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Sunday, October 22, 2006

Summer at Willow Lake by Susan Wiggs

Exploring the many facets of love and friendship, New York Times bestselling author Susan Wiggs evokes a summer in the Catskills, where family ties clash with family secrets during lazy days and hot, languid nights . . .

Real estate expert Olivia Bellamy reluctantly trades a trendy Manhattan summer for her family's old resort camp in the Catskills, where her primary task will be renovating the bungalow colony for her grandparents, who want one last summer together filled with fun, friends and family. A posh resort in its heyday, the camp is now in disarray and Olivia is forced to hire contractor Connor Davis -- a still-smoldering flame from her own summers at camp. But as the days grow warm, not even the inviting blue waters of Willow Lake can cool the passions flaring or keep shocking secrets at bay. The nostalgic joy of summers past breathes new promise into a special place and people . . . a promise meant to last long after the season ends

I've heard some good things about Susan Wiggs from other romance readers, and my curiousity was peeked after Grace read, and really enjoyed, Table For Five. So when I saw Summer At Willow Lake at Wal-Mart the other day, I decided to pick it up.

I generally enjoy longer stories, because I feel that, if written well, we become more firmly entrenched in the story and characters, and come out feeling much more satisfied than we do when reading a short story. This book, at 498 pages, seemed like just the story I needed to get me out of my slump.

Unfortunately, the problem with longer books is that if they aren't written well, they tend to just drag on and on. This book started out well, but by half-way through, I wasn't sure SW could pull off such a long novel.

Olivia Bellamy's days at camp hold no precious memories for her, so when her grandmother informs her that she and Olivia's grandfather wish to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary at the family camp, where she spent all of her childhood summers, and want Olivia herself to oversee the clean up of it, she's none to pleased. But since her third engagement has just failed, she agrees. She suckers her best friend, Freddy, into going with her and they set out to re-create the camp as it was 50 years before, when her grandparents were wed there.

Once she arrives she's forced to hire Connor Davis, her old camp flame and the only general contractor in a 50 mile radius, to help her with the renovations. Soon after, her cousin Dare and her Uncle Greg arrive, along with Greg's 2 children, Daisy and Max. What happens after that is a journey for each of them. Olivia tries to put the past behind her and to get over the hurt Connor caused her as a child. Connor himself has to fight his own demons, those of growing up with the town drunk for a father. Daisy and Max have to come to terms with their parents divorce, and just when you don't think anything else can happen, Connor's estranged teenage half-brother shows up with his own demons to fight.

This book started out really good. The book itself starts out in 2005, and then goes back to 1991 to Connor's first summer at Camp Kioga. Then it flashes forward again, and then back to 1977, the last year Olivia's father spent there. Then we see 2005 again, and 1991 and 1997 and..well, but 1/4 through the book, I was having doubts that Ms. Wiggs could continue with the constant jumping around without losing me as a reader. I'm sorry to say that's exactly what happened.

The Good: I enjoyed the story of Julian, Connor's half brother, and Daisy and Max. Plus, I liked Olivia and Connor. I enjoyed the setting of the camp as well, since it brought me back to my childhood and the one and only summer I spent at summer camp. The storyline itself was good, too. I've always been a sucker for "The One That Got Away", though I did lose interest in it for awhile. And I'm not nearly as obsessed as Grace is.

The Bad: The development of the love story between Olivia and Connor. SW spent so much time focussing on the past that she rarely included scenes from the present. Just as we were starting to get a good feel for their relationships, whether with each other or with their family members, she's jump back in time and ruin the moment. And she never seemed to pick up where she left off. For example: Lolly (Olivia) and Connor would be just about to share a kiss when Lolly would be transported back in time, remembering something that happened when she was younger, and then when SW brought us back to the present, it would be a week later and the kiss was all but forgotten.

Which brings me to:

The Ugly: The constant jumping around. From 2005, to 1991, to 2005, to 1977, to 2005, to 1991, to 2005, to 1997, to 2005, to 1991, to 1997 and so on and so on. Had she made the current story flow as well as the backstories, this might have worked wonderfully, but it seemed to me that SW got so wrapped up in writing the characters pasts she completely forgot to write their present.

As I mentioned, she jumped through weeks at at time during the present, so we never got to see Connor and Olivia fall in love today. Instead, we learned about Olivia's past with her family and Connor's shame at having a drunk for a father, but we never saw him fall in love with Lolly, or her with him. What should have been a powerful tale of What Might Have Been, instead we saw two lost souls come together with no connection to them, or emotion from them. Some of the scenes that should have moved me to tears left me feeling very unsatisfied instead, like the emotional connection I should have had with them was just out of my reach.

Overall, the story was ok. It could have been amazing, but SW lost me in all of the jumping around.

I'm giving this one a:

3 out of 5

This is the first in her new series, and I am curious enough to read the next book, because there were a lot of things left open that I feel I need closure for.

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