While here at AAR we all do our utmost to approach each book we review with an open mind, I must admit that based on Jude Deveraux’s last few reviews here, I didn’t have a lot of hope when I opened her newest release. Thirty-six hours later, I closed the book with a sigh. Wild Orchids is a tense and creepy tale that I found immensely satisfying.
Best-selling author Ford Newcombe has been in a deep depression ever since his beloved wife Pat died of cancer six years ago. He also hasn’t been able to write a word – Pat was not only his wife but his editor and inspiration, and without her, he can’t write and has made a habit of firing his new assistants. People are starting to whisper that maybe Pat was the one who really wrote all those bestsellers. But then Ford hears a young woman telling a story of a woman who was stoned because she loved the devil and finally feels interested in something once again.
The story Jackie Maxwell tells is more than just a spooky tale – the night her mother recited it, her parents fought, Jackie’s father packed her in the car, and the two hit the road. Since her father died, it’s been her only link to her past. Ford’s intrigued, and offers Jackie a job as his assistant. Jackie declines because she’s getting married, but when she learns five minutes before her wedding that her fiancé has squandered all her savings, she takes off (in her wedding gown) to find Ford and accept his offer.
Jackie and Ford head to Jackie’s hometown of Cole Creek, North Carolina, to start their research, squabbling all the way. No one in town seems to want to talk about Jackie’s devil story, except for an unknown person who directs them through a note to a magazine article about the discovery of a skeleton under a pile of stones. Ford realizes that Jackie’s story is true, and she may have witnessed a murder as a child. In addition, Jackie starts having visions of accidents which then happen before her eyes. As she and Ford work together to prevent the accidents and fix up Ford’s old house, they grow closer, but will they be able to stop history from repeating itself?
Wild Orchids is written in first person, with Ford and Jackie narrating alternating chapters. At first I expected this to be gimmicky, but it works because Ford and Jackie have such distinct voices. It’s especially enjoyable to see their opinions of each other change – initially Jackie thinks Ford’s a washed-up blowhard and Ford realizes Jackie’s the first person in years who’s unwilling to put up with his attitude just because he’s a best-selling author. I enjoyed seeing their different reactions to the same events and the way their attitudes toward each other grudgingly change. While the romantic angle of the story isn’t a huge one, I found it satisfying. Ford and Jackie have a large age difference, an element I don’t usually care for, but they’re both so cranky they belong together. Ford and Jackie don’t gush about each other much, but that wouldn’t be in keeping with their personalities. I also liked that the novel doesn’t pretend that Ford’s growing feelings for Jackie invalidate his love for Pat, who managed to be a character I quite liked in spite of her being dead.
As a native Southerner, I’m sometimes sensitive to stereotypical portrayals of the South, but I had no complaints here. Like most small Southern towns, Cole Creek has a great deal of charm and a great number of secrets, and is neither a backwoods dump nor a idealized town of Pollyannas. And there’s a subplot I greatly enjoyed involved Ford’s Southern roots. Ford has mined his miserable childhood for material for his books, but an unexpected visitor from his past forces him to look at his family with new eyes.
The supernatural aspects of the story are enjoyably creepy, with Jackie’s visions, a strange child who knows too much in the tradition of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense, and a wonderfully magnetic villain. And without giving too much away, the final twist of the book makes perfect sense.
I can’t say for sure how longtime Deveraux fans will react to this book; I was never a great fan of her historicals. But for me, Wild Orchids was a terrific rollercoaster ride. I’m hoping her fans will think so too.