Rogenna Brewerís new military romance has a powerful sense of place, a vivid sense of history and some really good writing. Itís so realistic, however, that sometimes it kinda forgets itís a romance.
Tam Nguyen feels like sheís finally found her place in the world as Fish and Wildlife Warden of the Midway Islands. The product of a wartime romance between an American serviceman named Skully and the Vietnamese girl he loved, Tam lived a life of extreme hardship until, at age 15, she was recognized as an American citizen, and she and her mother were allowed to leave Vietnam for the States.
Her mother never gave up hope of finding her beloved Skully but, when Lieutenant Bowie Prince arrives on Midway, Tam doesnít suspect that he might be the link to help her mother find the man she married in her heart. What Tam does see is that Bowie is a charming, handsome man in uniform who, no matter how attracted he is to her, will be gone almost before the tide washes his footprints off the beach. Tam is not interested in repeating that part of the family history.
History does play a significant part in this book, though, and Ms. Brewer has clearly done her homework. The flashbacks to war-era Vietnam are convincing and, even without the authorís preface, Iíd have no trouble believing her experience with the Midway Islands was first-hand. Both Tam and Bowie were rounded enough to feel like multi-dimensional characters I could care about. If it sometimes felt as though Tamís horrific experiences hadnít left much of a mark on her, it also meant that she was refreshingly free of neuroses and didnít let those experiences dictate every aspect of her adult life. I like those kinds of surprises.
I enjoyed their romance, and I wanted them to be able to work things out.
So why, you may be asking yourself, if the writing is good, the characters sympathetic, and the setting realistic, do I sound as though Iím working up to a big ďbutĒ? Well, itís because I am.
The flashbacks to the war in Vietnam - however accurate and even interesting - didnít actually have anything to do with the present love story. They were about someone elseís relationship and, in spite of the similarities to the structure of Suzanne Brockmannís novels, one that went largely unexplored. The flashbacks provided lots of background, but I didnít feel they added much to our understanding of Tam and Bowieís relationship in the present (see ďrefreshingly free of neuroses,Ē above). As a result, I often found them intrusive.
Part of the reason the author didnít elaborate on the relationship between Skully and Tamís mother may have been the difficulties in making such an affair seem romantic. The fact that the then twenty-five-year-old Skully was having a sexual relationship with a fifteen-year-old girl may be a realistic portrait of a frightened, lonely boy, in constant danger in a land whose distance from home is as much psychological as it is geographical. Unfortunately that doesnít stop it from being abhorrent.
The same is true for the snapshots of wartime violence and torture. While I salute Ms. Brewerís talent in making those situations come to life so vividly, this is not what Iím hoping for when I open a romance. Verisimilitude is important, and I applaud authors who do their homework and make the setting real for me, but I thought this was too much of a good thing.
These are very personal observations on the nature of what is and isnít romantic, and this is certainly a genre in which the lines of acceptability between fantasy and reality can shift wildly, depending on the writerís skill and the readerís preferences and sensitivities. Those readers who like lots of gritty authenticity will enjoy this story even more than I did. For everyone else, I can still recommend it as an absorbing read; just be warned that it you may not always find it a comfortable one.