TBR Challenge: Contemporary, a Bit Old School

Silhouette Intimate Moments book cover

A Soldier’s Heart, by Kathleen Korbel

I dug deep in what remains of my print TBR pile for this month’s book, because Miss Bates and others were discussing it on Twitter. I remembered buying it used, on someone’s recommendation (probably Sunita’s), back when I still permitted myself to visit used book stores and library sales. It fits this month’s challenge, because it was contemporary when written, but it was published more than 20 years ago, so I anticipated an “old school” feel.

Content warning: this book is about two people with PTSD, veterans of the Viet Nam conflict. There are some graphic descriptions and flashback incidents, which I will not discuss in detail here.

The subtitle of this book is “War and remembrance” — or perhaps that’s a connected set of books in the Silhouette line? Anyway, I knew from the back cover copy that this was a romance about a Marine veteran and a former army nurse who met in Viet Nam and are connecting 20 years later. And although she was the nurse and he was the patient, now the roles are somewhat reversed: “they’d shared the same overwhelming emotions and uncontrollable rage. But he had learned to handle the horror, while her soldier’s heart was breaking beneath her woman’s soul.”

Claire is a nurse, widowed with two teenagers, who also runs a tearoom in Virginia that she wants to open as a B&B when the building is fully restored and renovated. She has managed to keep her memories of Viet Nam suppressed, for the most part, devoting herself to her job, her B&B project, and most of all, her children. “As long as my children are all right, I’ll be all right” has been her mantra since the oldest was born. But a crisis has shattered her self-control and repression, brought on by her son’s desire to enlist as a fighter pilot and Tony’s visit to thank her for saving his life in Viet Nam.

Tony’s visit to Claire is the last in a series of encounters he has undertaken to deal with his own memories and trauma. After years of counseling, he has faced the losses of Viet Nam, saying good-bye to many of his comrades, and has visited with other survivors. Finding the nurse who wouldn’t let him die alongside his friend, when both men were badly wounded and infected, is closure that he wants, so he tracks her down and travels to Virginia to meet and thank her. But when his visit sets off a flashback episode, he realizes that she hasn’t had the help he has had, and that she is suffering PTSD as well. So he brings his own teenage daughter to Virginia and moves in to help with the B&B construction and to try to help Claire come to terms with her memories and trauma.

This is a harrowing book. I’m not sure I could have read it if it wasn’t a category romance; I knew it would work out okay in the end, and that was all that kept me going. Claire’s suffering is depicted vividly and believably, and there are no easy answers or quick fixes. The author seems to have done thorough research; it’s not info-dumped, but there’s a lot of history as well as contemporary detail in the Viet Nam memories and in the depiction of treatment of PTSD, especially for women. I did not know before that what we now call PTSD (shell shock in the first world war, battle fatigue in the second) was called “soldier’s heart” in Civil War veterans. Korbel makes good use of this in the book.

Any romance novel that depicts one character involved in major recovery faces a challenge: how does the romance intertwine with the recovery? How can the reader be sure both that recovery has taken place (without short-cuts or miracles, please), and that the relationship is based on more than neediness or gratitude? This book manages that pretty well. Tom is instrumental in Claire’s decision to seek help and healing, but it is clearly her journey (without him, for a time). They only commit to a life together once she is sure she’ll be okay. The final scene, which takes place at the Viet Nam Memorial wall, had me sobbing.

I’m not always a high-angst reader, but this one really worked for me. It was emotionally wrenching, ultimately satisfying, and avoided the many pitfalls that come with this territory. I wish the book was available digitally, but for now used copies seem the only option.

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