Joe Lakota was a star pro-football player until an injury on the field sidelined his career for good. Now he is coaching, but the bright lights of fame and fortune have started to dim for him. He recently gained custody of his young son, Zachary, from his abusive drug-addicted mother, and Joe finds that he wants nothing more than to make a quiet life for the little boy away from all the cameras and reporters. Lately, he has been thinking a lot about his small hometown and his high-school sweetheart, the only girl he ever truly loved. After a particularly bad run-in with the paparazzi involving his son, the decision to move home to Laurel Creek and coach football at the local high-school becomes an easy one for Joe to make.
Marilee Nelson had grown up with Joe and been best friends with him for most of their lives. By the time they were teenagers, that friendship had blossomed into love, and they were making plans to get married. When Marilee suddenly broke off their engagement, saying she didn't love him anymore, Joe was heartbroken, but in truth, neither of them has ever stopped loving each other. When Joe returns to Laurel Creek, he discovers some things about Marilee's life during the past decade which make him start to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and realize that there was far more to that night when she gave back her ring than he ever knew at the time. Now Joe is determined to rekindle their friendship and possibly more, and when his mother, who has been babysitting Zachary for him, falls ill, leaving him with no one to watch his son, the perfect door is opened to accomplish that. It takes a lot of sweet talking for Joe to convince Marilee to allow him and Zachary into her life again, but once she does, Mari can't help but instantly fall in love with the little boy and his daddy too. The only problem is that Marilee is afraid to allow Joe to get too close for fear that he will learn everything about the night she broke up with him. When she can hardly face that truth herself, how can she possibly come clean with Joe so they can have the life together they've always dreamed of?
After a string of so-so reads, one of my favorite authors, Catherine Anderson, finally came through for me with a book that not only had the emotional development that I had been craving, but also packed quite an emotional punch. Ms. Anderson is masterful at creating moving stories that deal realistically with various human traumas, and Seventh Heaven is no exception. In fact, I think it may be the most realistic of her books that I've read to date. In my opinion, this book probably comes as close as an author can get in a less than 400-page novel, to a genuine and believable portrayal of a woman who has experienced the trauma that Marilee had, at least in her intensity of feelings and reactions. For ten years, Marilee dealt with these issues on her own, with absolutely no help, because she felt both shame and fear. What initially seemed like rather weak reasoning though, eventually became a very complex web of emotional twists and turn that made Mari's reticence in seeking help quite credible, and her entire story quite heartbreaking. Sensitive readers should know that these traumatic events are the driving force behind the plot, and in addition there are also some gut-wrenching scenes involving the abuse of Joe's young son, Zachary. Anyone who is looking for a light read definitely won't find it here, but those who want a good book that tugs on the heartstrings, should really like this one.
In addition to the realism, the characters were a large part of what made this story so wonderful for me. I absolutely couldn't help but love Joe, who was a near flawless hero. I loved all of his little "honey" and "sweetheart" endearments. He is kind, sensitive and extremely patient toward Mari with all her hang-ups. He is also incredibly intuitive of Mari's needs and what is going on inside her head. Joe is an amazing father to his son, Zachary, and a great football coach who was once a famous pro-football star. As if those things don't make him hot enough, he is a sexy half-Sioux Indian, and although his heritage doesn't play a big role in the story, I still can never seem to resist those multi-cultural relationships. While Joe may have a sensitive beta side, he is definitely an alpha, and has now become one of my favorite Catherine Anderson heroes I've read so far, even though I usually have more of a soft spot for her beta heroes. The only thing that could have made Joe better is if he had stayed and fought for his relationship with Mari all those years ago, instead of taking things at face value and leaving, but of course there wouldn't have been much of a story then. In spite of considering herself to be a coward, Marilee, to the contrary, is an incredibly strong woman to have gone through all she had by herself without completely loosing her mind. She did have a very bad case of PTSD, which was certainly not unexpected, and it took quite a while to work through that. She became a loving, protective mother to Zachary from the day she first met him, and longs to have children of her own. As I mentioned earlier, I had a few misgivings about some of her choices early in the story, but as it progressed, I felt like I completely understood her. The only thing that gave me pause was when Mari almost let her soulmate get away again, not once, but twice. At that point, I almost wanted to jump into the story and shake some sense into her, but luckily she came around so I didn't have to.;-) There was a fairly large cast of secondary characters what with Mari's family, Joe's mother, and a number of others, but for the most part they only inhabited the periphery of the story and didn't play large roles. The main exception to that would be Zachary. He was a very sweet, little boy who had been through quite an ordeal himself. Zachary and Mari end up helping to facilitate each other's healing processes to some degree, so that he is able to regain emotional stability too. Catherine Anderson also has a talent for writing memorable animal characters, and even Mari's cowardly hound dog, Boo, manages to find his backbone in the end. All in all, the book had a cast of really great characters, but the bulk of the story definitely belonged to Joe and Mari.
Early on, I had a hard time putting the book down because I was so engrossed in wanting to see how and when Joe and Marilee were finally going to work things out, but at some point the story started to drag a little for me. This is really my only complaint and the one thing that kept the book from earning keeper status from me. The story just naturally has a rather languid pace due to the subject matter, which was an understandable necessity in order to tell it in such a realistic way, but there is also a huge wall between the two main characters that made it difficult for me to really feel their reconnection on a deep level. I think this is mainly because it took more than 2/3 of the way into the story for Joe and Mari to even share a lip-lock. Up to that point, they touch each other sometimes, but not really on a regular basis, and when they do it's little more than chaste hugs and kisses on the forehead. Then everything breaks loose and comes together for them all at once which started to stretch the bounds of credibility at bit. Although I thought it was done better here, this is a device that Ms. Anderson also used in her book Keegan's Lady which didn't really work well for me there either. At this point, readers get the only full-blown love scene in the book. All the other intimate scenes are pretty subdued and little more than implied cut scenes. Even though I usually prefer my romances a bit steamier, I know that this is generally par for the course in a Catherine Anderson novel, so in and of itself that didn't really bother me. Unfortunately there is a fine line between maintaining realism and frustrating the reader because of the characters holding each other at arms length a bit too long, and I simply found myself wishing that there had been a little more of a passionate connection between Joe and Mari.
The final hundred pages or so of Seventh Heaven become a mild mystery/suspense story which oddly enough also mirrored Keegan's Lady in a way. When it got to this point, I felt certain I knew where everything was leading, but as it turned out, I was almost entirely wrong. I guess this would be a good testament to Ms. Anderson's ability to surprise me with a little twist. She also injected a fair bit of her trademark humor into the story which I always love, and it helped to lighten things up from time to time. For those who might be concerned, Marilee is a devout Catholic and discussions of her and her family's beliefs occur a number of times throughout the story. In my opinion, it was all pretty matter-of-fact, but I thought it worth mentioning for readers who are averse to religion in their romances. Overall, Seventh Heaven was a very good read for me, and a really sweet romance with lots of emotional intensity from an admired author who rarely lets me down.
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