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Fireside by Susan Wiggs

My family and I spent the second half of June on vacation in Hawaii. We had all been looking forward to the trip for a long time for different reasons. My husband wanted to relax. The kids wanted to swim. Me? On some coldish winter day this last year, I found a photo of a canopied bed next to the beach. I imagined my husband and me lying on this bed, reading, as the kids played in the sand a little further away.

After two weeks, all four of us left the Big Island thoroughly charmed. As for our vacation goals? Well… the kids definitely swam. And to my surprise, one of the places we stayed had an approximate of the bed I imagined, though it’s location – not on the beach – made it impractical. Would our kids sit in the bushes next to it, waiting for my husband and me to read and relax? Yeah, right.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, I read a whole lot less than I thought I would. But one of the books I did manage to read, Fireside by Susan Wiggs, is worth noting.

Up until a couple months ago, I hadn’t even heard of Wiggs. Her small-town women’s fiction/romance series isn’t what’s trendy, but she sells. So I picked up this book with the question, what is she doing well? Anyone whose books continue to please readers over many years has to be doing something right.

Fireside begins in an airport. Kimberly van Dorn is returning from LA after a humiliating public break-up with her boyfriend/PR client. Minor league baseball pitcher Bo Crutcher is meeting the 12-year-old son he’s never met but is now responsible for. Hero and heroine clash at the airport and then, unknowingly, head back to the same small town. Romance ensues, impeded by Kimberly’s wariness to get involved with another athlete as well as Bo’s new-found struggles with parenthood.

Both the beginning and the end of this book tend toward romance cliché, but it was the chapters in between that caught my attention. The characters’ struggles felt real and complex, and that includes the minor characters whose perspectives we get as well. I was impressed that Wiggs didn’t always (as many authors tend to do) use conflict to raise the emotional stakes. Instead, she explored what felt like very realistic hold-ups in the relationship, such as a new father without a history of caretaking trying to figure out what’s best for this stranger who is also his son.

Wiggs also takes on the topic of how U.S. citizens of Mexican descent can become swept up in border immigration issues. Bo’s son comes to him because his mother was detained and deported in a factory raid, despite the fact that she is, in fact, a U.S. citizen. She just doesn’t have the right documentation when she needs it. Untangling this mess takes time, which leaves her son with no parent at home.

Does this happen in real life? Of course. Wiggs explores this issue both from Bo’s and from his son’s perspective without overdramatizing it. In other words, each character’s reactions felt personal. What I most admired was the emotional paths of the different characters. The romance was just okay, but the characters themselves felt real, enough so to make me want to try another of her books again.

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