by Lynne Welch
Susan Wiggs tackles the tough issues, and she has the awards to prove it. Wiggs, winner of both the Romance Writers of America's RITA Award and the Romantic Times Career Achievement Award, lives on an island in Puget Sound (Washington) settled by hardy immigrants who lived close to the land and appreciated its value, and many of her stories reflect that nature-centric culture in some way. Her special focus is a woman's journey to self-awareness, usually within the context of a romance or at the very least, with a romantic subplot. Poignant and tender, her stories focus more on the sexual tension between characters than on its explicit physical resolution, and she describes any personality quirks sympathetically, inviting the reader to join her in gently laughing at the characters' foibles and follies.
Her protagonists are invariably intelligent, socially awkward, emotionally vulnerable women with a strong core, self-reliant to a fault because they have never been able to depend on anyone else for their security, whether financial, physical, or emotional. By contrast, their male foils — and often nemeses, at least in the beginning — may be bad boys or pillars of the community, but all have generally grown up to be strong, self-confident men who enjoy the women in their lives even while they expect them to fall in line with their plans and their timetables. Wiggs employs character to good effect in building high-stakes conflict within the confines of these relationship dramas. Her readers care deeply about her characters, and Wiggs takes both readers and characters on an emotional roller-coaster ride as the novel develops. Although the storyline centers on the woman's journey to growth and personal fulfillment, Wiggs enriches the experience by chronicling the perspectives of other male and female characters during pivotal scenes as well.
Setting varies across time and place as well as genre, but is generally limited to the United States in her more recent work. Her Contemporary Romance Lakeshore Chronicles series is set in a fictional small town of the New York Catskills region, while the Historical Romances which form the Calhoun Chronicles and the Chicago Fire series are set in pre-Civil War Virginia and late nineteenth-century Chicago, respectively. Others, such as her contemporary fiction stand-alone title The Ocean Between Us, are focused on Women's Lives and Relationships and set in the Pacific Northwest. Whatever the location, setting plays an important role and is evocatively described in lush, vivid terminology, creating a world of color, sensation, smell and taste for the reader's enjoyment.
Pacing is leisurely, as befits these explorations of self-awareness by the protagonists. In many cases, the issue they face is one of having been carried along unresisting on a tide of family and career obligations for too long without stopping to draw breath, and now they are faced with a turning point which offers them a choice. Then the conflict arises because they are not in the habit of examining their own motivations and expectations: Wiggs's heroines are caught without a plan and must pause to re-group. Description of the interior landscape while the characters mentally thrash out their dilemmas is vivid as well, adding depth and extra dimension to these tales.
The Lakeshore Chronicles, starting with Summer at Willow Lake, are a good introduction to Wiggs's work for any reader. Avalon, NY, is a former resort for the rich, and the Bellamy family's long-vacant summer home is now being readied for a Golden Anniversary party. During the course of renovations, daughter Olivia and former bad boy Connor, now the contractor in charge of the project, meet again for the first time in years and, of course, immediately clash. This series has several older heroines struggling with their place in the world to interest readers who enjoy relationship dramas centered around Women's Lives and Relationships, and the skillful melding of past and present may also intrigue readers of both Contemporary and Historical Romances.
Last Edited on: 3/6/08 5:07 PM ET - Total times edited: 1