Pine Harbour, Ontario is the fictional setting for a small town contemporary romance series by indie author Zoe York. Some romances in this kind of setting veer into stereotypical territory – think gossipy neighbors, the coffee crowd at the local diner, high school sweethearts, etc.. This author has set her series apart by featuring tried and true tropes (reunions, best friend’s siblings, single parents) amidst more serious events such as losing a spouse to drug violence and the emotional repercussions of a tour of duty in the military. In Love in a Sandstorm, Ms. York takes the military theme a step further with the return home of a soldier who is learning to live with a brain injury and the woman who pledged to love him ‘in sickness and in health …till death us do part’. It’s an emotionally charged but very satisfying read.
Jenna Kowalczyk is a Canadian midwife, working with Doctors without Borders in a transit camp in Turkey. She’s been there for four months, and the reality of life in the camp has been an eye-opening experience. Fatigued, somewhat homesick, and experiencing her share of doubts about her abilities on a regular basis, she takes each day as it comes. While indulging in a food break during her latest labor and delivery, she meets a friendly, happy Canadian soldier in the mess hall. It’s like a breath of fresh air for her tired spirit.
Sean Foster is on duty in the transit camp for the upcoming visit of the Canadian Prime Minister who is stopping in with a diplomatic delegation on their way to a base in Northern Iraq. Reaching for the same apple in the food line as the cute hospital worker in front of him leads to a little flirtation and a quick and easy conversation, cut short by her return to duty. Sean’s got two weeks of much needed vacation coming in forty-eight hours, but he finds himself wanting to spend more time with this woman who has captured his interest. A movie night ‘date’ at the compound, then the discovery that she’s got her own holiday time that will coincide with his leads him to an impromptu decision:
“Come With Me.”
Hope sparked in his chest that tomorrow might not need to be goodbye.
Two weeks in Spain, meant to be a fun and let loose vacation leads the infatuated couple to a quick decision – that they want to make things permanent and they do so with a quickie marriage in Gibraltar. They agree that for the rest of their work assignments, they’ll keep their new status under wraps, and they return to their posts. They keep in contact as much as they can, though with Sean’s military posting there are sometimes several days between messages. And then one day, the messages stop. Jenna grows increasingly concerned as the days go by without contact until the bottom of her world falls out when she finds out through a newspaper article that Sean’s been injured in combat and has returned home. Six weeks after Sean’s injury, Jenna shows up on his doorstep. The happy-go-lucky soldier she married has been replaced by a bitter, brain-damaged man who believes she’s better off consigning their marriage to a fanciful dream and going on with her life without him. Can she convince him that the vows they made and the love they share are worth fighting for?
The author has said in some social media posts that this story has a personal inspiration. Her husband is a currently serving Canadian soldier, and her children were delivered with the aid of midwives. This enables her to have a unique view into both main characters that is reflected in their realistic portrayals. The story goes back and forth between the present and the past as it explores how Sean and Jenna fall for each other (including some sexy love scenes) and whether their love is worth fighting for. Jenna truly believes that Sean meant for them to be together or she’d never have married him. It’s up to her to prove the vows they spoke are genuine. But it’s no easy task.
The Sean she finds living in his brother’s house back in Ontario is not the man she married. He has a serious brain injury from a mortar attack on his convoy, and his constant nausea, vertigo, and tinnitus means even a simple trip to the bathroom is a hellish affair. He knows it’s only been a few weeks since his injury, but he has no interest in anything but being unconscious to escape the misery. It’s heartbreaking to read. Jenna’s arrival doesn’t change the fact that he’s a shell of the man she married and he wants her gone. But she shows a steely resolve, moving into his town, finding work, and showing up on his doorstep time and again to prove to him that she’s there to stay.
I appreciate that the author doesn’t try to sugar-coat the reality of Sean’s injuries and how they affect his psyche. Equally, I like that Jenna, while trying to remain strong in front of Sean, also has periods of doubt as to whether she’s doing the right thing by sticking around. Sean’s family is supportive of him but they also respect her role in his life as his wife, which strengthens her resolve. Sean’s recovery is a day to day affair and he isn’t miraculously healed by the end of the story. He learns to cope, to accept help physically and psychologically from medical professionals and to accept his new physical limitations. And his reconnection on an intimate level with Jenna requires honest communication and acceptance of how their sex life must change but can still be equally exciting and satisfying.
There are a couple of lines at the end of the story that sum up the theme of this emotional and heartfelt romance quite nicely.
“Jenna’s taught me something pretty significant this summer. We don’t always get what we want, you know? … But we can make what we get something worth wanting.”
Jenna and Sean’s seemingly fairytale romance quickly gets taken over by real life heartache, but it’s Jenna’s perseverance in the face of adversity that leads them to a strong and committed marriage as a result. Love in a Sandstorm shows the highs and lows of a whirlwind romance and the strength and commitment needed to ensure a long lasting relationship.
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