Kids on the Doorstep
Kimberly Van Meter writes contemporary romances set in the fictional small town of Emmett’s Hill, in the California Sierra Nevadas. And it’s the first small town I’ve read about in recent history in which the residents look out for each other, but in which they are really nasty towards the outsider. No absolute hearts of gold here. Yeah!
The story starts off on a dark and stormy winter night, with farmer John Murphy receiving a surprise visit from his elderly neighbor Gladys. Gladys is still recuperating from a triple bypass operation, and this very night her great-nephew dumped his three little daughters on her and disappeared. The three girls – Alexis, Taylor and Chloe – are malnourished, dressed in little more than rags and obviously frightened. Gladys is clearly in no position to look after them, and so John, for whom Gladys has been something of a surrogate mother, agrees to take all of them in. While John and Gladys feed the little girls, they find out that their mother Renee left them in Jason’s care some time earlier and has not been in contact with them since. It appears Jason mistreated little Chloe and may actually have tried to poison her, and John and Gladys quickly agree they must inform the sheriff and Gladys must ask for custody.
Only a few days later, Renee Dolling arrives at Gladys’s house. A recovering alcoholic, she spent several months in rehab, but when she told her husband Jason she had instigated a divorce, he decamped with their children. Renee has been looking for them ever since, and Gladys is her last hope. When she finds out that Gladys and the children are staying at John’s farm, she is delighted and shattered a minute later when she discovers she has lost custody and is not even allowed to see her girls. When she shouts at the receptionist at the police station, she is handcuffed and thrown into a cell. At the custody hearing, she not given a proper chance to explain her situation.
The moral ground is shaky all around at this point. While Renee is being treated abominably, and the residents of Emmett’s Hill, Gladys and John included, are smug and sanctimonious about it, the truth remains that she left the girls with an unfit guardian, that they were mistreated, and that their safety and well-being must be the first consideration. So Renee grits her teeth, goes to the visits the judge has granted her, and puts up with John’s lecturing. She even takes matters a big step further: Seeing that Gladys can’t really keep up with three energetic girls, she proposes to John that he give her a job as household help and childminder, and a roof over her head in an outlying guest house. By that point, John has already discovered that Renee is not the selfish ditz he thought he was, and if she wants to repair the relationship with her daughters, she’ll need to see them on a regular basis. So he agrees.
This is not a light-hearted romance. The girls have been hurt badly, and Renee feels terrible for abandoning them yet understands she must look to the future, not wallow in the past. I was inclined to feel sympathetic towards her situation. Having witnessed alcoholism, I know that the most important steps are for the alcoholic to admit to the addiction and actually stop drinking; only afterwards can the patient pick up the shards of his or her life again, and this is exactly what Renee does. She does not throw the fact that she’s an alcoholic into everyone’s face, but she is honest about it and faces what a failure she used to be as a mother. Her eldest daughter Alexis refuses to be reconciled with her, and Renee has to endure a lot of rejection from her.
I was annoyed at John’s unquestioning smugness at first, but for one thing he is acting on his protective instincts, and secondly that he’s quick to realise there’s far more to Renee and her story than he thought at first. His slowly changing attitude and the subtle growth of his feelings for Renee were a delight to read about. The attraction between them is strong, very much about trust and responsibility and not simply lust.
I also loved the way the children are described. They are both delightful and difficult, and I thought the voices of Alexis, nine, and Taylor, five, were just right. (Three-year-old Chloe doesn’t speak much.) They are neither cute or precocious, and how often do you see children like that in a romance?
Now to the not-so-good bit: The ending, for a such a character-driven romance, is unnecessarily melodramatic, but at the same time it feels rushed. That should have been handled more in keeping with the rest of the novel.
That said, I read Kids on the Doorstep in one sitting and with a great deal of enjoyment. Within the boundaries of romance, I thought the topic of alcoholism was handled with sensitivity, as was that of starting anew after messing up very badly. I am planning on checking out other books by Kimberly Van Meter, and am glad this one came my way.