Pepper Cloud, Missouri in 1894 is home to Maddy Potter and her unique household. There is Miss Fanny, a spinster; Miss Olive, a retired actress; and Miss Adeline, who talks to her dead husband. The newest addition is a young orphan, Katie, whom Maddy is determined to adopt. She tells all that she will do Whatever It Takes to adopt Katie.
But there are complications. Maddy is a widow who has been in mourning for seven years. She runs this eccentric household. Maddy is kind to everyone, but not everyone thinks she would be the proper influence on Katie. The matrons of the town, including the self-important leader and a group of women who form the Ladies Society, indicate they may try to block Maddy’s attempts at adoption.
Maddy decides if she has a prospective husband this would be in her favor. She contacts an old friend who sends her bachelor brother out to Pepper Cloud. Maddy once did a good deed for her and this is payback. Clayton Kincaid comes to this small town from New Orleans, where he runs a successful business. He thinks he is doing his sister a favor for the family honor. He knows he is supposed to court a widow and playact that marriage is in the future. The plan is that they will be “engaged” for the adoption hearings and then once that is final, they will break it off and he is free to go.
As one might imagine, things do not always go as planned. First, Clay and Maddy are instantly attracted to each other. Yet neither can accept it and they fight their feelings. But they persevere in their plan, and Maddy and Clay do a great job of making the town think they are in love. Clay falls for Katie, and Maddy and Clay fall for each other. But they do not fully commit to each other because of their pasts. Can true love prevail?
This story is completely character driven and at times grinds to a halt because nothing is happening. To explain Clay’s presence, they say that he is a distant cousin to Maddy’s deceased husband and he is here to go through papers, looking for a deed to a piece of property. This gives Clay the excuse to hang around the house. But nothing is accomplished with this search.
Maddy, meanwhile, has no visible means of support and just lives to sketch, watch Katie and manage her household. One of the ladies sews for a living, but the only clients she seems to have are the women who work in the saloon. This leads to censor from the society ladies, and a big misunderstanding between Maddy and Clay.
Clay questions Maddy’s antics and wonders whether she would make a fit mother. But there is depth to Maddy. Everything she does appears one way on the surface, but is really her effort to improve everyone’s lives. She is not just meeting with the saloon girls…she is teaching them to read. In exchange, they are teaching her to play poker.
This “do-gooder” Maddy is just too good to be true. And she has a big secret about her husband, Winston, which is not revealed until the end of the book. This secret rules her life. Without understanding the secret, I found it difficult to be completely sympathetic with her or to understand her actions.
Clay is also a tortured hero with a secret. He is afraid of heights and thinks this makes him less of a man. He feels strongly that no woman could love him because of it. He seems to be a caring individual, but there is no real “umph” to his character.
The pace is slow, mainly because there is little happening in the story. The intention, it seems, is to slowly reveal the characters as they go about their daily life. But it goes so slowly at times as to drag. However, there is humor and situations that are engaging.
When Maddy and Clay finally start to admit they love each other and things start to pick up in pace, Griggs throws in another big misunderstanding. This plummeted the story back down into mediocrity.
Whatever It Takes is one of those stories where the promise for more is there, yet it never fully delivers.