|I should probably compare Emilie Richards’ third installment in her “Shenandoah Album” series to an intricately-patterned quilt, since that theme links the books together. However, as I read Lover’s Knot my thoughts turned instead to music – to be precise, a single graceful melody line gradually joined by variations that echo and expand the theme. What starts out as a simple story about a troubled married couple becomes a complex saga of multiple relationships impacted by echoes from the past.
Kendra and Isaac Taylor have a sterile marriage based on “enthusiastic sex and stimulating conversation” that excludes meaningful discussions about their hopes and dreams. Isaac works many overtime hours at a Washington D.C. non-profit environmental conservation organization while Kendra has built a reputation as a tireless investigative newspaper reporter. The flimsiness of their relationship is revealed when an ailing Kendra makes an ill-advised late-night trip to the pharmacy because Isaac is working past its closing hours. She is car-jacked and shot, requiring weeks of hospitalization and rehabilitation. Angry at Isaac because he wasn’t there for her, and traumatized by the brutal crime, Kendra takes refuge at a rustic cabin in Toms Brook, Virginia that once belonged to Isaac’s grandmother Leah Spurlock Jackson.
Renovating and expanding the cabin provides Kendra with solace, as do visits from the neighbors she met during her first visit to the area, including Sam and Elisa from Endless Chain, the previous Shenandoah Album novel. She also uses her investigative skills to uncover more information about the mysterious Leah, a skilled healer who came to Toms Brook during the Depression with an infant daughter in tow but no sign of a husband. As she puzzles over the inexpertly crafted Lover’s Knot quilt that Isaac also inherited, Kendra gains a better understanding of her emotionally distant husband, who was put up for adoption by Leah’s daughter and raised by a physically abusive Air Force officer and his cowering wife. Isaac slowly starts to open up with the help of a parentless teenaged boy and a cat with more than nine lives. But it’s not until Kendra and Isaac learn the truth about the devastating tragedy that brought Leah to Toms Brook that the hurt and anger of the past are finally put to rest and they take their first steps towards building a new, closer relationship. In the process they decipher the secret message of Leah’s Lover’s Knot quilt.
Lover’s Knot may sound like a typical “can this marriage be saved?” saga, but in Richards’ skilled hands the novel becomes much more compelling as the main theme’s variations are gradually introduced. Isaac isn’t the only one in the marriage with intimacy issues; Kendra’s own problems surface when her troubled younger sister shows up in Toms Brook with her two children. The addition of the quiet, lonely teenager allows both Isaac and Kendra to reach beyond their comfort zones, and some less than ideal pets provide comic relief. The Depression-era flashback scenes told from Leah’s point of view expand the themes of love and trust, as well as educating readers about the eminent domain policy that the government used to establish the Shenandoah National Park, creating desperately needed jobs at the cost of many residents’ livelihoods. It’s sadly ironic that the eminent domain arguments are still plaguing our country today, more than 70 years later. Richards doesn’t shy away from portraying both sides of the issue, just as she demonstrates how even a well-intentioned organization such as Isaac’s environmental protection organization can compromise its principles despite a laudable goal.
Lover’s Knot is very different from 2005’s Endless Chain, with little of the dramatic tension of that book’s star-crossed love affair between the heroine with a secret and the hero in exile. Isaac and Kendra don’t have the fireworks, but their reconciliation is no less satisfying, especially in the light of what they learn about Leah’s history. It’s also refreshing to see that not all of their problems have fairy-tale happy-ending resolutions. Sometimes acceptance of a difficult reality is the best possible ending.
Richards writes in her introductory note that, although this series was originally intended as a trilogy, she plans to write additional Shenandoah Album novels. Lover’s Knot introduces the reader to several potential protagonists of future novels, although they are well-integrated into the story and not mere “sequel bait.” I’m glad to know that Richards’ books are selling well enough for her to be able to continue the series. When it comes to consistently intelligent, thoughtful and satisfying Women’s Fiction, it is difficult to find an author that can match her accomplishments.