The Mother's Day Garden
Kimberly Cates’ latest offering deals with finding yourself on a path in life without knowing how you got there – but knowing that you want to get off of it. Hannah O’Connell has had a tough year; her daughter Becca has gone off to college, her marriage isn’t working and she’s recently had a hysterectomy. Hannah always dreamed of having lots of children and the hysterectomy was a crushing blow to her worth as a woman. She feels unattractive and hopeless. Her marriage to Sam is unraveling as well. The two are at complete disconnect and while both want to fix things, neither knows how. Sam feels powerless to help Hannah, who has always been uber-mom and wife. Hannah just feels so lost and sad, she doesn’t know how to find her way back.
Enter a baby into the story. Hannah goes out into the yard to collect the laundry and finds a baby in her laundry basket. There is a note asking Hannah to take care of the baby as whomever left it know she is a good mother. The baby is named after Hannah’s grandmother; this leads Hannah to believe it’s one of her daughter’s friends. Hannah is flabbergasted but wants to keep the baby. Sam does not and is none too pleased with the situation. But he loves Hannah and agrees to keep the baby. While at court to apply for temporary custody, Hannah comes face to face with Tony Blake, her old high school sweetheart. She hasn’t seen him since he left town after high school. Now a lawyer, Tony has agreed to help them keep baby Ellie. So, take a woman going through a midlife crisis, a husband who has no idea what’s going on with his marriage, an abandoned baby and an old ex boyfriend and you got a whole lot of story there. Oh, did I mention that Hannah has a secret that could push Sam and possibly her daughter away for good? Is your head spinning yet?
Tony discovers that Hannah and Sam are on the outs and that Sam is sleeping in Becca’s room and decides right then and there he is going to come between the two and break up their marriage for good. This is the reader’s first clue that Tony is a jerk. He’s come to town ostensibly to see to the care of his mother but decides he’ll pick up wife number four along the way, even though he has absolutely no idea what Hannah is all about. He sees her old bed and fumes that Sam could have at least bought her a decent bed – without knowing or understanding the bed’s history or that Hannah could never live anywhere else. He shows up everywhere Hannah is, even when she’s out with Becca. I don’t know what they call that in Willowtown (where the book takes place) but they call that stalking where I come from. But for some reason it’s never clear whether Tony is supposed to be the villain. My guess is that he’s just supposed to be a marked contrast to Sam, but he’s such a jerk I couldn’t like him, and his “redemption” at the end of the book comes off as false and schmaltzy. To make matters worse, so does Hannah’s and Tony’s last scene together.
My biggest problem was with Hannah, who wins the award for the most naïve heroine I have read in a long while. She didn’t see through Tony’s act and was even flattered by it at first. But I don’t think we were even supposed to think she was truly tempted to leave Sam, so those readers who worry about divorce and adultery can rest easy. She took to keeping baby Ellie like a child takes to wanting to keep a stray puppy – “Mine! she fairly screamed to everyone. Not only is Hannah’s naïveté overdone, she’s also so unjudgmental about others that she is instead too forgiving. The only person she judges harshly is herself; as a result she comes across as saintly, which makes her difficult for mere mortals to relate to. On the other hand, because of her non-judgmental nature, she saw how scared and tormented Ellie’s birthmother was and was never berated her for leaving her baby. Sam and Becca were both very harsh in their opinions, Sam because of a traumatic childhood where his mother left him when he was eight.
Both Sam and Becca did come around in time, although Sam did stumble when confronted with Hannah’s secret, which was inconsistent with his general character. At heart, Sam is a good man who invariably does the right thing, even if it means giving something up he has to come to love. Sam and Becca are likable and had the story focused more on them than on the too-good Hannah, I’d have liked it better. Though the story does a good job capturing the changes a family goes through as it passes through different season of life, the resolutions are pat and the emotions evoked are saccharine.
This book is considered a romance, but it’s not very romantic; Hannah and Sam have been married for years and the “falling in love with each other all over again” angle isn’t entirely satisfying. With its emphasis on family and the changes we go through, it’s as though the author couldn’t decide whether she was writing romance or women’s fiction. Had Hannah been a more believable character and the story been better concentrated on Hannah’s marriage to Sam and what kept these two people together, the author would have succeeded in the latter. I have long loved Kimberly Cates’ historical romances. Stealing Heaven and Magic are two keepers for me. Those who have enjoyed Cates’ contemporary voice may have better luck than I did, but I wish I’d stayed out of The Mother’s Day Garden.