Do you remember how the 1920s book in this series was bizarre and poorly-written and a mess? This one is worse, if you can believe it.
Grace of the Wild Rose Inn, Jennifer Armstrong, 1994.
I mentioned before how there’s a book in this series set in about 1899 or so, and it’s about one of the zillions of MacKenzie daughters who wants to go to college instead of getting married, but I couldn’t lay my hands on it so for the time being (and hopefully, for all time) this is going to be the final book in this series. And thank goodness, because it really goes out with a bang. And not a good one.
On a semi-interesting note, since there’s a relatively short (temporal) period between the 1920s book and this one, we get the interesting situation of the mother in this one being the girlfriend of Drunky Bob from the last book. If you don’t commit every one of my reviews to memory (and why not?), in Claire of the Wild Rose Inn, she has a younger brother Bob who is a hopeless sodden drunk at the age of sixteen (!) and knocks up his girlfriend, Hope, during the course of the book. That pregnancy results in the protagonist of this book, Grace, and Hope is “Mrs. MacKenzie.” I feel like one of the downsides to having a romance series about the daughters of this line is that they’re constantly marrying out of the family and screwing off to Other Stuff, so instead of being a story about mothers and daughters it’s a story about aunts and nieces. Which isn’t bad! It’s just that for a series that’s based on how special this one family is, it irritates me that they’re constantly marrying out. (Maybe the book I missed was a tour de force that eliminated all my problems with this series. But I doubt it.)
Before I get too far into my senseless rambling, I will begin here. I am confident that you will not be surprised to learn that Grace MacKenzie is the beautiful current young female inhabitant of the Wild Rose Inn, and that on the very first damn page (no rest for the weary) we learn through some awkward exposition that her family has been dispensing beer in Marblehead for 300 years. She’s weirdly squeamish about cursing for a girl who grew up in a bar, though. She has a best friend named Barbie that she met working in the office of a fish factory, but more importantly: she has a boyfriend, Jimmy Penworthy, who is on his way home from serving in Europe, and she is beyond excited. As you would be, yes, of course, but you should really know that things are Not As They Seem because the girls in these damn books never hook up with one of the people from their neighbourhood. No Penworthys or Handys are ever real love interests in these books, something always happens or they find someone better. But Grace and Jimmy have been an item for years, more or less, ever since they were kids together and Jimmy was Grace’s protector/stand-in big brother/whatever.
So Jimmy is just about ready to arrive home, and we have a Touching Moment where we learn that Grace and her mother have a German refugee family working in their restaurant, and Grace has Barbie draw some stocking seams up her leg, and they toss around some “Golly!” and “Gee!” business, and then there’s a blackout. Well, that seems to clarify that this really is set in the 40s, in case that wasn’t immediately, glaringly obvious. Jimmy arrives on the bus to a tearful Grace and Mrs. Penworthy, and he brings along his handsome, grain-fed Midwesterner friend Mike. Jimmy hasn’t been home ten minutes when he’s going around bragging about how many Krauts he mowed down and whatever, and if this wasn’t a HUGE RED FLAG, then clearly you haven’t been reading the same books I have.
From the very first page that Jimmy is on, he’s a condescending asshole. (Well, obviously, because this would be a ten-page book if it was “Girl waits for boy to come home from war and they live happily ever after.”) He’s condescending about her wanting to run the Inn, about working in the fish factory, about taking in refugees, about her mother’s being a writer, you name it. He tells all these crazy war stories and immediately wants Grace to call in sick to work to go to the beach with him, and generally comes across like a gigantic ass. By contrast, every time Grace talks to his friend Mike, he’s really sweet and supportive of Grace’s plans to run the inn and do her own thing. This is the least subtle book ever.
So when Grace goes to work at the factory the next day, Jimmy turns up unexpectedly and scares the crap out of her, thinking that something is wrong or someone is hurt. He doesn’t understand why she’s upset, and Barbie tries to tell Grace that Jimmy is being a dick, but Grace doesn’t want to hear it. He then starts shitting on the inn and saying it should be more “modern,” and have a pool hall, and that Grace should get rid of the refugees, and then just when he seems like a despicable human being, he turns around and tells Grace how pretty she is. This is like a textbook example of How To Be a Lousy Partner. Grace starts to think that maybe she’s been hero-worshipping him for the past three years and things are bound to be different. Part of which is probably the fact that Grace is a teenager, and part of it is probably that Jimmy really is a douchebag.
Jimmy is lame in one leg from an injury in the war, though, so whenever Grace needs to do anything walking-intensive, Mike goes with her to keep her company. Jimmy is very trusting. It turns out he shouldn’t be, because Mike is a perfect guy and tells Grace that her plans are awesome and she is awesome and strong and brave. Grace starts to panic that she doesn’t love Jimmy after all, and frankly she shouldn’t—they go on a double date with Mike and Barbara, and Jimmy starts cracking about how Barbara is “like your mother. Full of opinions,” and like…did you really just slam her mother AND her best friend in the same sentence? That’s impressive in its crappiness. He also points out that her mother was pregnant before she was married, and like….now you’re just looking for low blows! Stop it! Not explained: was Jimmy always this crappy, or did war make him this way?
Everyone keeps needling Grace about when the engagement is going to be, and since she’s throwing a birthday party (okay, it’s a birthday party but she keeps annoyingly saying that it’s not a birthday party, it’s just a party that happens to fall on her birthday) for herself that weekend, everyone thinks there will be An Announcement. But Grace is having awkward moments with Mike, and Jimmy is starting to get suspicious of how well they get along. He bounces back and forth between being sweet and being a giant asshole, and they end up having a huge fight on a drive along the beach.
As a gesture, Jimmy offers to take Grace and Mike and Barbara out to a club the next night, which seems incredibly awkward considering that Jimmy can’t dance, but whatever, his life. Grace and Mike have got The Feelings for each other but won’t admit it, so basically this is going to go to hell in a hurry. It turns out to be every bit as cringingly awkward as you’re imagining it could be. There’s awkward silences and pauses, Grace and Mike dance at Jimmy’s request and it’s painful for everyone involved, and then Mike announces he’s going to go back to France to keep working as a medic. Grace freaks out and starts sobbing in the washroom and confesses to Barbara that she doesn’t love Jimmy after all and she’s too afraid of breaking his heart to tell him. She goes back to the table and tells Jimmy she can’t marry him, and he makes a huge scene, saying that he served his country and doesn’t deserve to be stabbed in the back as soon as he returns, and it’s because he’s a cripple and blah blah blah. So, all in all, a good night, then? Good plan, Jimmy, no way in which that could have possibly backfired.
The next day Grace goes to the Traditional Burying Ground on the Hill, where all the girls in these books go to have romantic interludes, and Mike just happens to be there wandering around as well. They fall into each other’s arms, confess their desperate and forbidden love, and Grace says she can’t trust herself to fall in love with another soldier. I really think that Grace’s problem was not that Jimmy was a soldier, but that he was a controlling, condescending ass, but that’s neither here nor there. When she gets home, Jimmy is there pleading for another chance, but just as Grace is telling him it won’t work, Mike barges in and Jimmy discovers THE AWFUL TRUTH. Although he probably should have seen it coming. They yell at each other and storm out just in time for Grace to remember that her birthday party is the next day.
She pleads with Jimmy to come so it won’t be weird, but Grace, honey, it doesn’t matter, it’s going to be awkward no matter what. Don’t invite your ex-boyfriend of two days to your birthday party when half the town is coming, too, including all of his family and everyone you’ve ever known. He agrees to come (why!!!), and the party actually turns out to be quite the hopping affair. Except that Nathan, the seven-year-old son of the German refugee family, goes missing halfway through the party, and when Grace goes out to the back to look for him, she sees Jimmy standing on the cliff having a total PTSD flashback to Normandy. Nathan has fallen over the cliff and Mike is down there trying to rescue him, but the tide is rushing in and he doesn’t know what to do. Grace jumps down to help, and Mike tells her that Jimmy froze up on Normandy, too, and couldn’t do anything. They boost Nathan up enough to rescue him, and Jimmy finally gets his head in the game to go for help, and Mike asks Grace while they’re standing in the knee-high waves fighting for their lives, they she’ll marry him if they get out of this okay. Cliché, Mike.
They’re rescued in the nick of time, and when they go back to the party Jimmy awkwardly declares that he’s a fraud and never did any of the things he said he did, and he doesn’t deserve anyone’s respect and he certainly doesn’t deserve to have Grace. Mike says why don’t he and Grace get married right now? The minister is there, after all, and so are all of their friends. So they do. The end.
Rating: D+. Okay. Let’s recap. This is horrible. Let me point out that Grace is sixteen years old in this book—by the virtue of math, and the previous book being set in 1928 and this one being set in 1944, and the fact that Grace’s mother is pregnant with her in the 1928 book, that makes her sixteen. Seventeen at the very oldest. And Jimmy is “older” than her, but he’s been in the service for three years, and he had to be at least 17 to join, so he’s at least twenty and possibly twenty-one by this point. So we’re already in weird territory, but considering that the plot of this book is “Teenage girl’s boyfriend returns from war only to find that she doesn’t love him anymore, and she falls in love with his best friend instead,” the age thing isn’t helping anything. And not even in 1944 should sixteen-year-old girls be getting married on the spur of the moment to guys they’ve known for like, a week. You know nothing about Mike other than that he’s an orphan, Grace! He could be an axe murderer! He could be wanted to three states!
My other problems with the book are manifold: like all these books, setting in the time period is less about trying to intelligently portray the attitudes and mores of a period and more like just throwing in some period-appropriate details. As usual. The plot is pretty thin, and the “emergency” shoehorned in at the end has nothing to do with anything and serves to do nothing but awkwardly shove the characters together. This is just….awkward. It’s awkward for the characters, it’s awkward for the reader, it’s clunky and features a lot of poor decision-making shoehorned under “romance.” This is not great. This is not great in a series of not-great books.