Houston is a master of the explosive opening. In the first scene, Charlie is attempting to enter her apartment only to discover her key no longer works. What follows is a brilliant confrontation between Charlie and her boyfriend’s wife— someone she had no knowledge of. It’s shocking, uncomfortable, and sets Charlie off as a confident, if overwhelmed, character. At this point, she’s hit bottom and is intensely vulnerable, but it ultimately makes her a character whose growth the reader can truly champion.
But she doesn’t get all the attention. Madge has been keeping some large secrets for a long time, and the story dips frequently into her point of view when discussing the past. It’s effective, with Houston weaving an expert story of war and love effortlessly with the present-day. It helps that she takes no issue with making her characters go through hell. Madge and her true love, James, deal with social class issues, scandal, deception, and murder— not to mention the war. With a lesser writer, this might feel melodramatic, but Houston has a remarkable ability to ground her characters in reality, even at the most dramatic of times. The payoff is extraordinary. Rarely has a last chapter felt so satisfying.
Of course, for anyone who has ever read a Houston book before, it should be noted that her wonderful style of humor is still on display. A reindeer costume, a theatrically trained grandmother, and a stunned badger all make appearances. Perhaps because of the high stakes found in most of the book, these jokes and clever asides are particularly effective. They cut tension and always serve to further the relationships between the characters. The funniest bits, mostly taking place around a kitchen table, do some of the best work establishing this as a real family piece.
At its base, Coming Home to Holly Close Farm is a story of romance, family, and second chances. In all respects, it works. The throughlines of Charlie and Madge buck and flow, creating dual beautifully heartwarming stories.
Note: I received a free ARC of this book through NetGalley.