogate parent to hundreds of students as they navigate their journey towards adulthood. You can tell she pours all of herself out into the lives of those students and seeks very little from them in return. This, in her mind, means she has little time or energy for a relationship, despite Sam’s reappearance in town. She tells herself to avoid him and the sexual energy she feels around him – he’s only there temporarily, after all.
The problem is that her two best friends are in relationships with his two best friends, so it becomes impossible for them to avoid each other. Sam and Jen decide to give in to the tension, have a temporary fling, and not tell anyone.
When I read that decision, I said out loud “Right. Totally going to work, kids. Have fun and I look forward to your engagement.”
Of course they fall deeper than either anticipated and of course things get complicated and of course there are tears and of course it all ends happily ever after. I sighed happily at the conclusion of this book and I think other readers will too.
I opened this review by talking about Stewart Mills and I’d like to return to that. The town in this book is its own character, and it informs Jen and Sam deeply as people, their views of themselves and their relationship with each other. Characters that first appear ancillary turn out not to be and decisions that seem casual turn out to be significant. I keep hearing that the small town romance genre is dying, but when I read these kind of books I really hope that isn’t the case. There’s a wisdom in these pages in the connections and realities that these people represent without which the whole romance genre would be bereft.
Homecoming also ties the series up well, as we get codas to the two previous stories without taking time away from Jen and Sam. I was left feeling like Ms. Stacey was deep into a Friday Night Lights rewatch when she plotted this book and glad she created a Dillon, Texas in New Hampshire. I loved the small commentary about the economic differences between different parts of the state that were casually dropped in and I loved feeling like this town exists and I could show up on a Friday night to watch the game with everyone else.
Autumn is coming and I always like reading books that help me transition between seasons. If you’re ready for pumpkin spiced things, crunching leaves, and autumnal rhythms, I’d highly recommend this novel.