Review: The Summer Garden by Sherryl Woods

Title:  The Summer Garden

Author:  Sherryl Woods

Publisher:  MIRA Books

Series:  Chesapeake Shores #

Other Reviews for This Author:  None

When you come into the final novel of a romance series - particularly as a reader who has never read the previous books - you are inevitably coming into a thing of much chance.  Romance series have a particular penchant for ending on an overly-happy note.  The HEA easily reaches to many other characters.  This happens especially with novels like The Summer Garden, which explore a set amount of family members living very close to each other.  On some levels, The Summer Garden worked as a strong romance, but on others it dragged on and had too many obviously leftover elements from other novels in the romance series for it to stand alone for me as a reader.

A turbulent family reconciliation in Ireland brought Luke O'Brien together with a very unique girl - Moira O'Malley.  Moira was everything that Luke's lover, Kirsten, wasn't.  Kirsten was a simple physical fling that seemed to just be around because Luke was an O'Brien - having lost her chance at snagging one of the other O'Brien men earlier.  Moira, however, was something different.  Moira was a hothead and extremely stubborn, yet nothing attracted Luke more than a girl who made things anything but easy.  Moira captured his heart and managed to make him feel things that Kirsten never did.  With the Ireland excursion now over, Luke has to travel back to the United States and continue with his life and his plan to make an authentic Irish pub in Chesapeake Shores.  Moira may not be with him physically, but she never seems to leave his mind.

Moira O'Malley has been building a solid relationship with her grandfather, and in doing so has discovered Luke O'Brien, the grandson of her grandfather's newly-rekindled sweetie, Nell.  Luke has challenged Moira beyond belief.  Moira has just been bartending in a Dublin pub, never knowing quite what she wants to do.  The flash of romance and passion with Luke has set off a chain of events that leads her photography - once merely a hobby - to potentially becoming a big business outlet for her.  Moira has every chance in the world to be successful in Dublin.  It's when her grandfather Dillon suggests that she go with him to visit Chesapeake Shores in the US that Moira realizes that she wants something a little more immediately than her photography...Luke.

The visitation from Ireland isn't a surprise.  Well, Dillon's isn't.  Moira's arrival comes as a shock to Luke, however, and he cannot help but be thrown off-kilter with the arrival of his Irish love.  He already has time tables and schedules set up for the eventual opening of his pub, and none of his plans called for a return of a woman that means more to him than anyone else.  Moira's delight in visiting Luke quickly gets tinged with regret, as she soon discovers that Luke is conflicted with moving forward while he already has such a large business decision going on in his life.  How could he have time for a proper romance as well?  Moira feels that there's something special with Luke, but her stubborn heritage makes it clear that, if he isn't careful, she won't bother waiting around for him to be ready.

Heroine-wise, I think Moira does a good job of being a complicated character to deal with.  Her stubbornness is apparent but not unfounded or over-the-top (which apparently was the case when she was introduced as a secondary character, based on other characers' reactions to her).  There's also a lot of conflict with her in regards to what she wants to do in life, and her age range makes that conflict pretty relative.  (Both Moira and Luke are in their twenties, I believe).  Moira's ultimate struggles involve her inability to choose between a promising career in photography that could be a huge risk and the promising and much safer possibility of being a mother/housewife.  Moira knows both will give her satisfaction to some degree, but she can't help but feel that she can be wrong for wanting to give up a career that everyone else says she could become a star in.  Moira also struggles with her relationship with Luke.  Luke is a very driven man and returns her affections, but the ultimate feeling is that she should not be able to simply be sacrificed/set-aside in order for him to open his pub.  Moira's problems are  with executing the concept of juggling a career and a romantic/family life, as she wants Luke to be able to juggle a career and romance, but the idea of juggling career and an eventual family, to her, sounds daunting.  This ultimately works well for her, but the novel has portions where the arguments and issues seem to recycle themselves before they move forward, and sometimes Moira comes across her epiphanies too easily after a long period of cyclical thinking.  Still, it meshes some small-town romance tropes with more modern mindsets and tries to make a compromise with it, which makes for an interesting heroine.

The reader relationship with Luke, in my experience was more mixed.  Luke is certainly a great guy that one can imagine Moira falling in love with.  Both characters share a level of stubbornness with each other that seems to defy logic, yet both find it attractive and have a solid relationship dynamic that is very unique and feels like honest-to-god love.  Luke's problem is specifically with his inability to see past his obsession with organization.  He knows that he loves Moira and wants to be with her, but he has no idea the pain that he causes her by putting aside further relationship development - especially when she's not staying permanently - in order to put all of his time into making his pub, even when she spends time with him on said endeavor.  This seems absolutely ludicrous after a while.  Luke is supposedly a sensible man, yet he can't find the time to work on his relationship - even just in baby steps - while making this pub?  At the very least, it takes a lot to get over the fact that he doesn't think about the repercussions of Moira's limited stay and how she can't just wait around for him.  The conflict eventually gets resolved in a way that feels realistic, but at times I felt Luke's ignorance to Moira's situation was overpowering of the reasons behind it, making it hard to sympathize with where Luke was coming from as a hero.

These two manage to make a romance that works.  There's a lot of chemistry written between them.  They interact and have sweet (off-screen) sex, and the relationship has a lot of grounding to it from the get-go.  This book didn't stray from its romance incentive, which I liked.  I fully expected it to veer into women's fiction territory, so it was nice to see the romantic focus at full capacity.  There was an extremely high ratio of past-couples coming back in the novel.  All of the secondary characters are family members of Luke's or Moira's (by birth or by marriage).  I think maybe one or two at most was a non-family character, and they didn't have much impact on the storyline.  There's nothing wrong with a strong familial bond in a romance novel.  On the contrary, many of the best romance series are based on a tight-knit family finding true love throughout a series of novels.  The only problem is that Chesapeake Shores can supposedly support all of these businesses, but the only people that ever seem to come into them are members of the O'Brien family.  I wanted more non-O'Brien interaction to offset Luke's voice in the novel and give Moira's perspective more strength as an outsider.  She talks with the other O'Brien wives and gains insights, but it's not the same as having an outside and unbiased source being involved.  It also can stray into the, "Well, they're O'Briens," territory, which can get old as an excuse for characterization.  Mostly, I felt like it limited the community feeling of a romance that seemed big on establishing itself as taking place in a strong community.

Other parts of the novel were well-crafted.  I could see how Woods got her fanbase and published so many books.  Chesapeake Shores, though seemingly just an entire area of O'Briens, is pictured in a very beautiful way that reminds the reader of summers and gorgeous small-town scenery that seems almost ethereal.  A gorgeous natural setting is one of the big draws of the small-town romance, and Chesapeake Shores has that excellent setting down to a science.  There were also some really enjoyable sub-plots, such as the romance between Dillon and Nell.  Two old lovers reuniting after years and years?  It's very adorable, and Nell and Dillon are vivacious characters that easily warm your heart.  They are knowledgeable but also young at heart, and it makes them fun to read about.  The dialogue from some of the characters felt a tad too old in some places, especially when considering that many of the characters were in their twenties.  I could accept it to some degree based on how they were raised and how close they were as a family, yet I couldn't shake the feeling that something in the dialogue suggested more experience - and the only real reason I noticed it was because I noticed several of the characters using it despite the age they were at.

The real question with these books is - will I go back and read the previous books in the series, or read future books by the author?  In this case, I feel like I would do the latter but not the former.  Woods is a solid writer who writes some lovely things, but The Summer Garden is one of those cases where the book is more of a denouement rather than something that can stand on its own - which I believe series romances like this should be able to do.  It's ultimately about experiencing this final romantic push that symbolizes a community-type HEA with the couples from previous books constantly being in the backdrop.  The Summer Garden was cute and raised some good issues within the romance, but it was too weighted down by these other characters and the cyclical approach to the romantic issues.  I'm looking forward to starting one of Woods' series from the beginning, as I feel like the experience is much more satisfying than starting at the end.

Cover:  It's a very pretty cover that's classic to this romance sub-genre.  Gotta admit, the garden is gorgeous.  It makes me yearn for summer.

Rating:  3.5  Stars

Copy:  Received from publicist/publisher for review  (Thank you, Eric and Harlequin!)

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