“Autumn Violets” by Nuala Reilly is a romance novel about the long and measured courtship of Moira and Jack, the former a small bakery owner, and the latter an advertising designer. Both of them begin with cynical attitudes towards relationships. Moira’s most recent partner was unfaithful, and Jack seems to prefer short lived flings and one night stands. Yet both of them are also enduring a crisis in their private lives. In Moira’s case, the crisis is her sister Sloan’s upcoming wedding, and for much of the novel Sloan is a demanding Bridezilla who creates stress for everyone around her. Jack’s crisis is his father Kevin, who is suffering from cancer, and who may have only a few weeks to live. The story is about how Moira and Jack find in each other a rock of stability.
The courtship is in many ways understated. There are few outstanding obstacles preventing Moira and Jack from getting together, other than their own hesitation. While they have reasons for hesitating, still those reasons didn’t have to do with each other: they have to do with doubts about the value of relationships in general. At times it seems as if the crisis in each of their lives drives them to seek each other out, in search of the love they’re not finding elsewhere. But at other times it appears as if the crisis in each of their lives is really happening to other people, not to them. Moira’s crisis is happening to her sister, and Jack’s crisis is happening to his father. Thus the tension in their lives is mainly with third parties, not with each other. For this reason the sub-plots about those tensions with third parties often became curiously more interesting than the main plot. That the two of them should eventually fall in love is almost a foregone conclusion. Jack is handsome, accomplished, and generous, but he’s no Mr. Darcy: he has rather few ambiguous features. Even his love for his dying father is uncomplicated: he is in need of healing, but he’s not in need of a change of attitude. And Moira, although criticized by her friends for her domineering streak, isn’t often seen dominating anyone. For the most part we see her at work in her bakery, where she enjoys complete life-fulfillment, and we also see her trying to stoically survive her sister’s egotism, or put away the pain from her previous relationship. Moira and Jack are already perfect for each other; they just take their time discovering that fact.
There’s a cinematic quality to the scenes in which our two heroes spend time together. For instance, when they first meet they accidentally spill coffee or baking ingredients on each other, and use those accidents as a starting place for a shared history. As their attraction to each other grows, the author paints pictures of the moment: but the descriptions of these moments are often minimalist, and it feels like the reader is asked to visualize the scene on their own. In one place, for instance, a scene is described as “like a Marx brothers movie”. (There are several places where it feels as if the author is writing a screenplay, not a novel.) And sometimes the author will describe in detail things that have little direct relation to the plot, such as the problems that resulted when Moira hired workers just after first opening her bakery. But at other times, when the two characters go out on a date together after a day of stress in their separate lives, its easy to fall into the feeling of the moment. There’s a lovemaking scene during a storm which is enjoyably steamy; and there’s a dialogue between Moira and Jack’s father which is perhaps the most artfully crafted scene in the whole novel. The only trouble is that the moments which are easiest to visualize are the ones having to do with the sub-plots.
Overall, there’s an honesty and a simplicity about Jack and Moira’s courtship which I think is admirable. Love happens to our protagonists as they slowly and almost timidly reveal their wounds to each other, and heal each other. I can’t think of a better way for love to grow.
And here’s a last comment for the trivia buffs out there. Author Nuala Reilly is my sister, and the events of “Autumn Violets” take place in the same town where I set the action of my novels. We just disguise the town under different names. Let the literary tours begin!