Title: Midnight Promises
Author: Sherryl Woods
Publisher: Harlequin MIRA Books
Series: Sweet Magnolias #9
Other Reviews for This Author: The Summer Garden
After reading The Summer Garden, I was not particularly excited to try out another book by Sherryl Woods right away. Her writing style was strong in its way, yet the first-time reading experience always leaves a huge impression on the reader. I got pitched Midnight Promises and remembered some of the negative things - the feeling of a lack of plot, excessive community-focus, and a romantic conflict that centered around weak miscommunications. Midnight Promises was a majorly positive step in the right direction for Woods in my eyes. It still featured some of the aspects of The Summer Garden that I disliked, but it also had others that were either done much better or avoided. Also - the premise is one that, for a romance novel, is not often seen. Woods is an author that crosses the romance/women's fiction line frequently with her stories, yet the story of a couple working on rekindling their failing romantic marriage really did feel like a romance in this book - and that made all of the difference.
Elliot and Karen found themselves falling in love. They overcame significant differences and family prejudices in order to get married. They were assured that life would be smooth sailing from there because of their love. Karen had already been married and divorced once to a man who had left in her debt; a man that had obliterated her ability to financially trust her romantic life partner. Elliot had never found a woman quite like Karen - one so strong and sexy, one who truly understood him. His family's deeply rooted Catholic beliefs made it tough for her to be approved by his mother, but the two were able to use their love to show Elliot's family that not all of their religious opinions were fair ones.
Years into their marriage, they are finding things to a lot more difficult than they anticipated. Karen has yet to fully trust Elliot despite his unfailing devotion to her and her two children. Her children have yet to be officially adopted by Elliot, either. She sees it as one more thing that can be done later, after they regain the financial stability needed for her to feel safe again. With her job as a chef and his as a personal trainer at lucrative small businesses, they have been steadily stowing away money to pay for that stability. Most importantly, the two also wanted the money to help pay for the opportunity to fund a new child in their lives. A child that would signify the familial unity that Elliot so desperately wants to achieve with Karen.
The trust issues are the only the beginning. Both work long hours at their jobs. When not at work, Karen and Elliot are either taking care of something at home, running the kids somewhere, or sleeping. They have no time to remember their intimacy or their passion they way they did prior to when they were married. They also don't tell each other everything anymore, which becomes a major problem when Elliot plans on going into a business deal with several of his close friends. Karen knows the men and their wives. She knows that Elliot loves her and isn't impulsive. Yet he is too willing to put up money that they can't afford to part with. Money that she worked hard to put away. Money that they need for the baby. Without an intervention, Elliot and Karen's marriage could break under the pressure of finances and the burden of running their adult lives.
Sherryl Woods creates a couple that feels very real in Karen and Elliot. Both of them have already been through difficult times in their lives - as apparently expressed in previous books in the series, which I have not had the chance to read. The reader gets a sufficient idea of their backstory and the trouble they went through to get married, but Woods is quick to show that their issues didn't go away because they had a beautiful wedding. The trouble, as in The Summer Garden, revolves around their communication as a couple. What separates Midnight Promises from The Summer Garden is the handling of the main couple and the character motives behind the communication blunders.
Karen is a heroine that, more than anything, wants to feel secure. She married Elliot after a major amount of heartbreak and a period of financial devastation. Without the sense of community fostered by her good friends and the love of Elliot, she would have struggled so much more to put her life back together. That love for Elliot is there in every page. The reader never doubts that Karen's love for Elliot is strong. Woods makes it clear. However, she also makes it painfully clear that Karen is not psychologically ready for some of their relationship yet. She continually shows a lack of total trust in Elliot - a trait that is seemingly synonymous with true love, total trust - because of her past experiences. This makes Karen a character that both frustrates the reader and garners their devotion. On one hand, the reader wants Karen to just resolve her differences with Elliot because she loves him, their marriage is going through a rough spot, and a lot of her reactions are based on residual pain from a previous relationship. Yet - these traits are also what keeps Karen a strong and independent heroine. She never felt like she was softened around the edges to fit the small-town romance role. She goes through so many things small town moms and business owners do in Midnight Promises, yet she refuses to settle for her husband doing something without her consent or knowledge. She's also never entirely wrong with her fears, either, which makes it that much better.
Elliot is a bit less deep, but he's still a pretty strong character in his own right. He's the kind of man that proves to be great for a woman like Karen. He's strong, too, but he also knows that Karen's independence and painful past make her a woman that will challenge him and accepts that. He never gets gruff or offensive with her and treats her with the utmost respect. There's also his status as a father figure (a non-official one as far as adoption is concerned) towards her two kids. Taking the kids to McDonald's despite his and Karen's mutual dislike of fast food because they consider it a treat. Wanting to give them the world and make them a united family. Those kinds of things make it clear to the reader that Elliot has good intentions. But he also has issues when it comes to communication. He doesn't tell Karen everything and lets his male pride get in the way of their relationship because of his business goals. He knows that he can afford to take the financial risk, but he forgets that he still needs to show that it's secure before taking the plunge. These two people are so united in many ways that the romance is natural and alive, yet their miscommunications don't ever feel forced or meandering. Woods makes it clear that their communication issues are ones that pop up in many marriages, and that the issues come from a lot of unresolved mentalities from both ends of their past (Elliot with is very patriarchal family and Karen with her financial destruction at the hands of her first husband).
Woods also includes two major subplots within the novel that have a deep emotional impact on the reader. One involves an older female character that may or may not have Alzheimer's, and the other involves Elliot's sister and her failing marriage. What surprised me was how much Woods used these subplots to add to the main romance. The older female character is a good friend and mother figure to Karen. She represents a lot to Elliot and Karen and reminds them of how fragile their relationship can be. Then the subplot with Elliot's sister shows the reader just how much conflict with Elliot's family and their mindset was unresolved from the previous books.
What ties this all together is a solid writing style from Sherryl Woods. Midnight Promises is definitely an example of what happens with these long-running small town romance series. Many characters from previous titles return as major players in this romance. Unlike The Summer Garden, however, they are all united from a business perspective and a friendship perspective. They aren't literally all part of the same family, which is a trope that can get very out of control and feel overwhelming to the reader. Each of the side characters felt useful and entertaining without taking the spotlight away from Karen and Elliot's romance. The community also didn't feel quite as insular, although there were moments where it felt like Woods narrowed her scope too much in order to highlight the continual legacy of the Sweet Magnolias characters. The prose that Woods incorporates is sweet and easy to read. It brings to mind the feelings of quiet summer nights on the porch, a cup of tea in hand. She tackles emotional issues with intelligence and experience, and she always writes in a way that shows all sides of her characters' communication issues before working towards a solid resolution with the plot.
Midnight Promises endeared me to the idea of Sherryl Woods as a writer. She's a romance/women's fiction writer who incorporates aspects from both genres, yet this story in particular felt very romantic despite its usage of non-conventional romantic tropes. Elliot and Karen shined as a romantic couple. Their journey wasn't one that was surprising because of the strong romantic basis that their relationship already had, yet it was a very honest and experienced depiction of a couple in love struggling to stay in love despite their differences. Woods writes a small town that can at times be too insular, too overpopulated with previous characters and personalities, yet the atmosphere always feels just homey enough to warrant a return to her work. I'll definitely be picking up more of her Sweet Magnolia books in the future, as she hits a much better stride with this small-town community than I expected her to.
Side Note: A big part of what I loved about Elliot is that he's Latino and totally sexy about it. It also relates back to his family background with the heavy Catholicism
Cover: Ah, the background with the houses looks a little too fake, yet the front scene screams of a luxurious summer night that hints at a passionate romance with the wine glasses set just below the love seat. This is a cover that will not necessarily capture attention from the shelves, yet it fits the tone of the book perfectly.
Rating: 4.0 Stars
Copy: Received from publisher/publicist for review (Thank you, Eric and MIRA Books!)