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One of the books which proved to me that books with a strong element of romance could also be well written and gripping was Blue Willow. I came across this book in a charity shop and on reading the back cover blurb which made the story sound like something of a family saga, decided to give it a try. It introduced me to an excellent and somewhat underrated author and one of the most emotionally gripping stories I've ever read.
There had been Mackenzies and Colebrooks at Blue Willow for over a hundred years. The property is named for the huge old blue willow trees that grow there and even though the property has become rather run down over the years, the two families histories are still bound up together. Artemas Colebrook and Lily Mackenzie share much more than history but fate, tragedy and family have driven them apart. When they meet again, their relationship threatens to destroy everything that both of them have fought for, even Blue Willow itself.
Deborah Smith is an American writer born and bred in Georgia and it's mostly about this area where most of her books are set with Blue Willow being no exception. The story opens with a tragedy of epic proportions. It's the grand opening of Artemas Colebrook's new company headquarters in Atlanta, a wonderful construction of glass and steel with a high bridge which spans the atrium of the building. It's been designed and built by Richard Porter, Lily Mackenzie's husband and the garden has been designed by Lily herself. Though Artemas knows he should stay out of Lily's life he finds it practically impossible to do so. _'Lily Mackenzie Porter's son was not his. Her life was not his. She was another man's wife. But she had belonged to Artemas since the day she was born.'_
At the opening ceremony, the great and the good assemble on the bridge which arches high above the atrium to deliver the speeches but the weight of so many causes the bridge to collapse killing several people, including Lily's husband and son and Artemas's sister and also crippling one of Artemas's brothers. As if the tragedy was not enough, after the dust has settled, the recriminations begin. It seems that the builders used sub-standard materials and somebody was to blame but the question is who. Was it the responsibility of the architects, in other words Richard Porter, or had it been the fault of someone within the Colebrook organisation who'd been calling the financial shots?
After the scene is set, the story goes back thirty years to the beginning of Lily and Artemas's relationship which began on the day that Lily was born and Artemas, then seven years old, helped to deliver her. From that moment on, Lily and he were inextricably bound together and though circumstances pull them apart on more than one occasion, that bond proves too strong to ever be completely broken.
Deborah Smith has recognised the fact that events from our childhood are what help to shape the adults we eventually become and often childhood events can resonate throughout our lives. She writes about the childhood of Lily and Artemas with all the intensity of emotion that children feel and despite Artemas being the oldest of six children, his loyalties have always been divided between his own family and Lily. Even though Artemas and his family move away from Blue Willow he still feels a strong link to the place and to Lily but as he grows up he realises that he will need to be the one to save the fortunes of his family and their ceramics business and the one way he can secure their futures financially is by making an advantageous marriage. But when Lily needs his help, he returns to Blue Willow to discover that she's grown into a beautiful young woman and that she still means everything to him, even though it's now too late to prevent both their hearts from being broken. Artemas has made his choice and it isn't Lily.
When the story fast forwards back to the present day and the time following the accident, it's easy to understand why the bond between Lily and Artemas is so strong and from that moment on, the reader is rooting for things to be resolved so that they can both find happiness with both of them having to face their demons both from the past and from the present day.
Artemas and Lily are wonderful characters, strongly drawn and engaging but the secondary characters, too, are equally well drawn helping to build up a picture of the demands of family pitted against those of personal desire. This is especially true for Artemas who as the head of his family has been the rock to which all his siblings clung and they're reluctant to allow him to take the side of Lily Mackenzie Porter who they now view as the enemy. Lily, too, is facing up to life after the loss of her husband and the devastation of losing her child but when she discovers evidence that members of Artemas's family may have been responsible for the accident which robbed her of her family, she finds herself in a dilemma which seems to have no solution.
This is one of the most emotionally gripping stories I've ever read and the way the characters are drawn, even the less nice ones, all come together to create an engrossing read. It's a story not only of love but also of family loyalty and striking a balance between the two. Deborah Smith steers the love story of Artemas and Lily on a perfect course without ever falling into the mawkishly sentimental and the result is a satisfying, though emotionally draining, read.
Deborah Smith went on to write several other superb books, mainly set in America's deep south. Sadly, she doesn't seem to be writing much these days but if you can get hold of a copy of Blue Willow I guarantee you'll enjoy it. I found re-reading this book for the purposes of this review made a refreshing change from the avalanche of vampire romances cluttering the bookshelves these days. This is a wonderful, old style family saga.
Used copies of Blue Willow can still be bought online for 1p and there is also a Kindle edition available for £4.30.
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