Before I get to my review proper, I must say that this author does a fantastic job of describing food. The main character Zoe is a trained chef and the meals she creates are just...well...wow...even her oatmeal sounds blissful.
This book follows Christmas Eve at Friday Harbor and Rainshadow Road, books that tell the stories of the very dysfunctional Nolan brothers. This book actually runs in a concurrent timeline with Rainshadow Road so you get glimpses of Lucy and Sam's romance in progress tangentially from Alex's perspective.
In this one we get Alex's story. While all the Nolan siblings were affected by their parents' alcoholism, Alex got the brunt of it because he was the youngest and was still living at home when his parents spiraled relentlessly downward in the grip of their disease. The glimpses we had of Alex in the previous books showed that he was the most cynical, most damaged brother of all three. He is just getting out of a disastrous marriage, he is broke, unhappy, alcoholic and still living the scars of his childhood. And what is worse, he just doesn't care.
Until he starts being haunted by a ghost. A real live -- well, make that dead -- ghost. At first the ghost, a young WWII fighter pilot, is stuck in the house that Sam (Alex's brother) is remodeling for his Vineyard. But when he meets Alex, he becomes tethered to Alex and is forced to follow along witness Alex's destructive lifestyle. It is obvious he is attached to Alex for a reason. Part of the story is learning why.
In the meantime, Alex is rehabbing a house for Zoe and her grandmother. It brings him into contact a lot with Zoe who is sweet and generous and loving. Alex wants to run as fr away from Zoe as he can. Zoe however is drawn toward the dark brooding man.
There is so much to like in this book. I thought the author did an excellent job of creating dynamic characters especially with Alex and Zoe. She went beyond the typical tortured hero and healing-woman tropes and gave both main characters lovely depth and surprising layers. Zoe's own background is filled in and is a little sad and a little happy. I am glad that the author did not go the easy route in how she presented the troubled relationship between Zoe and her father. It felt realistic. I also thought that Alex's issue were also presented realistically without feeling too dramatic. In the earlier books his darker personality stood out and I am glad that the author did not temper it here.
I was also very gratified with how much information on different things were presented in this book but did not sound like you were being lectured at or that she was trying to impress us with how much research she had done on a subject. There were wonderful descriptive moments of Alex's craftsmanship as a carpenter as he is doing work on the various houses that made me feel as if I simply dropped in from time to time to watch him work. There are of course the fantastic and mouth watering descriptions of the meals that Zoe cooks and the blissed out reactions of people as they describe how the food tastes to them. I am still thinking about that oatmeal and I don't even like oatmeal.
And like the other books in the series this book dabbles in a little whimsical magic. There is a ghost who is there to bicker with Alex. But also Zoe's food itself has a hint of magic about it. Not so blatant as say,Like Water for Chocolate, but somewhat reminiscent. Her food makes people...feel things.
Most of all this is just a plain old good story. I can't tell you how many books I picked up and put down in the past weeks because nothing captured me. This book immediately hooked me and I gobbled it down quickly like one of Zoe's muffins.
(Review of ARC via the Amazon Vine program)