Catch of the Day

A Father's Promise

Wife in Name Only

Harbor Nights by Marcia Evanick
(Zebra, $5.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-8217-7708-4
Twenty-four-year old Norah Stevens and her forty-four-year-old mother Joanna have moved to the small Maine town of Misty Harbor, the setting of many of Marcia Evanick's recent novels. Here, Norah has found a job at the local newspaper. Joanna had put up with and concealed her husband's violent abuse for years, but the day he hit the hitherto clueless Norah because she stepped in to protect her mother was the last straw. She broke a lamp on his head and divorced him. Now she is concerned that this incident will permanently destroy her daughter's faith in men and put her off love for life.

Indeed, Norah trembles with fear every time she sees a big man approach, including her new neighbors' son Ned. Despite being the smallest and youngest of the Porter brothers, he still has the requisite breadth and height of the quintessential log-home builder. Which is why Norah tries hard to deny her attraction.

As for Ned, he is fascinated by the five-feet-nothing fairy-like creature he finds under his mother's rosebushes. At first, he has a few qualms about pursuing such a fragile-looking person whose numerous ear studs and many toe rings, not to mention spiked, bright red hair, make her a far cry from the hearty, outdoorsy woman he normally prefers. Pretty soon, however, he decides she is the one for him. He is determined to overcome her fear and distrust of men and to show her the upside of roughing it - even if it means butting horns over the wisdom she promotes in her weekly column.

Meanwhile, Joanna has decided that the only remedy for her daughter's loss of confidence is to provide a counter-example herself. After finding a job at a local art gallery, where her neurotic Pomeranian is considered a plus because it can entertain children while the parents shop, she accepts a date from a local artist. Very rapidly, their acquaintance turns into something more serious. In no time at all, both mother and daughter are sailing towards happy-every-after thanks to their good-hearted, small town men.

Although there is potential here for heavy-going inner conflict, Harbor Nights is light-hearted entertainment. It plots the characters growth and development, but avoids agonizing introspection and self-flagellating guilt to highlight instead the welcoming care and boisterous warmth of a small town community. Unfortunately, however, the novel depends too much on oft-recycled situations for humor and uses too many derivative scenes as stepping-stones towards the foreseeable climax. Worse, these episodes don't always ring true to the characters. When Ned wants to spend more time with Norah, he asks her to help him baby-sit his nieces and nephews. Not exactly my idea of a promising first date and especially not for a woman who has had less experience with children than he has. Somehow it works its magic. When Ned's sister-in-laws ask Norah to help them highlight their femininity and recapture the romance of their marriage, she takes them to a lingerie shop, even though nothing in her wardrobe implies an expertise in corsets and thongs. On the other hand, I was expecting Norah to moan and scream when Ned gives her a taste of his favorite activity, hiking in the wilderness. Sure enough, a spider on her arm has her squealing almost as loudly as I was huffing in disgust.

Despite these expressions of stale humor, I did warm to the characters. Joanna's determination to rebuild her life is inspiring, Ned's concern for Norah is touching, and Norah's decision to do the right thing professionally regardless of what it might mean for her relationship rings true. Too bad, Evanick does not match these admirable characters with stronger, more resonant episodes. As it is, Harbor Nights has all the potential for a compelling warm-hearted story, but lacks the depth and the originality to carry it through. Its over-familiar scenes and recycled humor don't do much more than help pass time.

--Mary Benn

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