Atria, April 2003
Reviewed by Barbara Fielding
Ford Newcombe, best-selling mystery writer, is a widower mourning the loss of his wife, Pat. She had been his salvation -- showing him how to laugh at life and funnel his horrible childhood pain into fiction writing, thereby exorcising his personal demons. Her loss emotionally paralyzes him and leaves him unable to write. Rumors that Pat was likely the true author of his books, and gossip about his difficult working relationship with a series of personal assistants, compound his lonely and isolated existence. When his interest is sparked by an urban legend about the Devil told by Jackie Maxwell, a university research assistant, Ford decides he wants to investigate, and he offers her a job as his assistant.
Jackie Maxwell reluctantly accepts his job offer. The job provides her with a convenient last minute escape from an impending disastrous marriage to her fiancÚ, Kirk, a man who has wiped her out financially and offers empty promises to make it up to her. Jackie agrees to accompany Ford to Cole Creek, South Carolina, to investigate the legendary tale of the murder of a woman who fell in love with the Devil. Their research leads them through a tangle of curses, witch hunts and Faustian deals with the Devil.
Written in first person narrative, WILD ORCHIDS alternates chapters between Ford and Jackie's viewpoints to tell the story. Ford Newcombe is a fascinating fictional character. I had a perfect image of actor Anthony Hopkins telling the story as I read. Ford is physically attracted to Jackie, but the ghost of his love for Pat hinders his emotional availability, and the age differences -- he's in his sixties and she is in her late twenties -- represent two obstacles to romance.
If you were trying to read something between the lines of this book, you could get the idea that the Jude Deveraux is drawing on her cache of personal experiences as a best-selling author and giving her "real life" critics a swipe at the same time. This novel is sprinkled with publishing jargon and "insider" references that give Ford Newcombe, mystery writer, authenticity.
I am a huge fan of Jude Deveraux's early books. That said, I approached this book with respect for the fact that this author's writing has changed and grown over time. So, putting away any comparisons to her early work, I read this book with an open mind. Jude is a master storyteller. The characters totally hooked me, but for my tastes, the story was sad and there was way too much of the Devil and occult. Ford and Jackie are captivating characters but the secondary characters, seen through the main characters' eyes, are not quite as vivid. The tone is sometimes chilling and alternately morose, sprinkled with nice touches of humor. The first person narrative gives the story a slow, detailed and intensely personal quality. WILD ORCHIDS is what I would classify as light romance, and more occult mystery than straight romance.
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