Within the first chapter of Karen White’s third novel, several things are obvious. First, she’s a very talented storyteller. Second, the mayor of New York City is never going to send her a free “I New York” t-shirt. In White’s world, Small Town South = good and Big City = evil. This simplistic, black-and-white view drags down what could have been an entertaining contemporary romance.
Fifteen years after leaving the small town of Walton, Georgia, Cassie Madison is summoned home from New York City to see her father on his deathbed. She hasn’t set foot in Walton since, at the age of 20, her sister Harriet eloped with Cassie’s fiancé. Mortified and furious, Cassie refuses any contact with her sister and only sees her father once a year. Convinced that she has outgrown Walton, the successful, chic advertising executive plans to stay in Walton only as long as necessary before heading back where she belongs to her time-consuming job and sophisticated fiancé.
Cassie’s father dies the very night she arrives. When she learns that she has inherited his house, she has no choice but to remain in Walton until she can sell it. As weeks turn into months, Cassie finds it harder than she had expected to leave her hometown a second time. She renews her relationship with Harriet and her five children, and comes to care for them all. A mystery emerges about her father’s past that could have implications for the entire Madison family. Selling the house proves to be a complex issue involving real estate developers and, ultimately, the entire future of the town. Sparks fly between Cassie and Sam Parker, the town doctor, but their different viewpoints lead to as many harsh words as kisses. And just as Cassie finally starts to feel comfortable in Walton, a devastating tragedy causes her to question every decision she has made in the past 15 years.
As a former resident of the Empire State, I found it helpful to pretend that Falling Home was a fantasy novel. In place of New York City I substituted some dreary, cruel, fantasy kingdom. This pretense was the only way I could get past my annoyance at White’s narrow-minded attitude towards the metropolis. Walton is presented as a paradise where the citizens care for their neighbors, protect the weak and have their priorities perfectly in order. In New York City, however, the homeless are persecuted, manners are nonexistent and money is worshipped ahead of all else. Falling Home could have successfully portrayed Cassie making peace with her past and realizing she belongs in Walton without the moralistic condemnation of the Big Apple, so why engage in Yankee bashing? It wears thin very quickly.
I know, I should lighten up and enjoy the romance, right? Unfortunately, the love story fails as well because the hero is narrow-minded and hypercritical. Sam Parker is supposed to be the ultimate dreamboat - handsome, successful, good with kids - yet his condescending, self-righteous attitude towards Cassie borders on emotional abuse. He frequently tells her that she “should be ashamed of herself” because she’s not immediately willing to sacrifice all she has accomplished in New York and move back to Walton.
It’s impossible to appreciate the novel’s attempts to pay tribute to the joys of small-town Southern life when White seems determined to brand Cassie as a sinner who must be punished before she can reform and be redeemed. Cassie is the only character in the book who is required to change - she’s wrong and everyone else is right. Even Harriet’s earlier betrayal of Cassie is casually brushed aside. When Cassie makes the inevitable choice to “fall home” to Walton, it feels like surrender, not a triumph.
If Karen White can drop the judgmental attitude, she could be an author to watch. She writes smoothly and weaves in a variety of interesting subplots. But unless she utilizes a little more subtlety in her message next time, she’ll fall out of favor with this reviewer.