I can count on one hand the number of romance novels that have ever moved me to tears. Lorraine Heath's classic Always to Remember sits at the top of that elite list, head and shoulders above the rest. In the ten years since its initial publication, it has only gained power, as its themes seem even more relevant in a time of war. Poignant, heartbreaking and uncommonly wise, it's a remarkable story that represents the very best of what the genre has to offer.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, Clayton Holland lives as an outcast in his hometown of Cedar Grove, Texas. During the war he refused to fight for the Confederacy, unwilling to raise arms against other human beings. As a result he was sent to prison and nearly executed for his purported crime. Most of the men who left to fight - friends and neighbors he'd known his whole life - died in battle, while Clay returned to Cedar Grove after the war to face the scorn and hatred of the townspeople. Derided as a coward, he lives an isolated life on his family farm with his brothers: Lucien, who hates him and wishes he'd never returned, and nine-year-old twins Joe and Josh.
Meg Warner's husband Kirk was Clay's best friend since childhood, but she lost him and several of her brothers to the war. Every time she sees Clay it's like having salt rubbed in the still festering wound, his presence a constant reminder of how he betrayed and dishonored those closest to her by refusing to fight by their side. Determined to make him suffer, she devises a plan. Clay is a talented sculptor, so she hires him to carve a memorial to the men Cedar Grove lost in the war, hoping that working on it will force him to face his cowardice. But the more time she spends with him, the more she comes to see a far different man than the one she thought she knew.
This is a gentle, character-driven story with a slowly unfolding romance, as the author artfully portrays Clay and Meg's growing relationship and the gradual thawing of her feelings from hatred to love. The evolution of those feelings is subtle, natural and completely believable. Heath explores the hearts of both characters, making them live and breathe on the page. The intimate scenes are more than just requisite romance novel sex, but an integral part of their developing relationship and character growth. It's a testament to how complex this story is that falling in love doesn't solve all their problems or end the conflicts between them, but raises new ones that must be dealt with as well.
Clay is no one-note martyr, but a complicated, multifaceted human being. He displays both strength and vulnerability, and though he's uncommonly patient with the people who treat him so poorly, even he has his limit and is capable of anger. He's one of the strongest romance heroes I've ever encountered, not because he's physically powerful or alpha, but because he has the courage to stand by his convictions in the face of so much hatred and opposition no matter the great personal cost. As we learn what happened to Clay in prison, it becomes clear that a weaker person would have broken long before the book began. I've liked many romance heroes, but there aren't many I would say I actually respect. I truly did respect Clay. Heath handles the subject matter with an admirable even-handedness. She doesn't diminish those who did fight to make Clay look more noble. Instead, the story shows just as much admiration for them as for Clay, as they too did what they believed was right.
Anyone who's read as much romantic suspense as I have has seen a wide variety of cruelties committed against heroes and heroines, yet few have hit me as hard as what Clay and others experience in this book. The reason these acts are so devastating is that they aren't perpetuated by moustache-twirling villains or evil psychotics whose characters and actions are so broad and over-the-top that the reader doesn't feel them so personally. The guilty parties here are regular people driven by intolerance and small-mindedness to acts of hatred and cruelty. From the petty indignities to the brutal attacks, their behavior is based entirely in human nature and so is painfully real. It's chilling what these people do and how they treat someone for the sole reason that he refused to raise a weapon against another human being. I didn't just weep for Clay, but because I had no trouble believing people would act like this. That's as heartbreaking as anything else.
And yet, this book is not depressing. Many of the moments I found affecting weren't based in sorrow, but in the unexpected kindnesses Clay receives. There's Meg's grandmother-in-law, who displays the wisdom of someone who's lived long enough to keep an open heart and mind. Her encounter with Clay is tremendously touching. His twin brothers are two of the best child characters I've ever come across in a romance novel. Realistically quirky and rambunctious, they provide the story with moments of humor and non-cloying sweetness, but also display the innocence and open-heartedness of which only children are capable. Their struggle to understand why everyone hates Clay, their loyalty to him, and their interactions with Meg (the sole woman in their life since their own mother is dead) are all poignant and add a great deal to the story.
Most romance novels are lucky to deliver one big emotional moment or scene that embeds itself in the mind of the reader. This one has enough for several books. The final third in particular is a rising crescendo of emotion that builds as it proceeds, with scenes of devastation, confrontation, revelation, redemption, forgiveness and love that take the story to its satisfying ending.
One thing that struck me this time around is the simplicity and understatement in the author's prose. Many authors would embellish their writing to underline every emotion and hit every beat particularly hard. Heath doesn't do that, allowing the emotions of the story to stand for themselves. It's a much more effective technique, because this story is so plainly emotional that it doesn't need the author indicating what the reader should be feeling. To do so would risk becoming overwrought or melodramatic. Instead it's truly, honestly emotional.
Few, if any, romance novels have ever struck me as deeply or meant as much as Always to Remember. Rereading it for this review, I found myself in tears so often I started to wonder if I was suffering from some kind of neurological condition that causes spontaneous facial leakage. But no, I was simply experiencing the power of this most remarkable book. A highly deserving RITA winner in 1997, it's a peerless blend of character, realistic issues, and heart, and a truly unforgettable read.
-- Leigh Thomas
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