HEARTS AWAKENING is a distorted, faith-based Cinderella story set on Dillon Island, Pennsylvania, in the year 1840. Here, love grows gradually between a working-class woman and a handsome widower who proposes to her simply to provide a mother for his two sons. The couple are not romantically involved and don't plan to be. In their unconventional relationship, Jackson reminds Ellie repeatedly of their arrangement and even threatens to break their contract. They learn to trust each other and develop a friendship over time, which deepens into a strong and loving relationship based on mutual respect and companionship. The faith of both is tested as they try to meet the needs of their children while attempting to make the marriage work.
When Jackson first asks Ellie to marry him, she is outraged and insulted; she has known him for two weeks. She leaves her job without considering it. But her need for employment and a permanent home changes her mind. When she returns, she lays out her terms for the contract and Jackson lays out his: they will not share a bed. Either can break the arrangement at any time. Neither can pursue a lover. Ellie can never leave the island alone or with the boys. If Jackson chooses to, he can end the arrangement when his boys are grown, and if she breaks any part of the contract, he will. He is not romantically interested in her and, in fact, tells her openly that he finds her to be "plain." Ellie insists that Jackson make faith and worship a consistent part of their family, requiring that he take them to church services weekly. But there's no misunderstanding Jackson's intentions; this is for his boys.
What Ellie lacks in beauty, she quickly makes up for in her kind nature and hard work for the family, showing them a wife and mother who is ultimately forgiving, gentle and dependable. Immediately she's much different than Rebecca was, Jackson's late wife who only recently died after a scandal the whole town still talks about. Daniel and Ethan both resent Ellie for taking their mother's place. But Ellie remains devoted and patient in spite of this, always willing to consider others' needs before her own. Jackson and the boys don't yet love or trust her, but they appreciate what she does for them most of the time. The kids love the griddle cakes she makes every morning, though she's having a showdown with Rebecca's fancy cook stove and burns most of the other meals and her hands, daily. Jackson notices that having her there is an improvement but becomes frustrated with her not meeting his expectations.
In the process of building a friendship, Ellie and Jackson endure some nasty confrontations, most brought on by misunderstandings about Ellie's performance. It seems she might never measure up to all their expectations. At times, her husband treats Ellie with indifference or like a slave, requiring every ounce of her patience and faith for her to stay with him. But Ellie holds onto the hope that Jackson will discover one day that he loves her and appreciates all she has put into their family.
HEARTS AWAKENING is a compelling faith-based love story, and I thoroughly enjoyed the idea of a relationship built on respect and friendship as opposed to one where lovers are matched in good looks and shallow emotions. The character development is excellent, and by the end, readers develop a full understanding of the challenges and feelings behind each person's actions. It's a believable idea that two people could fall in love as Ellie and Jackson do and not only make it work but make it better because they were friends first. Though Jackson isn't always a likable protagonist, I did like him by the end and felt I understood his reasoning and that he'd be a good husband for Ellie.
I was also impressed by a heroine who could forgive him so completely while remaining a good wife and mother. The 19th century historical context is interesting too, though it is an incidental focus. Spiritual themes are frequently and directly approached throughout the book. Those looking for a strong faith-based romance should enjoy HEARTS AWAKENING.
--- Reviewed by Melanie Smith
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