I first read this novel five years ago and have been singing its praises ever since. To refresh my memory, I read it again – all 464 glorious pages in a single day. It’s the sort of captivating story you just cannot put down. 20 years after first being published, this book is still changing lives and touching hearts. It’s easy to see why.
The story is set during the California Gold Rush. This provides both a beautiful, cinematic backdrop and a judgemental, self-righteous society which add depth to the couple’s controversial relationship. Nonetheless, its central theme of redemptive, unconditional love is timeless.
We are eased into the tragic childhood of our damaged female protagonist. Her story’s origin is in the distressing waters of neglect and child prostitution. Immediately after this introduction, we are catapulted to her present, hardened self. Though a romance novel, reading it is far from a walk in the park. It is as much a tale of pain and misfortune as it is of love and redemption. Now an adult prostitute, she has journeyed thousands of miles from her past but remains burdened by it. In this classic but impactive move, the author piques our curiosity towards what happened in the years between. The answer is fed to us in morsels, enticing us to continue reading.
It’s a breath of fresh air from the many romance stories which are shrouded by sex that is passionate but not intimate
But – and herein lies the allure – we aren’t the only ones peeling back her defensive layers. Into her life enters a compassionate, grounded farmer who is determined to free her and help her love herself. A knight in armour as muddy as they come. As expected, she is not enamoured by him overnight. Their turbulent marriage is the soil from which the story, and her healing, grows.
This male protagonist is my favourite character. Though himself struggling with anger management and far from perfect, he repeatedly sacrifices his comfort for hers. His love is so pure and selfless that it stirs up a longing in the reader for something similar. It’s a successful presentation of God’s perfect love, which the author states the story is an allegory of.
If I detailed the many things I cherish about this book, highly placed would be the lovemaking scenes between the couple. They are sensual, but not sexually explicit. The young wife has suffered years of abusive, derogatory, self-seeking sex. Her older but inexperienced husband strives to demonstrate how it should instead be: a wholesome, mutually gratifying expression of their shared affection. It’s a breath of fresh air from the many romance stories which are shrouded by sex that is passionate but not intimate.
The character development of our leading lady is a ride down a windy country road, filled with potholes, pit stops and often headed in the wrong direction
What I’ve described may sound like a straightforward story, yet the characters are anything but. This novel’s beauty lies in their individuality: the author succeeds in bringing them to life. Our prostitute-turned-country wife is a strong-willed fighter. She holds her own against all manner of opposition. It’s a trait shared with her husband which often leads to them butting heads. Not a single thought, word or action reads as forced. They behave not to propel the storyline, but in line with who they truly are. Like all complex characters, they frustrate us. But most crucially, they grow. The character development of our leading lady is a ride down a windy country road, filled with potholes, pit stops and often headed in the wrong direction. It’s unlike any I have ever observed.
Reaching the end of the book made me nostalgic. I’d grown to love not only the main characters but the so-called supporting ones too. This author possesses the skill of revealing much about her characters in minimal scenarios. Perhaps it’s the disclosure of their intense thoughts intertwined with fast-paced action. Either way, this novel excels in what I consider the sole purpose of any romance story: it makes you want to fall in love. Like all good historical pieces should, it also left me convinced I’d been born in the wrong generation. If you desire either of those feelings, the book can be found here.