Tribute, by Nora Roberts

2 Aug

Tribute, by Nora Roberts

This most recent stand-alone novel by Ms Roberts is just one more in the long list of her titles going to my keeper shelves. Called a romantic suspense by most fans, this book tells two intertwined stories—the love story between the main protagonists, Cilla and Ford, and the mysteries surrounding the life and death of Cilla’s maternal grandmother, the late actress and singer Janet Hardy.

Here is the dustcover blurb for the hardcover edition:

Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a long way from Hollywood. And that’s exactly how Cilla McGowan likes it.

Cilla, a former child star, has found a more satisfying life working with her hands to restore homes from floor to ceiling—and has come here to her grandmother’s farmhouse, tools at her side, to rescue it from ruin. Sadly, no one had been able to save her grandmother, the legendary Janet Hardy. An actress with a golden voice and a tumultuous life, Janet entertained glamorous guests and engaged in decadent affairs—but died of an overdose in this very house more than thirty years ago. To this day, Janet haunts Cilla’s dreams. And during her waking hours, Cilla is haunted by her melodramatic, five-times-married mother who carried on in the public spotlight and never gave her a chance at a normal childhood. By coming to the East Coast, rolling up her sleeves, and rehabbing this wreck of a house, Cilla intends to take a shot at finding some kind of normalcy for herself.

Cilla has her work cut out for her—the house, once a place of comfort and simple rural beauty, is long neglected, crumbling, the grounds choked by weeds. Plunging into the project with gusto, she’s almost too busy and exhausted to notice her neighbor, graphic novelist Ford Sawyer—but his lanky form, green eyes, and easy, unflappable humor (not to mention his delightfully ugly dog, Spock) are hard to ignore. Determined not to carry on the family tradition of ill-fated romances, Cilla steels herself against Ford’s quirky charm, but she can’t help indulging in a little fantasy.

But love and a peaceful life may not be in the cards for Cilla. In the house’s cluttered attic, she has found a cache of unsigned letters, tied with a faded red ribbon, suggesting that Janet Hardy was pregnant when she died—and that the father of her child was a local married man. Cilla can’t help but wonder what really happened all those years ago. The mystery only deepens with a series of cruel and intimidating acts and a frightening, violent assault. And if Cilla and Ford are unable to sort out who is targeting her and why, she may, like her world-famous grandmother, be cut down in the prime of her life.

One of the things that Ms Roberts does particularly well, to my mind, is creating a sense of family and community between the characters in her novels. In Tribute, we are introduced to a rather large cast. Cilla and Ford, of course. His parents. Her parents. His best friends and their families. His grandfather, her ex-husband-cum-best friend. A number of contractors, subcontractors, neighbors, and assorted other people.

And not one of all these characters is extraneous or two-dimensional. As far as I’m concerned, really great writing is that which paints a complete portrait of a character in one paragraph—as Ms Roberts does here.

The story spans some six months, and unfolds much as the rehabilitation of the property does—bit by bit, with the unexpected popping up here and there, and being dealt with as necessary. As time goes by, and the different stages of such a large project are completed, we become familiar with the dynamics between the different characters.

Cilla is looking for her identity, and for a purpose in life, when she manipulates her mother into selling her the old property, which has stood abandoned for the better part of the last thirty-plus years. On one hand, it’s where her grandmother died, and where, if legend holds true, she was happiest. On the other hand, this little town in Virginia is where her own father—and his second family—still live. Another plus, it is across the continent from both Los Angeles and her mother.

One might wonder why Cilla is looking for her roots in her maternal grandmother’s house instead of say, spending more time with her father, or even her mother. One of the reasons is that she grew up with her mother, and in the shadow of the late, great, glamorous, gorgeous Janet Hardy. Another reason would be that, for many years now, Cilla has had vivid dreams of her grandmother. In these dreams, she has long conversations with Janet, about her life, about her work, about her family. She is spurred by these dreams, first to bring Janet’s house back to life; second, to uncover the person behind the legend.

I truly enjoyed the dream conceit as a vehicle to share Janet’s life with the reader. First, it makes it perfectly organic instead of plain info dumping, because of the manner in which it is handled. Second, the nature of the conversations between dream-Janet and herself, illustrate Cilla’s own anxieties and fears, as well as her insights into both the past and her own present.

Cilla is such a complicated character, full of insecurities and psychological scars, and an almost pathological inability to connect with people—men in particular—in any role other than co-workers (with the most notable exception of Steve, her ex-husband). Given her mother (with all her issues *shudder*) and Cilla’s own upbringing, I can understand perfectly well why she is so reluctant to engage in anything but the most casual of friendships, even with her own father and half sister—let alone her stepmother, or her neighbors. *coughFordcough*

At the same time, she is very much together when it comes to the business of remodeling and rehabbing of the property, so very efficient, focused and… well, socially adept, that I had some difficulty reconciling the two sides of her personality. Not that I don’t think people can be just this conflicted (if not more) but because I’ve come to expect fiction to be more logical than life.

In sharp contrast, Ford is tremendously centered and stable. Almost beyond the believable; in fact, if I didn’t know at least a couple of guys as well adjusted as he is, I think I would have had trouble with his character.

There is a sense of continuity and place in Ford, set pretty much from the first scene. He has lived in the same town most of his life, is close to his family, and still close to the friends he made in high school. He is comfortable in his skin, despite the fact that he is different in many ways from the people around him. He accepts that, and in turn, he is accepted.

Here’s an early exchange between the main characters that I enjoy a lot (from page 43, hardcover edition):

“The art’s awfully good,” Cilla stated. “It almost tells the story without the captions. That’s strong imaging.”
Ford waited a beat, then another. “I’m waiting for it”
She glanced over her shoulder at him. “For what?”
“For you to ask why I’m wasting my talent with comic books instead of pursuing a legitimate career in art”
“You’ll be waiting a long time. I don’t see waste when someone’s doing what they want to do, and something they excel at.
“Plus, you are talking to someone who starred for eight seasons on a half-hour sitcom. It wasn’t Ibsen, but it sure as hell was legitimate.”

I love that that conversation can be applied to romance novels pretty much verbatim. Some eight or nine decades ago it would have applied to science fiction in the same manner. Three or four decades before that, it would have applied to novels in general. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The past casts its shadow over the present in more than one way, doesn’t it?

I always enjoy Ms Roberts’ writing, even if on occasion I figure out the solution to the suspense / mystery before it’s explained in the novel. In this case, though, I’m very happy to say that I didn’t see it coming. I did figure out that the original *ahem* answer was a big fat red herring—but the ending? totally unexpected, and with a really cool twist. Most excellent indeed!

There are only two more things I have to say: One, I want Steve’s story. Period. Soonest, if at all possible. What a cool character! (And if Ms Roberts writes Brian’s story too, I won’t complain) Second, huzzah! (and a hundred cheers) for using this phrase:

(Ford speaking) “I love it, Cilla, like a fat kid loves cake.” (page 362, hardcover edition)

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