True Heart's Desire
Caroline Fyffe’s True Heart’s Desire is a complicated read, with an okay hero and a whiny heroine who have very little chemistry. Add on a lot of extraneous plot detail and you wind up with a romance that barely seems to factor into the story.
Longshoreman Rhett Laughlin is a wannabe restaurateur who hopes to open a new café in Eden, Colorado thus fulfilling his late brother’s, dream and atoning for the irresponsibility which resulted in the accident that caused Shawn’s death. Rhett has no cooking experience and is actually much more comfortable with building and construction, but he’s going to make Shawn’s dream come true no matter what. Rhett has nothing else to ground him in San Francisco; he’s still smarting from the ending of three-year relationship, and other than his (and once Shawn’s) dog Dallas Rhett has no other companions, and plans to keep it that way. He doesn’t anticipate that becoming entangled with Lavinia Brinkman will cause him so much trouble, but arriving on the day of her sister’s wedding does just that.
Having settled in Eden months ago – along with her four other sisters – Lavinia only wishes she’d gotten to know her father better. Wealthy rancher John Brinkman had supported and loved them in secret from a distance for eighteen years, leaving the girls to be raised in Philadelphia; and his death has turned the girls from downtrodden maids to rich newspaper sensations. Lavinia isn’t looking for romance, just a cure for the splitter that’s gotten into her eye while creating her sister Belle’s veil, and mistaking Rhett for the new doctor provides them with a meet cute and sets their relationship going. Gratefully, she sweeps him up into the wedding and thus the chatty, busy social whirl of Eden.
A childhood spent feeling invisible among her bolder sisters has left Lavinia yearning to step out from their shadows and yearning for recognition. She had been apprenticed to the town milliner in Philadelphia before her father’s will uprooted her, and she had harbored a secret plan to return there and take up her lessons – until the owner wrote to cancel the plan, leaving her feeling abandoned, frustrated and purposeless. Even helping at the local orphanage doesn’t fill the hole in her heart.
While Rhett struggles alone with the guilt and weight of his brother’s death and expresses that frustration by protecting teenager Cash, Lavinia struggles to find her place in the town. When her former employer makes contact again, she has to choose between staying close to her family and pursuing her developing relationship with Rhett or returning to Philadelphia and accomplishing her dream.
True Heart’s Desire is decently put together in terms of some of the characters and the quality of the prose quality, but while the novel might work as a quality family saga or historical fiction, as a romance it rarely and barely qualifies for the label.
Rhett has a charming razzle-dazzle about him; he’s a flim-flammer but a moral one, who believes in justice and the truth – which makes his tendency to lie and get himself in over his head quite out of tune and place, even if he wants to make up for it. He is understandably suffering from survivor’s guilt, and struggles with his job as both mentor to Cash and owner of Dallas.
Lavinia’s wish to be seen as more is understandable and makes her easy to relate to, but good gracious, she’s not very thoughtful. The author tries to insist it’s stubbornness she’s displaying but no, she continually makes her seem dumber than advertised at every turn. Lavinia does all of the things heroines typically do in historicals when authors have no idea how to make them unique – she loves children and cares about orphans. She co-runs a café in the hotel, which she has ambivalent feelings about. She loves but is jealous of her sisters, all of whom have plot-swallowing problems that end up centering the story on them instead of her. There is much made of her taking professional instruction in making hats, but it turns out that she doesn’t need instruction because…well, I’ll let the reader discover the twist. A five word non-spoiler: “she imprinted on the bonnet.”
Sadly, the romance is the weakest part of the story. Rhett and Lavinia’s meet-cute is just plain bizarre and is very sitcommy; a silly way to spark up sexual tension between them. She calls him her ‘hero’ afterwards as if he yanked her out of a burning building, and the rest of the romance feels weak and insubstantial; they go for chapters without speaking to one another, or even appearing in the same scene together only to be thrown together because one or the other of them has done something terribly foolish, becoming friends, then confidants, then romantic partners.
And there is a lot of extraneous plot detail going on besides Rhett’s grief and Lavinia’s feelings of aimlessness. There’s a building romance between PTSD-suffering sheriff Clint and Lavinia’s physically scarred sister Mavis, and Clint’s relationship with his son Cash; a romance between baby sister Katie and the suave neighboring rancher, and Emma’s failing dry-goods shop. Belle, who found her beau in the first book of the series, appears to be sassy and spirited, but she barely figures in the narrative. And there are newspaper articles that overshare about the girls’ private foibles, which seem to be the result of information leaks from a close friend, who decides to become a cook for Rhett. When a logging plot is introduced midway through the book it feels like a desperate gasp at trying to inject some sense of action into the narrative, which meanders as purposelessly as Lavinia. There’s even a presidential connection thrown in at random that seems to be leading to something but gets dropped, only to resurface rather pointlessly.
It’s not all bad news. There are some funny scenes, as when Rhett goes from shop to shop to shop in town to stock up the building of his business and runs into Lavinia’s disapproving sisters at every stop, and I enjoyed the idea of the gossip paper plot, if not the execution. But the sad truth is that True Heart’s Desire works much better as a piece of historical fiction. As a romance, it’s the pits.