5* Review: An Art to Love – Helena Harte

I am not an incurable romantic by any standard; romance writers have to work bloody hard to get to my soft and squishy underbelly. And I’m not a pushover so that’s a task in itself. But you’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel the myriad of emotions wrapped up inside An Art to Love.

I’m more amenable to romance stories which have a bit of grit behind them, not angst mind you, it is the romance genre after all! So, I was more than happy to find that in her latest release Harte has perfectly paired grit with romance, creating a sweet second chance, return to home town, love story.

Driven and ambitious, Lauren Gray knew even as a teenager that her path lay outside of the small town of Damarron, and as the years passed the need to avoid returning to her roots increased. But when tragedy strikes and Lauren learns of the tragic death of her twin sister, Kayla, she has no choice but to return home for the funeral. A trip she promises herself will be as short as it possibly can be.

Meanwhile, Lauren’s long-ago classmate, Jamie Nelson, remains in the small town that Lauren so despises. But Jamie is more than happy in Damarron, working in the local cemetery as groundskeeper, where she is close to her dad’s grave and filling any spare time working on her art. Jamie knows it’s inevitable that in such a close-knit community, she’ll bump into Lauren eventually, it’s a question of when, not if. Which would be fine, if Jamie hadn’t had a raging crush on Lauren in school, a crush which has more than just the embers still burning.

Faced with the source of her crush, Jamie must decide whether to play it cool and bury those feelings deep for the sake of the few weeks Lauren plans on being in town, or take a chance and see where the path of, up until now, unrequited love, leads. Sweet and chivalrous, Jamie knows that the timing couldn’t be worse, the last thing Lauren needs is Jamie acting like a love-struck teenager around her. But surely there’s no harm in offering a chance to catch up and an ear to listen with? After all, Jamie lost her dad at the tender age of nine, so she knows all about the trappings of unexpected loss and the all-consuming grief it leaves in its wake.

Despite Jamie’s good intentions, it’s hard for her not to grin like a Cheshire cat when it becomes apparent Lauren might be more than just a little interested in her. And as their relationship hots up, it seems too good to be true, until Lauren discovers the art work that Jamie creates behind the closed doors of her barn. Lauren’s ambitious nature comes to the fore and as she realises Jamie is seemingly content exactly where she is, the differences between them provide Lauren with the perfect escape route. But is fleeing Damarron really what she wants? And is Jamie truly as content hiding her talent as she says she is?

In An Art to Love, Harte shows a natural aptitude for writing a romance story that is realistic and subsequently the main characters portray equally realistic reactions to the grief, loss and vulnerability they feel. And whilst those heavy and all-consuming feelings are palpable for Lauren, and Jamie, Harte does a fantastic job of navigating how to show that on the page, without drowning a reader in such intense feelings off the page. High five to the author as well for actually having her main characters communicate! It’s refreshing to see characters be vulnerable and grief stricken or upset and resentful and have them communicate in a relatable and adult manner, rather than purposefully have characters not communicate just to cause a point of contention. Whilst Lauren and Jamie’s journey is far from smooth, I felt like I got to really understand their mindset by having them talk out their feelings with either each other, friends or parents. Even Jamie’s dog, Olly, makes a good sounding board!

Grief and loss are dealt with differently by everyone, there’s no right or wrong way and Harte showcases this by depicting both Lauren and Jamie’s internal musings and self-reflections. For Lauren, who is experiencing the freshness of grief, there is the question of what’s the most important to her, ambition or family and love? Have her priorities changed and if so, what next? And for Jamie whose grief is older, yet no less painful, there is the question of is this life she’s living truly what she wants, or has she allowed herself to become contentedly stuck, because it’s familiar and comforting? In particular Jamie must also contend with the scars of being viciously bullied throughout her school years, an experience which compounds her lack of self-confidence in pursing her dreams.

Despite how deep this story might be sounding, Harte does a sterling job at keeping it as light as possible given the context. There’s an array of sub-characters, from Jamie’s mum, Val, who is so adorable and quick witted, to Lauren’s best friend, Whit, who is the voice of all reason. Not to mention that Lauren and Jamie aren’t behind the door at dishing out their own amusing commentary and flirtatious banter.

“I left home when I was seventeen. My parents probably thought I was gone for good and turned my room into a mini cinema or a meth lab for all I know.”

Whit chuckled. “You’re so dramatic…”

Helena Harte, An Art to Love

I think for anyone who has previously experienced a profound loss and/or grief, they’ll find that Harte’s writing genuinely encapsulates the associated moments, thoughts and emotions that one goes through. That said, I did struggle to believe that Lauren would choose to kiss Jamie, right as she steps through her sister’s apartment door for the very first time after her death. Everyone handles difficult situations differently, and so I’m happy to give the benefit of the doubt and view this plot point as Lauren seeking a moment of comfort and distraction in Jamie, to avoid having to confront what awaited her. Personally however, I think that moment would have fitted better prior to Lauren opening the apartment door; walking into the dwelling where a person expected to return would more than likely be an assault on your senses, you’d be presented with a scene that the person in question always intended to return to, until they didn’t. That’s not to say the approach Harte took is improbable, everyone and every situation is different and no-one gets to tell someone else how to process loss and grief.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story, it’s hard not to swoon for Jamie with her sweet and chivalrous nature and the smouldering flame she’s carried for Lauren all these years. I mean who wouldn’t want to be Lauren (clearly minus the losing a sibling situation)! I intend on re-reading this book, there’s a lot happening on the page and I don’t think one pass can really do justice to Harte’s writing and her talent for emotional storytelling which is so flawlessly displayed from beginning to end. An Art to Love, is itself a work of art, and like any great artistic creation, you need to see it (or in this case, read it) to believe it.

I received an ARC of this book from Butterworth Books, in exchange for an honest review.

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