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LIVING IN THE SHADOW OF A LEGEND

5 STARS

Cilla McGowan is the third person in her family to be a Hollywood child star. First was her grandmother, Janet Hardy, a legend on a par with Garland and Temple, who had died from a drug overdose some thirty-five years ago. Second is her mother, Bedelia Hardy, with less talent than her mother, but who is still on stage, knowing how to use that name and legend to her advantage in spite of her own drug use. And Cilla, with even less talent than her mother, became a Hollywood has-been by the age of sixteen. However, even prone to stage fright, fear of failure and social anxiety, Cilla eschews drugs of any kind, including aspirin.

Now, at 28, Cilla is finished stumbling through life as prescribed by her mother and her agent. Cilla has finally, over the last several years, found her true creative talent rehabbing and flipping old houses. She may not have an actor’s charisma and skill, but Cilla has an innate eye for color and design and can work magic with a sander, a saw, a hammer and a paintbrush.

Cilla’s current project is not for profit, not for monetary profit anyway. She has bought her grandmother’s Shenandoah Valley farm, a former showplace deliberately allowed to wither and die by Cilla’s mother after Janet Hardy’s demise. The property, upon completion, is to be both a tribute to her grandmother’s memory and the first real home that Cilla has ever had.

In this standalone work, Nora Roberts has crafted a lengthy tale of love and hate. It is lengthy because the paperback version is 433 pages of closely spaced, small-font type. It is also lengthy because the story spans a six-month time period, March to September. But do not equate that length with the need of an author to produce a specified quantity of words. There is no fluff, no filler; every section of every chapter leads the story forward.

Part of this tale is a story of hate. Some of the hate is fueled by the very public accident in which Janet Hardy’s son killed himself and a friend and made another friend a quadriplegic. More hate is fueled by a very private but illicit affair involving Janet Hardy, an affair that ended just after her son died and that produced a pregnancy that ended when she died. And those whose present is rooted in those past events want to make Cilla pay for Janet Hardy’s sins.

But this book is more a story of love. It is a story that starts with the conditional love of a mother who only sees Cilla as a tool to manipulate in her quest for stardom. It is a story of Cilla’s quest to love herself, in spite of a neurotic mother and an absentee father. And it is a story of finding unconditional love, given to her as a person, a friend and a life partner by the man across the road, Ford Sawyer, a well-known and talented graphic novelist.

While this novel can be classified as a 21st century contemporary romance with an element of mystery, there is nothing formulaic about it. There is no boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back format here. There is no love at first sight scenario nor is there a steamily hot sexual encounter occurring just after they’ve barely introduced themselves. What does happen is a love that builds from initial attraction through friendship to soul-deep partnership. There is incredibly witty dialogue and open honesty even when it is not what the other wishes to hear. And, while Cilla and Ford often have different opinions and ideas, they never devolve into childish histrionics nor do they ever part in anger.

And as far as the mystery plotline goes, don’t expect that to be formulaic either. Nora Roberts does not allow the reader to be omniscient as the characters blunder about. Nor does Roberts have Cilla and Ford drop everything to investigate the violence, vandalism and threats perpetrated against Cilla. Roberts has them worry about it some and protect themselves from it as best they can, but she allows them to leave it up to the police to resolve.

And Roberts holds the clues to the identity of the villains – both past and present – as close to the chest as the cards in a poker player’s hand. As much as I read mysteries, far more hard-core thrillers than cozies, I didn’t see it coming until one scene before Ford does. Roberts’ expertise in mysteries under her pseudonym of J. D. Robb definitely shines through here.

In the end, this story is not so much about bringing some villain to justice as it is about determining the truth and closing a circle. From the first page to the last word, it is a story about having a home, physically, in the heart, and in the soul.

Cover Art from Goodreads

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