My Hope Next Door by Tammy L. Gray


This RITA® Reader Challenge 2017 review was written by Samantha. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Romance with Spiritual or Religious Elements category.

The summary:

Can love grow in the shadow of a broken past?

Former bad girl Katie Stone can feel the weight of her reputation settle over her as she drives home for the first time in years. Feeling deeply guilty about her past mistakes, Katie wants to do the right thing for once. But the small town where she grew up is not nearly as forgiving as she’d hoped. Despite it all, she’s determined to help her parents cope with her mother’s recent illness, and Katie finds a surprise ally in the man next door.
Asher Powell never minded being the son of a small-town pastor until a recent breakup leaves him wounded by lifelong members of his church. He remembers his new neighbor as a mean-spirited high school troublemaker, but he senses that her newfound faith and desire for forgiveness are sincere.
Through an unexpected friendship, two people from different worlds find peace, hope, and a second chance they never dreamed was possible.

Here is Samantha’s review:

Katie Stone is back in Fairfield, the small Georgia town in which she grew up, after four years away to help her parents deal with her mother’s recent MS diagnosis. The problem is that Katie doesn’t want to be back home because she’s filled with all sorts of self-loathing and guilt over the wreckage she left behind when she hightailed it out of town in the middle of the night after doing the very horrible, no good, very bad thing that shall not be named (until the book is almost over . . . more on this later, obviously).

Since Katie’s been gone, Asher Powell, son of a preacher man and holder of an unexplained “computer” job that seems to take up none of his time and yet pays well enough that he can casually drop thousands of dollars of deck furniture, has moved into the house next door to Katie’s parents. Asher is a sad person because he had a bad breakup a year ago and his ex-girlfriend and her father spread “terrible lies” about the relationship that got Asher fired from his volunteer gig at the church where his father preaches.

The first thing you should know about My Hope Next Door is that it is an inspirational with a heavy focus on religion. The only other inspirational I’ve read is a book I picked up after reading a positive RITA Review on it last year: A Noble Masquerade, which is a light-hearted historical that is like any other historical except no sexy times and some occasional prayer.

This book is not lightly inspirational. Christianity and the church are central to the story, and the characters are moored in Southern Christian culture. If that is not something you are looking for, this book is not for you. There are some things that arose from that worldview that bothered me, such as Asher’s ex-girlfriend being described as a “woman who made Jezebel look like a saint” and problematic language about treating everyone you date like someone’s future spouse (because treating someone poorly is an affront to their future spouse, and not, you know, just a shitty thing to do to another human being?). Also, I appreciated that there was an emphasis on Christians being multidimensional people, but I wish that had extended to the non-Christians, who were universally portrayed as deeply unhappy. However, when I think about why I struggled to get through this book, those things were really mild annoyances.

The biggest problem with My Hope Next Door is telling and not showing. This tendency really undercut the romance for me. Katie and Asher’s early interactions revolve around Katie going over to Asher’s while he works on his deck and the two of them falling into long conversations, but very little of these interactions actually made it to the page. You’ll get a brief conversation and then the book tells you that they talked for hours and that, for the rest of the week, the same thing happens. I live for good banter in a romance, and here I got only a small amount of boring banter, which, for me, is a deal breaker.

The real emotional heft of this book resides in Katie’s redemption arc. But the book’s insistence on telling the reader that Katie was bad girl without really explaining what she did or went through (until the very end of the book) meant that it was hard for me to get a hold on who Katie was back then or how that impacted her in the present. There is a bunch of talking around Katie’s past, and what details the reader does get are inconsistent. At the start, Katie’s past is painted as more youthful rebellion than hardened criminal, with references to TP-ing houses and drinking a six-pack with her friends by the river. At some point near the middle of the book, it’s casually dropped in that Katie is an addict (presumably to some non-specified drug(s) and maybe alcohol? The explanation here was severely lacking). I’m by no means an expert on addiction, but I’m pretty sure that if Katie went into recovery four months before (I’m just assuming she got clean at some point, but that’s conjecture because, again, Katie’s past is not well defined) that it would be kind of a big part of her life at the point the story is taking place. By the time I found out what happened that caused Katie to leave Fairfield and have all this guilt, I was so tired of the runaround that it didn’t pack much of punch, just relief that we were finally done talking around it with Katie’s sad, cryptic thoughts about how she can never be forgiven for her sins.

Finally, we need to talk about Asher. I generally liked Asher – he’s a nice guy with a bitter edge from people always expecting him to be bright and happy because his dad is the preacher. But Asher’s backstory with the church and his ex-girlfriend soured me on him. In a nutshell (I don’t really consider this a spoiler because it’s dealt with fairly early in the book, but if you really don’t want to know, skip the rest of his paragraph), Asher and his ex, Jillian, dated for a few good months, and then, when he told her he might want out, she stripped naked and tempted him into sex. After a few more months, Asher realized that sex didn’t fix anything, so he dumped Jillian. Jillian and her father (yeah, her dad getting involved is pretty creepy) tell everyone at church about Asher and Jillian sleeping together, and I assume from Asher’s anger, because it wasn’t really spelled out, that they told people she was a virgin and he seduced her. Asher then gets run out of his volunteer job at the church even though he was the virgin who was seduced, not Jillian. At the start of the book, a year has gone by and Asher is just rejoining the church and dealing with his guilt over giving in to Jillian’s temptations. Ugh, was this really necessary? Even if the author wanted to do this whole guilt for giving into the temptations of sex before marriage, did it have to involve a villainous harlot who sunk her claws into him and tempted him with her body? It’s the evil-ex trope served with a heaping side of puritanical sex guilt, and it caused such forceful involuntary eye rolling that I think I sprained something.

My Hope Next Door is not a bad book, and, although I know I’ve sounded pretty down about it, there were moments that were touching (such as when Katie accepts that her ex-boyfriend isn’t entirely bad and Katie’s final redemption moment where she is forgiven by this sweet old lady Katie stole from). Nevertheless, the inconsistent and secretive characterization of Katie’s past, the general tell not show of it all, and Asher’s Jezebel ex undercut the heart of the story and made this a real slog for me to get through.

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My Hope Next Door by Tammy Gray

September 13, 2016

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