After loosing her beloved husband to a drunk driver, Brenda Rafferty gathered her strength through the grace of God, and continued on with their dream of opening a compounding pharmacy to serve the individual needs of patients. Brenda moves to Columbia, Maryland where she rents a space for her new store in a building owned by handsome real estate developer, Parnell Pierce. Parnell also lost his wife and parents in a car accident and has been left alone to raise his young son, Angelo, but unlike Brenda, Parnell is angry with God about the tragedy. When the two meet, there is an attraction between them, and Angelo immediately takes to Brenda, wanting to spend more time with her. Brenda does not wish to get involved with a man who doesn't share her faith, but Angelo's need for a motherly presence in his life brings the couple together as friends as they go on "family" outings for the boy's sake. Gil Montgomery, the owner of a competing pharmacy, also starts to take an interest in Brenda. His resemblance to her first husband and status as a deacon in his church are appealing to Brenda in ways that Parnell is not. When Brenda's store is vandalized with hate graffiti and she begins to receive threatening phone calls, it seems that someone wants her out of business. Gil suspects Parnell because of his animosity toward Christianity, but could this kind man and gentle father really be behind such vicious acts?
Years ago, I belonged to the Heartsong Presents inspirational book club, and I still have dozens of these little books that are no longer than a Harlequin languishing on my shelves unread. Thanks to participating in reading challenges, I finally decided that it was time to dive in and clear a few off the TBR pile, but the one I chose to begin with left me with mixed feelings. In spite of being raised in and still a practicing member of the Christian faith, I felt that Abiding Love was, at times, a bit too heavy-handed on the religious aspects. I've never been comfortable with pulpit-pounding preachers, and when it comes to the Christian literature I read, I prefer a more subtle approach to the message of God's love. Those stories always seem to speak to me in a much deeper and more profound way than one that hits me over the head with doctrine. Maybe it's just this book, or perhaps the Christian fiction market has changed in the nearly fifteen years since it was written, but I recently read another inspirational romance that was pretty light on the religious element. Whichever the case may be, I found that Abiding Love had a fairly heavy dose of Christian values in it, and while I agreed with parts of it on some level, I thought that it could have been presented in a gentler way. I also never really felt like the inspirational message it was trying to convey was ever entirely clear. I think that it was attempting to say that we should trust God even in the midst of tragic circumstances, but ultimately, in my opinion, any deeper meaning was overshadowed by all the ideology. Additionally, I thought that a large part of the spiritual aspect was too magical and over-simplified. In my experience, faith is rarely such an easy thing.
I did like almost everything about the hero of the story, Parnell, except perhaps his name. Unlike some romance readers, I'm not overly prone to criticizing an author's choice of names for her characters, but to me the name Parnell just sounded too old for a handsome thirty-something man. Name issues aside, I did find him to be a very relatable character. His anger at God over the deaths of his wife and parents in a tragic car accident seemed very natural to me, and something that many people have gone through in life. I definitely thought that Parnell would have been a richer and more interesting character if he had remained the man who was having a crisis of faith, which is how I perceived him at the beginning of the book, rather than becoming a man who apparently had no faith at all in spite of being a minister's son. Otherwise, he is much like the tortured heroes I've enjoyed in other romances. Parnell is a thoughtful and caring man who is a very devoted father to his son, Angelo, and I also liked that as a real estate developer, he was working on building more affordable homes for people in the community who have lower incomes.
I had a much harder time warming up to Brenda, because she just seemed too wishy-washy, contradictory, and judgmental to me. In spite of her obvious attraction to Parnell, Brenda is constantly reminding herself that she shouldn't become involved with him because of his lack of faith in God. Not only did this become tedious, but I was starting to feel like Brenda had very little compassion and understanding for Parnell's feelings in spite of having lost her own husband under nearly identical circumstances. Then Brenda's parents gave her some sage advice about not judging him too harshly, and she almost lightened up, at least for a bit. In a similar incident, Brenda seemed rather uncomfortable with the inter-faith center because it wasn't like a "regular church." Then her sister explained everything to her, and she was suddenly OK with it. At times, Brenda was stubbornly set in her ways, and other times fickly changing her mind at the drop of a hat. It was almost like she didn't know her own mind, and I have a hard time respecting people like that. Then there is the issue of her husband's death and any ensuing grief that I don't feel was given the weight that it deserved. On the one hand she seemed completely at peace about it, even before leaving the cemetery immediately following his funeral, but on the other hand her lack of a dating life during her three years of widowhood and the strong reaction she has to a man who resembles her dead husband, seem to indicate otherwise. The thing that bugged me the most about Brenda though, is how quick she is to think the worst of Parnell when her pharmacy is vandalized and someone starts harassing her over the phone. It just didn't ring true that she could think such terrible things about Parnell after spending so much time with him and presumably getting to know him pretty well. She was also overly quick to trust the wrong man just because he supposedly shared her faith and looked like her first husband. Admittedly, she had an ongoing back-and-forth internal dialog about both men, but I found it to be mostly annoying.
In spite of my frustrations with Brenda there were a few things that I liked about her. She was kind and caring toward her customers, and a sweet, motherly figure toward Angelo. I admired her determination to finish pharmacy school and open the store that she and her husband had always dreamed about. I also liked the simple fact that she was a pharmacist and not just any pharmacist, but one who had been trained in compounding. It would have been unique enough just to have a main character in that profession but the added bonus of her owning a compounding pharmacy seemed to be before its time since this book was written fourteen years ago and even today compounding pharmacies are not all that common. The odd thing though, is that the cover blurb gives her the title of doctor and while a pharmacist does have to earn a doctor of pharmacy degree, I don't think I've ever heard one referred to as doctor nor was Brenda at any point within the story.
Even for an inspirational romance, I would have to say that Abiding Love is pretty light on the actual romance. Brenda just spent so much time worrying about religious differences and then wrongly suspecting Parnell of terrorizing her, that there wasn't much time left for real relationship building. Then Parnell's easy forgiveness of Brenda for doubting him and a declaration of love came a little to quickly to be believable. There were a few very touching moments involving "family" outings and their mutual friendship with the elderly Mrs. Donnegan, but ultimately not enough to convince me that they could have a happy future together. There is a follow-up book though, so maybe the author left some of the deeper relationship stuff for that one. I can hope at least.:-)
There were a few other bothersome things about the story. One is a passage where Parnell sees Brenda leave the store with a man and thinks there might be trouble brewing but doesn't try to follow them, and when Brenda comes running back a few hours later obviously frightened to death with her dress torn, he comforts her but doesn't even ask if she is hurt. I found this to be very strange and extremely out of character for such a nice guy. The wording in some places is a bit clunky and unnatural, and there was a plot discrepancy where Brenda is wearing jeans and a t-shirt during an outing with Parnell and Angelo, but later is wearing a sundress. Although I enjoy a little light mystery in my romances, I'm not always the most adept at solving them, but still the mystery in this book was so predictable, I could have identified the bad guy from a mile away. On the upside, I did like the concept of the inter-faith center where people from a variety of denominations and faiths shared the same building for their worship services. I really think that things like this can help to promote religious harmony in a community. Somehow, in spite of the story's preachiness and predictably, the author did manage to keep me reading and didn't entirely bore me which is a plus too. Although I had some issues with this book, I will likely read the sequel, Abide with Me, (which the author wrote as Una McManus), because I still need it for my reading challenge, already have it on my TBR shelf, and hate to leave things unfinished, and I liked Parnell and Angelo enough to give it a try. I'll hopefully just be more prepared in my knowledge of the author's writing style.
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