In this third novel in the Damaged Heroes series, author Sandy James has given us an emotional and compelling story set in contemporary times and focused on the post-war trauma to a good man who is paying dearly for his willingness to serve his country.
Lucas Mitchell was a solid citizen, one who had been raised in a family that took values and the old-fashioned American work ethic seriously. This horse-breeding family business was the foundation of their livelihood and what the setting in which Lucas learned how to be a real human being. But as is often the case, he wanted to "see the world" and to experience something other than horses. So he enlisted and found himself smack dab in the middle of an armed conflict in Iraq. Along with his best buddy Brad, he waded right into the middle of the fray and as is the case more often than not, their Hummer ran right over a hidden explosive device, causing mortal injury to Brad and severe burns to Lucas as he tried to save his friend. His failure to save his friend's life is the ghost that walks with him now that he is home and the owner of an old fixer-upper Victorian mansion, one that looks just like "the money pit." He bought the property because he felt "drawn" to the house.
Unbeknownst to Lucas, a young Gypsy artist, Joy Kovacs, has also felt drawn to this house that seems to be falling down around itself. She quietly but persistently arrives at the location, remains hidden from Lucas' view, and proceeds to do sketch after sketch of both him and his house. He only discovers her efforts when he sees his house in her sketches and paintings at her booth at the fair. Now he is not only drawn to the house but to the artist as well. So impressed with her work is he that he commissions the portrait of his niece as a birthday gift for his sister-in-law. It also keeps him in touch with Joy.
Like all good stories, there is conflict aplenty but the conflict takes two major forms: 1) Lucas' never-ending struggle with his post-traumatic stress disorder and his overwhelming guilt related to Brad's death; 2) Joy's family--an American-born Gypsy family with strong traditions that stem from their Hungarian roots and which are now binding Joy to an arranged marriage and expectations for ownership in the family restaurant business. Both these strands of difficulty seem intractable and seemingly with no resolution. Joy wants Lucas, pure and simple, and she has absolutely no intention of marrying the man chosen for her by her father. She is an artist and wants to attend art school. She has saved her money and enrolled, only to have to postpone this part of her life repeatedly due to her family's interference. Yet she loves her family and is not sure if she can find a way to successfully move her life according to her own choices rather than theirs. Lucas seems unwilling to face his demons--not unlike many ex-military personnel who struggle with this set of mental and emotional trauma. He, like so many, just think they can deal with it by using sex, drink, drugs, overwork, etc, yet the nightmares and the panic never seem to really go away. But with his growing attraction to Joy and the realization that he is not willing to move forward without her, he has some important life choices facing him.
This novel deals very directly with the ravages of war on those who willingly go into the fray that we are experiencing today as a country. When the shooting is over (and we hope that is soon for everyone's sake), there will still be thousands who must deal with the nightmares, the PTSD, survivor's guilt, and all the physical wounds and deformities that will be constant reminders of that terrible experience. Lucas stands as a metaphor for all these "walking wounded" who continue to suffe long after the fact. Joy is also a very engaging character in that she is symbolic of so many that are seeking to transition into a more contemporary way of ordering one's life, moving away from binding traditions without leaving behind the love and connection of one's family and friends. This novel deals openly with the prejudice that grows out of an adherence to old traditions that are kept for their own sakes, not because they are useful or productive. This family bears the scars of the Holocaust and Joy's father, even though he was American-born, found it impossible to move on from the hurt and decimation of that terrible time. His insistence that the only way their tradition/their family could be preserved was to do as he said left Joy with few options, and in the face of her decision to live according to her needs and dreams flew in the face of her father's fears.
This story is about the reality of a love that can stand being tested by difficulty, old wounds, prejudice, anger, and hostility. It is a story of healing that can and will come about through facing one's fears and angers, accepting forgiveness when it is offered, and recognizing that the future does not need to be held hostage to the past. Powerful lessons that most of us have to learn, that's for sure. I felt this novel was one that reached out and grabbed my heart and didn't let go until the last word was read. The story was very well-written, the characters were real, damaged, flawed, and so believable. The family loyalty which Lucas experienced was powerful and far-reaching in its influence in his life. And Joy's need to believe that their love could survive is one of the best parts of the story.
I recommend this novel for lovers of contemporary romance as it is a full-length novel and thus has sufficient length to insure that the characters and the story are well-developed and fleshed out. It was a very, very good read and one that will be on my "favorites" and to-be-re-read lists. I give this novel a rating of 5 out of 5.
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