By Sarah Hayes, A&E Editor
Caroline O’Connor is fine. Sure, she had to move back to her hometown of Cold River, Missouri, deep in the Ozarks, where she now runs her parents’ rundown bait shop. Sure, she now watches after her mother who has Alzheimer’s and sometimes thinks Caroline is her home caregiver, not her daughter. And sure, she still does not have a boyfriend and people think she is going to marry her childhood friend Court, who does not even like women. No, Caroline is doing just fine. So when Noah Cranwell rolls into town, fresh from a stint in New Jersey and ready to revive the family store, bearing the last name of a local clan which has been ripe with drama and gossip since the twenties, it does not take much for Caroline’s fine life to be turned upside-down.
“Just Fine With Caroline” is the second novel by local author Annie England Noblin, an alumna of Missouri State University who lives in the Ozarks. The book is “Cold Mountain” wrapped in cotton candy: sweet and light on substance in parts, but still emotionally satisfying at its core. It does not aspire to be the next big thing in Ozark-centric fiction, which is good, because it does not have the reach for it, but it turns an oft-maligned corner of Missouri into a welcoming, heartfelt setting.
Caroline is an interesting character. She fights for agency and independence while her one defining romantic relationship in the entire novel, her on-and-off courtship with Noah Cranwell, seems to take that away. For some reason, the steamier parts of their courting—and it does get a bit explicit at points, more of a hard PG-13 than a soft R, although when they actually do the do, Noblin cuts to the pillow talk—involves Caroline as an active participant but her feelings are not described. In the romance genre, half of the appeal is seeing how the characters feel in the heat of the moment and yet Caroline keeps her feelings locked inside of her, even when she is telling the story.
Then again, perhaps I am not giving Noblin enough credit in portraying a protagonist who has dealt with romantic and familial drama with the same steely, closed off resolve, so much that when she finally explodes and confronts those around her, from the notorious Cranwells to her own best friend Ava Dawn, it is not so much a surprise as a revelation in the making. That is one of the main draws of “Caroline”: how the book deals with personal trauma that has run deep for generations and manifested in the lives of its descendants, who must grapple with what their parents and grandparents have done. For Noah, it is his family’s bootlegging past and his elders’ past indiscretions. For Caroline, it is a personal secret that her mother slowly reveals on accident, when the effects of her illness prevent her from keeping quiet.
Noblin is a fine author of the cozy warm story. She populates her fictional town of Cold River with dynamic characters, ranging across the board in terms of class, gender, age, and sexual orientation. She even throws in an adorable, three-legged, deaf Tibetan mastiff puppy named Yara, who likes newcomer Noah better than she likes Caroline, her actual owner. There is moonshine and race cars and sketchy revival scenes, but it never goes too far over to become cliché. In a year of weighty, heady reads, Noblin’s newest is a refreshingly light but not brainless novel for the inner romantic boonie in all of us.
The Current was provided a free, uncorrected proof copy of “Just Fine With Caroline” for review purposes by HarperCollins Publishers.