The Giving Heart
Something of a ‘warts and all’ reading experience, Toni Blake’s The Giving Heart challenged me as a reviewer. If you want a Christmas romance, and are willing to persevere through a baffling beginning and settle for a HFN over an HEA, than this may work for you. It – sort of – did for me.
Lila Sloan is spending the interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas inn-sitting on an island in Michigan for her sister. One morning she wakes up to find a handsome man in an unfortunate “Indiana Jones hat” attempting to bulldoze the adjacent forest. His name is Beck Grainger, and he’s a developer. Lila and the forest are saved by an incoming weather front that stops construction, but Beck has already bulldozed her goodwill towards him. Maybe….
I haven’t read a lot of holiday romance, but Ms. Blake does atmosphere superbly. I literally paused my reading at one point, feeling compelled to shop online for artificial Christmas trees. Not only does she capture the holiday season well, the winter season is also very vividly depicted. I could easily imagine the blistering, isolating cold and snow on Lake Michigan, and the little town (how shop-owners there can survive financially all year on seasonal business in flowers and yarn is beyond me, but okay). Ms. Blake makes the island feel cozy and safe, and when I thought the drama was going to go off-island in the third act (it ultimately doesn’t) I was distressed, not wanting to leave the little snow globe (snow bubble?) of security she’d conjured up.
Lila is a complicated heroine. She’s mired in self-hatred for a variety of reasons and she’s also had traumatic experiences that are very of the moment — #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein are both namechecked here. She makes repeated attempts to destroy her own happiness, primarily with Beck, chopping away at it over and over like a woodcutter to a tree. I found reading about it painful, even depressing; I really liked the romance and I hated that Lila and Beck’s happy afterglow never seemed to last more than ten minutes.
However, Beck charmed me. He brings Lila a Christmas tree as a “peace offering” and their first date is decorating the tree (I’ve always hated the idea that you need to ‘do fun things’ on a date, but I’d do that). Beck’s main issue is that he’s grappling with the loss of his father, a pastor, and his trying to reconcile himself to how his father chose to live out his moral values. He’s not pondering the existence of God like Ivan Karamazov or anything like that, and despite the religious element, this is not an inspirational novel. Beck also revisits his childhood through the friendship he strikes up with the five-year old grandson of his neighbors. I am of the No Kids in Romance Until the Epilogue camp, but this book scrapes by with a pass because the child in question isn’t Beck’s.
I was most impressed by how sexy this book is, even though the actual sex scenes take up maybe two pages out of over three hundred and sixty. It’s on the low end of the ‘warm’ grade in terms of what Ms. Blake explicitly says happens, but she conjures that feverish sense of chemical attraction so well that I felt feverish myself. Lila and Beck are the first couple I’ve ever encountered in romance who play footsie, which I found delightfully surprising (sometimes I feel like even romance-novel couples need to shake up the foreplay). At one point, Lila suggests Beck is trying to win her over with sex and says he’s “barking up the wrong tree”. He says no, that he’s barking up “the this-feels-good-and-I-want-to-be-inside-you tree.” Lila agrees it’s “a good tree” (and I agreed too).
I struggled with the beginning and the end of this book. What almost torpedoes it in the first pages is that there’s almost another heroine, and almost a love triangle.
Consider the following quotes:
“She was pretty, wry, forthright, feminine”.
“Maybe something good would happen between them yet.”
“If only she hadn’t reverted back to finding it so hard to meet those amazing eyes, a brown so warm they could almost melt all the ice in her heart.”
“When he leaned past her to look, she caught the scent of him. Something leathery and musky and masculine, it seemed to ricochet through her body.”
You would think those quotes were the hero and heroine thinking about each other, right? WRONG! That’s what Beck and this other character, Suzanne, think about each other. For many pages we spend time in the perspective of poor, widowed, Suzanne, who thinks she has a chance with Beck (as did this reader, who had to check the blurb to remember who to root for).
The timeline hurts the HEA, too. Because everything happens so fast, there’s no real way to resolve the issues both Beck and Lila are facing. The conclusions they come to about their issues are really decisions on what next steps to take on the road towards actual conclusions rather than the conclusions themselves. Not only that, but I felt that Beck and Lila’s relationship was super fragile. Lila makes a big decision at the end of the book that will put her through an entirely new kind of stress and trauma, and I had a hard time believing they would make it as a couple.
All in all, The Giving Heart has a lot to give, but you must unwrap it from all the metaphorical packing peanuts that clutter its best qualities.