I’ve been known to complain about author blurbs on books, but in the case of One Mountain Away the cover quote is fitting indeed. Not only does it warn you up-front about the box of tissues you might need handy, but the quote comes from highly regarded women’s fiction author Diane Chamberlain, of whose work this book is strongly reminiscent: it contains all the intensely personal narratives, the cross-generational relationships, and the big, bold themes I’d expect from Chamberlain’s work, and given that Richards has some seventy novels under her belt, it’s little surprise that this is a confidently, richly constructed read.
After a slightly awkward beginning, one featuring a first person journal entry that feels less mysterious and intriguing than unanchored and out of place, the novel starts to settle into its stride when we switch over to a third person perspective. (The journal entries to continue to interperse the present day narrative, but they’re less intrusive as the story progresses.) Charlotte, who’s both our diarist and our protagonist, arrives at the local chapel, and the awkwardness and untimeliness of her appearance there makes us wonder just why she’s returned. We soon get the sense that Charlotte’s success as a property developer is one that’s put her at odds with many in the community, and that her arrival at the chapel is a sort of capitulation, perhaps an olive branch. Immediately we’re driven to wonder for what reason, and why now.
The narrative slowly pans away from Charlotte, giving us a broader sense of her personality, her background, and where she fits in with the small semi-rural community of Asheville. We learn that she’s a woman who has fought all her life for the success and status she now enjoys, but though both of these have helped obscure her impoverished, working-class roots, they’ve also had a deleterious effect on her personal life. Her marriage and her relationship with her daughter Taylor have both been effectively destroyed not so much by Charlotte’s career, but what her career represents: a deep fear of somehow regressing to her lowly background.
Charlotte’s intransigent, vehement mindset about her daughter being raised to have the opportunities that she herself lacked is a huge part of the wedge that has been driven between them. On some level, it was Taylor’s rebellion against Charlotte’s narrow outlook about the appropriate ways to live a life that led to the former becoming pregnant as a teen. After the birth of Taylor’s daughter, Maddie (aside: why are all kids in this genre called Maddie?), the two become estranged, ostensibly over some harsh words spoken by Charlotte, but in reality probably because it’s a rift that’s just been waiting to be formalised.
It’s now ten years later, and Charlotte is attempting a reconciliation with both her family and the town that is so ambivalent about her. A life-changing diagnosis means that time is running out for Charlotte, but she’s come to the painful realisation that though she now has the financial clout she has longed for all her life, the problems she wants to solve can’t be solved solely using money. They require getting involved on a personal level. And curiously, when Charlotte commits to wanting to do good in the world, events and situations conspire so that she can: it’s like what my husband says about the universe always giving you what you ask it for. When you realise that you have only one mountain left to climb, as Charlotte puts it, your focus and approach starts to change. And so Charlotte soon finds herself looking after a young pregnant woman, a situation that lets her “do over” her past with Taylor, helping an injured farmer by taking in a litter of pups, and smoothing over some of the difficulties that have arisen between her and her ex-husband Ethan.
This isn’t an unpredictable novel by any means, and the narrative plays out pretty much in the manner that you expect it to, as well as along the time-frame that you’d imagine. In addition to that, I did feel that some of the parallels were a little too-heavy handed, in particular the several (!) subplots involving young pregnant women or young mothers, and I did feel that the fact that Maddie was given a non-threatening but chronic condition was both a little familiar and possibly an unnecessary way of raising the stakes.
That said, this is a richly imagined read, and the characters in it come alive. I appreciated the complexity of the relationship between Charlotte and Taylor, and how that relationship was shown to have its roots in Charlotte’s childhood; and how its influence threatened to undermine Taylor’s relationship with her daughter’s father and with Taylor’s own father. Richards does an excellent job of teasing out the push and pull of these relationships, and the way that they can play such an enormous role in shaping who we are. I also appreciated the space given to developing the character of Ethan. An issue I often have with this genre is that male characters can be underdeveloped, but I felt that Richards not only fleshed out Ethan’s character, but gave him a difficult and demanding role requiring the negotiation and navigation of a number of difficult situations.
In all, this is an extremely solid read, and I’m pleased to have discovered Emilie Richards–even if it is some seventy books into her career. Richards writes assuredly and with practised skill, and her ability to create well-drawn and sympathetic characters is commendable. As noted above, comparisons with Diane Chamberlain are apt, and fans of the latter should enjoy One Mountain Away.
Rating: (very good)
With thanks to Harlequin Australia for the review copy
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