Like a good blues musician, Barbara Samuel a/k/a Ruth Wind has paid her dues by toiling in relative obscurity in the romance novel category genre. With last year’s single title contemporary release, In the Midnight Rain, the author took a big step towards capturing the larger audience that her loyal readers knew she deserved. No Place Like Home, her first hardcover, is another phase in her evolution towards mainstream women’s fiction.
After more than 20 years of self-imposed exile in New York City, Jewel Sabatino returns to her Pueblo, Colorado hometown to take up residence in the old farmhouse bequeathed to her by her late Aunt Sylvia. The timing of the legacy is fortunate. Jewel’s best friend, Michael, is dying of AIDS and can’t live on his own anymore. Her apartment is about to be turned into a condo and Jewel’s finances are dismal. So she packs up Michael and Shane, her 17-year old son, and travels to face an uncertain future in a place filled with memories of her past.
In Pueblo, Jewel is welcomed with open arms by her mother, three sisters and extended family. The one glaring omission from this happy homecoming is Jewel’s Italian-Catholic father, who hasn’t spoken to her in 20 years, ever since she ran off to New York with a handsome musician she met at the Colorado State Fair. Now that her wild days are behind her, Jewel just wants to start up a catering business, keep Shane out of trouble, and care for Michael until he can die at home. That’s more than any woman should have to handle, but Jewel’s cup is about to run over. Michael’s brother, Malachi, a wilderness guide who drifts around the world, has answered Jewel’s summons to see Michael before it’s too late. Malachi is dark, dangerous, and oh-so-attractive to Jewel, but he makes it clear he’s a leavin’ kind of guy who won’t ever be tied down. It’s nothing personal, but after observing his parents’ tragic relationship he can’t - or won’t - ever love anyone. With a dying friend, a sullen teenager and an unforgiving father, does Jewel have the desire or strength to change Malachi’s mind?
Samuel is a native of Pueblo, and she demonstrates a sharp sense of place that truly makes the setting come alive. Her delicately descriptive prose is a joy to read. Like Elizabeth Berg and Luanne Rice, Samuel has a gift for mining hidden meaning from seemingly ordinary moments of time. Give her something special, like a kiss, and she’ll take you even further:
The more he kissed me, the more peaceful I felt. Everything about my life that worried me or hurt me or scared me just slid away as I touched him. Peace came into my shoulders, spread through my chest. He felt like the smell of supper and the sound of Mass, like walking into my own bedroom and closing the door.
Her no-nonsense first person narrative endears Jewel to the reader immediately. Unlike her three virtuous younger sisters, Jewel once thought of Pueblo as dull and provincial, which led to her dramatic departure. But now she appreciates the family web that connects her with so many of Pueblo’s residents and enables her to care for Michael and Shane. Thanks to her family’s traditions, she’s a great cook, albeit one with a tendency to go overboard when stressed out. She has a wonderful self-deprecating sense of humor, as when she imagines her soul the target of an ongoing battle between June Cleaver and Madonna (the singer, not the saint). She knows that Malachi is trouble from her first sight of him - not only is he a wanderer, but he’s at least 5 years her junior - but she accepts what he can give her without regrets. Like Ellie Connor in Midnight Rain, Jewel makes no apologies for her own sexuality.
Samuel’s ability to combine humor and drama is readily apparent when Jewel tries on a hideous bridesmaid dress for her youngest sister’s wedding, and faces her still-silent father. Any author who can make me laugh and cry in the same chapter is special. However, I waited in vain for No Place Like Home to reach the transcendent level. The major sticking point for me was Malachi, the drifter with the heart of gold. From his motorcycle to his shaggy hair and his penchant for calling Jewel “Sugar,” the man was a little too clichéd compared to the other well-drawn characters in the book. I’ve seen his type before and wasn’t impressed. Instead, I wanted to spend more time with Shane, the adolescent on the cusp of a challenging life as a musician. And with Jordan, Jewel’s favorite sister, a nurse, artist and herbalist. At times it felt as if Samuel had planned to write a traditional women’s fiction novel that dealt exclusively with family relationships, but was persuaded to add the love story to maintain her romance reader base. The happily-ever-after felt tacked on and not true to the bittersweet tone of the rest of the plot.
While No Place Like Home wasn’t quite a 5-heart keeper for me, it is highly recommended. Like Bonnie Raitt, one of her musical heroines, Barbara Samuel hasn’t been an overnight success, but she’s getting the recognition she deserves in the “Nick of Time.”