Title: Barefoot Season
Author: Susan Mallery
Format: Mass Market Paperback & eBook
Publication Date: March 27, 2012
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
When it comes to contemporary romance, Susan Mallery is one of my all-time favorite authors. She writes feel-good stories with likeable heroines, and many of those stories are set in small towns. I love the family dynamics in her series, and the heroes are swoon worthy without being so good-looking that you can’t fantasize about running into one of them at the supermarket.
Barefoot Season is nothing like her contemporary romances. In fact, it’s really more women’s fiction with two romantic subplots than it is a romance. It’s a story about the friendship between two damaged yet strong women who manage to resurrect an old friendship despite overwhelming odds. I’ll admit that when I first started to read Barefoot Season I was a little worried about the angst-factor: one of the protagonists is a wounded veteran with a bad case of PTSD. But the novel is filled with humor, and I like that the two female protagonists had their immature moments but for the most part acted like reasonable adults.
The central conflict of the novel revolves around the friendship of Michelle Sanderson and Carly Williams. Right after high school, Carly caught her best friend Michelle in bed with Carly’s fiancé. Carly still married him (big mistake, right?), but Michelle joined the army and hasn’t been back to Blackberry Island in nearly 10 years. Michelle’s forced to return to the Island when she’s seriously wounded in Afghanistan and has to retire from the military. Her mother passed away nearly 6 months ago, and Michelle plans to manage the Bed & Breakfast she inherited, only to learn upon her return that Carly is managing the place for her and living in the owner’s apartment.
Carly’s had a rough time of it as well. Her husband cleaned out their savings and took off only months after their wedding, leaving Carly pregnant. Michelle’s mother offered Carly a job at the Bed & Breakfast, but she took advantage of Carly’s lack of education, and Carly has almost no money in savings and few skills. When Michelle returns, the two former friends butt heads almost immediately, and matters escalate when Michelle learns that her mother took out loans on the B & B that haven’t been paid in months.
Despite an overwhelmingly negative introduction to Michelle’s character when she first sees Carly, Michelle made the novel for me. She’s complex, stubborn, damaged, and defiant, but she’s also strong with a sense of fairness that forces her to face her role in the split with Carly. Her struggle to re-enter the world after her horrific experiences at war is moving, and you root for her to find her way back.
This novel could have been overwhelmingly depressing and dark, yet there’s a sense of lightness and renewal about Michelle’s journey. Given Michelle’s injuries and difficulties rejoining society, I found her sense of fairness towards Carly and the other workers at the B & B really appealing, and her realization that she needs Carly as much as Carly needs her is very satisfying. Both protagonists also exhibit a sense of humor, which makes reading the novel all the more enjoyable.
I also liked that Carly undergoes a transformation in the novel. She’s worked hard for years to support her daughter Gabby, and her romance (the most successful of the romantic subplots) shows us just how difficult it is for a working mother to find time for herself and for love. This romance is all the more complex, because the man Carly falls for is Michelle’s ex-husband, which could have led to more drama than it does.
The only criticism that I have of the novel has to do with Michelle’s romance with former vet Jared. She meets Jared when looking for a new place to live, and thanks to his intervention, she joins a group of veterans to work through her PTSD. Since the romance isn’t central to the plot, we see Jared and Michelle together infrequently, and I never was convinced that he considered her as more than a project, a complaint Michelle tosses at him as well. I just couldn’t get a sense of his feelings for her.
That said, this was a delightful book, and I can’t wait to read future books set on the island. The novel has many poignant moments, but in the end the strength of both women and their friendship makes for a heartwarming story. There are several discussion questions at the back of the book as well, making this an ideal book for book clubs.