Return to Willow Lake by Susan Wiggs is a small-town romance that’s not really about the romance. And that’s a very, very good thing. It’s a story about listening to your heart, and finding the path you were meant to be on. Because only when you know who you are and what you want are you ready to love someone else.
Sonnet Romano comes back to Willow Lake, in this ninth book of Susan Wiggs’ Lakeshore Chronicles, for her step-sister Daisy’s wedding. The setting is idyllic. Camp Kioga is a beautiful location, an old summer camp on the lake shore, near the small Catskills town of Avalon where Sonnet grew up.
A place that Sonnet couldn’t wait to leave.
But Daisy’s wedding reminds her of just what she’s given up for her high-powered career as a project director at UNESCO; time with her mother and step-father, time with friends, time to unwind, time to just be herself.
A few precious hours when she doesn’t have to watch everything she says and does for what her biological father, candidate-for-the-Senate General Laurence Jeffries, might think. A man who has only been interested in her since she won a scholarship at a pretigious university and looked like she might be a credit to him after all.
Sonnet is his one mistake. The product of a youthful indiscretion while he was attending West Point and her mother was still underage. But now that he’s a candidate, his campaign is trying to “manage” Sonnet’s existence. They have to; her father’s campaign manager is her boyfriend.
But at Daisy’s wedding Sonnet’s perfect plan for her future starts to slip. Sonnet’s best friend, the person who has always been there for her, is Zach Algers. They were both outsiders in the little community of Avalon. Sonnet because she was not only bi-racial, but because her mom was a young, single mother in a community of two-parent families. And Zach, first because his mom died, so they both were being raised by single parents, but then because his dad embezzled town funds and was spending time in jail for the crime.
Misfits together growing up.
At the wedding, Sonnet discovered something new about Zach. He hadn’t just grown up into his late high school growth spurt, he’d…changed. Zach Alger was the hottest man that Sonnet Romano had ever seen. Way better than her supposedly perfect boyfriend.
And it wasn’t supposed to be like that. Not with Zach. Not with her best friend. Not tipsy, after the wedding, alone on somebody’s boat out in the middle of the lake. Zach wasn’t supposed to be the best she’d ever had. Or thought she ever would.
Because sex with Zach took away their ease with each other. Ruined their friendship.
And then Sonnet had to hear just about the scariest thing a woman can ever hear from her mother. Her mother had breast cancer. And she was pregnant. Which meant that certain forms of treatment were off the table, because they’d harm the baby.
Sonnet threw her perfect life out the window, and came back to Willow Lake, to Avalon. Her plans didn’t matter anymore. The only thing that mattered was being there for her mom, after all the years that her mother had worked two jobs and more just to keep them together. After all the years that it had been just the two of them, before her mom had finally found her own what they hoped would be happily ever after. Until cancer came calling.
Sonnet thought that she was giving up a lot to come home and be with her mother, but that any, absolutely any sacrifice she made would be worth it. What she found out was that she wasn’t sacrificing anything that she shouldn’t have jettisoned a long time ago.
And that sometimes you have to travel far away to appreciate what was right in front of your eyes all along.
Escape Rating A-: Even though this is the latest book in the Lakeshore Chronicles, I’ll confess that I haven’t read the rest of the series, and I didn’t feel left out. A reader could step right in at this point and have enough info to know what’s going on. This is Sonnet’s story and her history with Zack is all on the BFF side up until now.
This is mostly the story of Sonnet waking up and smelling the coffee, so to speak, rather than the love story. Sonnet isn’t ready for a love story for most of the book. She needs to grow up and figure out what she wants. She’s just not ready. She’s a good person, but she’s being manipulated, a lot, by her sperm-donor father.
The parts of the story that really shine are the ones that deal with Nina’s (Sonnet’s mom) cancer treatment, and the hopelessness that the family goes through. And, on a more upbeat note, the job that Sonnet takes in Avalon to work on a reality TV show about a hip-hop star doing her community service at Camp Kioga with a bunch of inner-city kids. Jezebel, the diva of the show, was both hilarious and insightful.
What I didn’t quite get was some of Orlando’s (the campaign boyfriend) motivations for his ultimate betrayal. Sperm-donor dad I understood. I didn’t like him (I doubt the reader is supposed to) but I understood him. Orlando, not so much.
Avalon is a terrific place and I want to go back.