What a baffling book. Lisa Kleypas does this, all the time, where she takes a perfectly good story and then just adds in some element that doesn't fit and turns a cohesive whole into something that's just a little...off. She did it in her most recent release, Devil in Spring, by turning a historical romance into something involving a half-baked plot involving Fenian assassins in the last few chapters. In her Hathaways series, some weird spirit popped up at least a couple of times--and I'm told the ghost trope makes a reappearance (though with a different ghost) in the third book of this series, Dream Lake. In Rainshadow Road, she takes what looked like it was going to be a good contemporary romance series and randomly--yes, randomly, because the first book in this series didn't hint at this happening at all--decided to add magic.
Lucy was seven when she discovered that she had magic that could turn glass into living creatures. Though apparently only flying living creatures--fireflies, butterflies, hummingbirds, bats. Plagued by a younger sister who was relentlessly spoiled after nearly dying of meningitis, Lucy has always loved her glass and the vitality she feels within it. As an adult in Friday Harbor, she owns a glass studio and is in a relationship with a good guy...until he breaks up with her for none other than that same spoiled younger sister. Who's now moving in with him, meaning that Lucy has to move out. Baffled and broken-hearted, she packs up and moves in with two friends who run a bed and breakfast. And she also happens to run into Sam Nolan along the way, the middle Nolan brother who owns a Victorian house and accompanying vineyard on Rainshadow Road. The two have an immediate connection but Lucy doesn't want to date anyone and Sam is completely against commitment--but he's open to a friends-with-benefits relationship, if Lucy decides she's interested. And when he ends up taking care of her after she's in a bicycle accident, their connection and attraction begins to grow...
One thing that I did like here was that Kleypas avoided a conflict that revolved entirely around a simple miscommunication or silly secret; when Lucy's ex tries to get Sam to take her out to benefit himself, Sam immediately tells Lucy that he was asked to do it, and they move past it. I also liked Holly's continuing inclusion in this book. She seemed like a normal, silly kid and, while she wasn't exactly necessary to the story, I didn't feel she dragged it down unnecessarily, either. Friday Harbor itself continues to have a great atmosphere that makes me want to go on vacation there. And of course, as in all Kleypas books, the banter between the characters is good, the side characters are clearly set up to become main characters in future (or past!) books and are therefore a bit more three-dimensional than side characters tend to be, and the kissing and sex scenes were deliciously steamy.
But the magic elements... Why? I just don't understand. They're just not necessary, and they were entirely absent in the first book of the series, so I'm not sure why Kleypas decided to integrate them now with a clear path for more to show up in the rest of the books. I think she was trying to add in a bit of magical realism, but it didn't work in that sense. Additionally, Lucy insists throughout the book that she doesn't really know how to control her ability, that things just happen when she gets emotional, and yet at the end she just suddenly knows how to exactly control it. And somehow her glass magic suddenly manages to change Sam's house and vineyard? What? Where did that come from?
The writing here also isn't Kleypas' best. While she excels at building atmosphere and background in her historicals, it seems like in her contemporaries she tends to tell rather than show and info-dump in an attempt to get allllll the info out there when it seems like most of it could have just been integrated a bit more gracefully throughout the book. And her hero, Sam, is mostly good, but had some controlling tendencies. Lucy did some glass work for a biker church, and the bikers are eager to help her throughout the book--they take her car to get it fixed after it breaks down, seem inclined to give her rides, help her out in a bar, etc., and yet Sam is adamant that he doesn't want her involved with them. And instead of insisting that her friends are her friends, Lucy just goes along with it, which was somewhat disappointing. The bikers seemed like decent guys, and even if they weren't, Lucy was a grown woman who could make her own decisions.
And then there are Lucy's parents, the king and queen of flip-flopping. After apparently putting Lucy down for most of her life in order to give her sister Alice whatever she wanted, they abruptly jump ship to Lucy's side when Alice steals Lucy's boyfriend. They make it seem like it was the last straw for them, but honestly I found that unrealistic; it seemed more to me like they would have just gone along with it, since this didn't seem that much more extreme than some of the other things Alice had done. Alice herself also had no appeal to me; Kleypas tries to include some redeeming sister time near the end, but honestly I don't think that Alice could really change. Lucy spent so much time saying how you shouldn't date someone with the expectation that you could or would change them, but then suddenly Alice was able to be changed? I doubt it.
Overall, this is not as good as Kleypas' historicals, for the most part. But...it's still weirdly appealing. The characters and atmosphere are charming and the romance still sizzles, and that seems to override some of the many other weaknesses. And they're quick reads, as well, so I guess I don't mind too much.
3 stars out of 5, but I'm not really expecting the future books to improve--though I'll likely still read them!