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From the way back machine…1

The Return of Luke McGuire, by Justine Davis (aka Justine Dare)

Originally published in October 2000, this book reminds me why I love so much of Ms Davis’ earlier work, such as The Morning Side of Dawn2. There is an ease to the author’s voice and a realism to the characters, that draws the reader in, time after time. This time, into the story of a once bad boy and an always respectable woman. Here is the blurb (a good one too, for a change):

You always want…

Luke McGuire was everything shy Amelia Blair had been fascinated by as a girl but too terrified to go near. And now here she was, the only person in the whole town decent enough to give him the time of day, caring enough to stand up for him…brave enough to get close.

What you can’t have

Luke didn’t need the town’s nasty stares to know that Amelia was off-limits. But then, reformed or not, he’d never been one to abide by the rules. He only hope that the quiet beauty would fall for the man he had become instead of the one he used to be.

Luke McGuire is the result of a teen pregnancy. Unwanted and unloved, he endeavored to fulfill almost every single negative prophecy made about him, getting in trouble and needling his mother and indeed, the entire town of Santiago Beach, at every opportunity. Until high school graduation, that is, at which point he dusted his boots of the town’s dust, never to return.

Unfortunately for the town and Luke both, there is still something—or rather, someone—who has enough power over him to make him come back, many years later. David, his younger, legitimate half brother, needs him, and Luke has enough decency and love for this one bright memory of his youth to return.

Upon his return, Luke meets one of David’s few true friends, Amelia Blair. Amelia is a relative newcomer to Santiago Beach and owns the town’s bookstore. Shy by nature and reclusive by nurture (is this the correct expression?), Amelia has been warned against Luke long before his return. Nonetheless, she’s willing to brave town gossip and disapproval, and extend Luke the benefit of the doubt. He has come back, after all, simply to try and help a troubled teen.

It would be very easy at this point to fall into the old cliché wherein the lonely spinster defies the entire town and proves them wrong, while the former bad boy gives the old biddies their well-deserved comeuppance, rubbing his worldly success in their faces at every opportunity.

Ms Davis takes a different tack, thereby making this novel a joy to re read.

First, there is the fact that Amelia is older than Luke by a handful of years. This is acknowledged by both of them, and mentioned by at least another character, yet there is no drama about it—she’s thirty, he’s twenty six, deal with it.

Second, Luke has worked hard to change his life, but he’s neither a genius nor a millionaire. Furthermore, while having managed to come to terms with his youth (remarkably free of bitterness, I grant you), he’s not so removed from it that he doesn’t fall back into almost forgotten patterns of behaviour—and feelings—towards his family and the town.

Then there’s Amelia’s way of standing up for Luke. There is no out of character about face here, no loud histrionics. Amelia is quietly stubborn about it, while acknowledging that she knows next to nothing about his current life.

The secondary characters include the mother from hell, the bitter town gossip, the upstanding town cop. Each one of them has at least one scene that showcases their true feelings and motivations. Instead of a parade of cartoonish stereotypes, the reader meets a group of people that act and react naturally to what is happening. Even Luke’s mother, who made all his childhood and early youth absolute hell, is in the end shown to be nothing more than a rather selfish woman, incapable of more than superficial love even for David, her legitimate son.

I’m sure that for some readers the lack of conflict, real or manufactured, between Luke and Amelia would be considered a weakness. Not for me. I truly enjoy how their feelings for each other grow apace with how each of them grow as people.

I give The Return of Luke McGuire an 8.5 out of 10

 * * * * *

I had previously reviewed one other novel by Ms Davis, Left at the Altar (incidentally, the second title in the trilogy that ends with The Morning Side of Dawn)
1 I love coincidences—looking for images of the cover for this review, I found out that The Return of Luce McGuire was re-issued in a two-in-one format with another classic, Nighthawk, by Rachel Lee (my review here).

2 For those unfamiliar with this one, the male protagonist is a (n understandably bitter, given his back story) double leg amputee, and racing wheelchair designer. The female protagonist is a top ten model. Published in 1995.

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