The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill
I’ve never read Julie Klassen before but know her by reputation – several of her inspirational romances have received good grades here at AAR. Therefore it pains me to say this, but her latest book is a predictable and meandering affair punctuated by plot holes that repeatedly took me out of the story. The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill is the first book in the Tales from Ivy Hill series, but I am not sure that I will be checking out any future installments based on the strength of the opener.
The titular innkeeper is Jane Bell, a young widow who inherited a coaching inn – called The Bell – from her late husband, John. The story begins about a year after John’s death, when Jane finds out that he had taken out a loan in the amount of fifteen thousand pounds with a local bank. In the wake of John’s passing, the bank automatically granted the loan a twelve-month extension. But now that the twelve months is up, the bank expects Jane to repay the loan in three months’ time. If Jane doesn’t have the money by then, she needs to present the bank with a proposal of how she plans to generate enough income to pay the bank back. If she cannot clear the debt or at least assure the bank’s partners that she’s capable of making the money, the bank will foreclose on The Bell and sell it to the highest bidder.
Much of The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill chronicles Jane efforts to revive her floundering business while also dealing with personal demons. Once a popular establishment, The Bell has fallen into disrepair. To return the inn to its former glory, significant improvements – both in the form of better accommodations and service – need to be made. But with a new turnpike siphoning off most of The Bell’s stagecoach traffic, Jane isn’t even sure she will be able to pay her employees’ wages, much less have money left over for repairs. Add into the mix the opening of a new luxury hotel nearby and the return of her ever-disapproving mother-in-law and Jane can’t help but wonder if selling The Bell is not the best way to get herself out of a sticky situation.
For most of the book, I alternated between liking Jane and wanting to shake her. The daughter of a gentleman, Jane had never expected to marry into the working class. Therefore, when faced with the almost insurmountable task of saving a dilapidated inn, Jane’s first inclination is to sell the place so she can go back to being a woman of leisure. It isn’t until she becomes drawn into the lives of those who depend on the inn for a living that she starts to regard it as more than just a business. I liked the fact that Jane didn’t just become businesswoman extraordinaire overnight, and that she has to work hard at learning to assert herself and earn the respect of others. Her efforts are even enough to gain the grudging respect of her mother-in-law, with whom she has always had a contentious relationship.
Sadly, even as I admired Jane’s pluck, I was exasperated by her naïveté. Her conversations with other people often reveal her ignorance of the world around her. For example, does she really need her ostler to explain to her that closing The Bell will cause numerous people to lose their livelihood? This inexperience makes her sound like someone much younger than her twenty-nine years. Moreover, in a story centered around Jane’s growth and self-actualization, I find it problematic that in the end, most of her troubles are resolved through the help of one of her three potential love interests. While I realize it’s only realistic for Jane to seek help where she can, I just didn’t see enough ingenuity from Jane herself to be convinced that she has what it takes to make the inn successful.
And that leads to my biggest issue with the book – the huge leaps in logic required for readers to believe that The Bell even has a chance against its competitors. The new hotel being opened is bigger, better, and located right along the turnpike. Yet we are supposed to believe that the improvements Jane institutes – things like adding new feather mattresses, repairing the sign above the front door, and replacing the curtains in the guest bedrooms – are going to be The Bell’s saving grace. Likewise, when Jane is faced with the prospect of losing her last stagecoach contract to The Fairmont, as the new hotel is called, Jane’s solution offers absolutely no value proposition whatsoever. And yet we are supposed to buy into it simply because the plot calls for it.
In the Author’s Note, Ms. Klassen mentioned her love of English village series such as Lark Rise to Candleford and Cranford. In the same vein, Ms. Klassen has crafted a story about a close-knit community of people that should provide ample material for future installments. In addition to Jane’s struggles, there is a burgeoning romance between Jane’s friend Rachel and a shy young man that is kind of sweet. We are not given many details as to how Jane ended up marrying someone outside of her social class, but I suspect that will be addressed in later books as well. And of course, Jane herself has no fewer than three possible suitors, one of whom may or may not have a secret identity. The book does have a certain rustic charm, but I just couldn’t get past the gaps in logic surrounding The Bell’s operation to truly enjoy it. If you are looking for a clean read about a young woman’s journey to self-discovery, you may like The Innkeeper of Ivy Hill. But if you are like me and prefer a heavy dose of realism in your historicals, you may be better served to look elsewhere.