Title: Reading the Sweet Oak by Jan Stites
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Contemporary, Women’s Fiction, Romance Elements
Length: 386 pages
Book Rating: B+
Complimentary Review Copy Provided by Publisher Through NetGalley
Along the banks of the Sweet Oak River, deep in the heart of the Ozarks, a romance novel book club takes five women on stunning journeys of self-discovery.
After losing first her husband, then her daughter, seventy-eight-year-old grandmother Ruby wants to teach her risk-averse granddaughter, Tulsa, that some leaps are worth taking, no matter how high the potential fall. Tulsa loves her grandmother dearly, but she has a business to run and no time for romance—not even the paperback version. But when Ruby ropes her into a book club, Tulsa can’t bring herself to disappoint the woman who raised her.
Together with Ruby’s best friend, Pearl, as well as family friends BJ and Jen, the women embark on an exploration of modern-day love guided by written tales of romance. What they discover is a beautiful story that examines the bonds of friendship and the highs and lows of love in all its forms.
Set against the gorgeous backdrop of the Ozarks, Reading the Sweet Oak is a beautiful novel of family, friendship and love. This engrossing novel by Jan Stites is a wonderful journey of self-discovery for all of the characters after they form a romance novel book club. It is a thought-provoking and charming story that I strongly recommend to readers of contemporary women’s fiction.
Tulsa Riley and her grandmother Ruby love their home on the banks of the Sweet Oak River. Together, they run a canoeing and cabin rental business and although it is risky decision, they decide to purchase an adjacent property when the opportunity arises. With the help of her half-brother, Guy Smith, Tulsa devises a clever advertising strategy to draw in new customers but they are fighting an uphill battle when bad weather strikes and a neighbor sets out to destroy their business. In the midst of trouble, Ruby’s ingenious plan to use a romance novel book club to convince Tulsa to open her heart to love seems to be working after Tulsa meets Slade Morrison, a wealthy business who comes to Sweet Oak in search of adventure.
The romance novel book club is a clever plot device and the members range from Tulsa’s age on up to Ruby’s. Each are facing their own unique set of challenges and the books that Ruby selects vary from contemporary to historical and the lead characters are as varied as the storylines. After completing each book, the women apply the lessons they learn to their own lives, often with surprising results.
Tulsa’s resistance to Ruby’s attempts to convince her to read the selections is fruitless and she is definitely a reluctant participant. Tulsa is a strong woman who loves Ruby dearly but her early life with her mother left its mark on her. Her mother flitted from one failed relationship to another and unfortunately, Tulsa’s few attempts at romance have been unsuccessful. After watching her mother get her heart broken time and again, she has decided not to risk her heart, but her recent break up hurt more than anticipated. After meeting Slade, Tulsa tries to keep their relationship purely physical but despite her best efforts to remain emotionally detached, she entertains the possibly of a future with him.
Ruby also includes Tulsa’s friend Jen Haskell in the monthly book group and after reading the novels, she finds herself reassessing her relationship with her live-in boyfriend. While on paper he is picture perfect, she begins noticing how unequal their roles are and how little he values her needs and desires. But after her tumultuous upbringing, Jen craves a family of her own but is the safe choice the best option for her?
Guy’s mother, BJ Smith, is also a member of the book group and she is probably the most troubled of the women. Her past is full of poor decisions and she still harbors a great deal of guilt and shame from her long ago actions. After a heated exchange over her excessive involvement in his life, Guy convinces her to take the initative and ask a recent widower out on a date. She works up the nerve and much to her surprise, he accepts. Using the romance novels to guide her, BJ takes their relationship to the next level, but will her secrets destroy her chance for happiness?
The book club would not be complete without Ruby’s childhood friend Pearl. Like Ruby, Pearl is widowed but unlike Ruby, she does not mourn the loss of her late husband. A devout Christian, Pearl’s literal interpretation of scripture lead to miserable marriage where she was more indentured servant than wife. A shocking revelation from her beloved grandson forces her to rethink her long held beliefs but can she put aside the convictions of a lifetime for his sake?
Reading the Sweet Oak is a captivating novel that is quite heartwarming. The characters are vibrantly developed, immensely appealing and incredibly easy to relate to. The issues they are facing ring true and the resolution of the various story arcs is believable. Jan Stites brings the setting vividly to life and the lush beauty of the Ozarks leaps off the pages. The phenomenal character growth, engaging storyline and stunning location are the perfect ingredients for an incredibly satisfying and entertaining reading experience. An absolutely marvelous novel that I highly recommend.