So as regular readers of my blog will know, I do enjoy some relaxing reading, especially when things are really busy at work and I’m feeling a bit stressed. And, of course, in February in Ohio, there’s nothing I’d rather do than dream of spring! After enjoying Nora Roberts’s Bridal Quartet so thoroughly, and her Chesapeake Bay Saga fairly well, I decided to give another of her series a whirl.
I was completely attracted to the In the Garden Trilogy, because who doesn’t read books where the main characters work together in a family-owned garden center??
Rosalind Harper is a widow (theoretically in her mid-50’s, as she has adult sons running around). Her husband died while her children were still at home, and if Roz wanted to continue living in the old mansion that had been in her family for generations, she knew she would have to find a way to support herself and her boys. She took a gamble with her life savings and opened a small garden center that, for the last 15-20 years before our books begin, has slowly developed into a successful business.
So successful, in fact, that at the beginning of the first book, Blue Dahlia, Roz is looking to hire a manager. Because of the personal nature of her business, Roz wants to make sure she finds just the right person – and she does, in the form of Stella Rothschild, who is the actual heroine of this book.
Stella is also a widow with young sons to support. Since her husband died a year or so earlier, Stella has decided to move from their home in Michigan to be closer to her parents in Tennessee.* The opportunity to work at In the Garden is a godsend, especially since the job includes housing in a wing of Roz’s rambling house. Luckily, Stella and Roz hit it off right away, and Stella falls in love with her new job, where she feels fulfilled and content.
Of course, there’s always a cloud on the horizon, and Stella’s is in the form of Logan, Roz’s landscaping expert. While Stella delights in spreadsheets, filing cabinets, and triplicate forms, Logan’s idea of “organized” is to scribble a thought on a half-used napkin and throw it on the dashboard of his truck. Sparks are inevitable.
I really liked Stella and Logan, and liked their chemistry. Logan is a great hero (seriously, who doesn’t want to marry a landscaper?!), and I really related to Stella and her bordering-on-obsessive ideas of organization and planning. Their relationship grew really organically, and I also appreciated Stella’s commitment to the care and happiness of her sons ahead of her own, while at the same time learning that just because their needs come first doesn’t mean that her needs shouldn’t be addressed at all.
So far, so good, right? But now we come to the weird part. I realized that I kind of forgot to mention, when I reviewed the Chesapeake Bay Saga, the one part of those books that was kind of weird: the fact that each of the characters had conversations with their dad… after he died. A sort of ghost/vision kind of thing. But it wasn’t a huge part of the books, and it felt okay, if still a little strange.
But the In the Garden trilogy takes it to a whole new level. Roz’s home is haunted by a ghost known as the Harper Bride. She’s been there for generations, and all of the children that have grown up there have seen her, singing to them when they fall asleep. She sometimes appears to women, but never to men after they leave their childhood behind. When Stella moves in, the Harper Bride begins visiting her sons, which, naturally weirds Stella out a good bit. But Roz, and her (adult) son Harper (not confusing when a son’s first name is his mother’s maiden name which she took back after the death of her husband/disastrous divorce from her second husband) reassure Stella that the Harper Bride has never been dangerous – she just loves children.
Despite this, something about Stella’s situation, as she begins to fall in love with Logan, antagonizes the Harper Bride, who begins to manifest herself more and more, and starts to get a little strange and even violent. She also starts influencing Stella’s dreams, which feels super creepy. It becomes a pretty big part of the story, especially towards the end, and I found myself getting more and more confused about why I was reading a ghost story. (Also confused about why the Harper Bride, after generations of peaceful coexistence, is suddenly going all haywire.) Still, everything wraps up at the end, and the conclusion is basically that they need to start working on discovering who the Harper Bride really was (is) since no one seems to know.
This leads us into book two, Black Rose, which focuses on Roz herself. Like I said, Roz is a little older. Her first husband died when they were still young. Later, Roz remarried, but her second husband was a total shyster who stole her money while cheating on her. After divorcing him, Roz decided she was off men forever. But as she tries to look more into the mystery of the identity of the Harper Bride, she decides that she needs some expert help. She finds and hires Dr. Mitchell Carnegie, who is a fabulous nerdy hottie, a definite absent-minded professor type, who finds himself immediately attracted to Roz’s independence and intelligence – and it helps that she’s still pretty good looking herself.
I really enjoyed watching their relationship develop, especially as it meant that Roz was going to have to face some of the baggage from her second marriage that she had sort of swept under the rug instead of facing head on. Her second husband is such a terrible guy that it was super fun to watch her destroy him.
However, once again the Harper Bride begins to interfere in the relationship, and the whole thing got really weird. I was super confused by everyone’s attitude towards the Bride, which seems to be gently conciliatory, despite the fact that she’s getting weird and violent.
Book three focuses on Hayley Phillips. Hayley showed up in the first book, a distant cousin of Roz’s. Single and pregnant (and still pretty young, around 20), she was in desperate need of a job and a home. Roz took her in on probation, but Hayley fit right into the household. Her daughter is born in Black Rose, and by the time Red Lily opens, little Lily is a toddler, and super adorable. Lily is also really attached to Roz’s son Harper, who lives in the old carriage house on the property. Hayley is attracted to Harper as well, but of course has all these reasons in her mind that a relationship with him is a bad idea.
While I really liked Hayley as a person, and definitely liked Harper, there was this HUGE thing about Hayley’s character that just antagonized me to no end. Hayley is a single mom. She became pregnant after the sudden death of her father, when a guy she had known as a friend for a while became a little friendlier as she struggled through her grief. She admitted that it wasn’t a situation where he took advantage of her, but rather one where she felt the need to be close and comforted. So then this guy goes back to college, and then a few weeks later Hayley finds out she’s pregnant. She goes to tell the guy, and when she meets up with him, all he can talk about is this girl he’s fallen in love with and how he knows she’s “the one,” etc. Hayley is totally fine with this because she was never in love with this guy and they never had an pretense of a long-term/exclusive relationship, but she decides that if she tells this guy about the baby, it will ruin his life and his chance at happiness, so it’s better for him just not to know.
!?!!??!?!?!?! Excuse me??? That is his baby, and YOU just arbitrarily decide that he doesn’t deserve to know of her existence!? How incredibly arrogant. And I just couldn’t get past it. Couldn’t get past the fact that she is hiding the existence of this adorable, precious baby because she’s basically selfish and doesn’t want to share, and then pretends like it’s all for these unselfish reasons, as though she has the right to decide what is for “the best” for the baby’s dad, or even that it’s for “the best” for her baby to never know her real father. Wow. I just couldn’t get over that. It annoyed me from the very beginning when Hayley showed up in the first book (especially when she was like, “Yeah, I thought about getting an abortion but then I changed my mind,” like seriously, not only would you not tell this guy about the baby and give him a chance to know about it, but you would also just murder it without getting his permission?!??! That seems just astoundingly arrogant to me), and I really hoped for some resolution with that situation in third book, but instead we basically just get Hayley shrugging it off like it’s no big deal that this guy has an actual child from his own loins wandering around and he has no right to even know that she’s alive. Just wow. So brutally selfish, and such a prime example of how stupid our culture is, where just because a woman’s body houses an unborn baby, it somehow means that she should be the only person who makes any decisions about that child’s life.
ANYWAY okay, rant over, it just still bothers me and I finished these books a month ago. But back to the story.
The other reason that Red Lily just ended up being strange instead of enjoyable was that the whole Harper Bride aspect kicked up to a whole new level, with the Bride basically possessing Hayley for short spurts and it was ridiculously creepy and bizarre. I’ve mentioned that Roberts sometimes goes into a little more detail with her sexy times than I like, and there is one scene where Hayley and Harper are actually getting it on and the Bride basically steps in and takes over Hayley’s body/mind!?!?! WHAT!? The whole ghost thing just got over-the-top weird, and kept getting weirder.
In the end, I enjoyed the first two books at around a 3/5 level, but the final book was a low 2/5, and we’re probably looking at a 2/5 for the series as a whole. The ghost story was just too much for me, especially in the third book. I wanted to like these books because I absolutely LOVED the garden center part, and the parts where everyone is a super happy family working together. There is tons of happy dialogue, fun times, and engaging conversations, with good chemistry in the romances and in the friendships. I love the way that Roberts values family and friendships just as much as she does romantic relationships – I think that that is a large part of why I enjoy her books so much. But in the end, the paranormal part just hijacked the entire storyline, and it was too, too bizarre for me.
On the other hand, if you like weird ghost stories mixed in with your romance, this may be the series you’ve been looking for…
*Okay, so I’m not 100% sure it was Tennessee, because it’s been a little while since I read these books and they’ve already gone back to the library. But it was definitely a southern state. There’s an outside chance that it was Virginia. But I’m pretty confident that it was Tennessee. I think.