Grace A. Johnson
Review: The Heart of San Francisco series by Julie Lessman
So, I'm going to be blunt--and I mean throughout this entire post, which walks a fine line between review and rant--so not only will there be some spoilers, there will also be a lot of honesty.
I love Julie Lessman. For once, she's a great person and, for two, she's a great author. Sure, she's not perfect, and neither are any of her books (jury's still out on A Hope Undaunted, of course), but somehow, she manages to snag you, reel you in, make your heart bleed. Despite typos and punctuation errors (there are never that many, though) and a few cliches and some subjects that rub you raw. It's downright sinful how passionate not just her stories but her prose itself is. Every word is laced with some sort of...poison. A love potion, perhaps? Or just plain ol' alcohol?
Witchcraft aside, I always find myself enjoying her books. Even if I dislike the characters (such as with Brady and Lizzie in A Passion Denied) or even if I dislike the story itself (like A Love Surrendered), I still enjoy the book. Seriously.
The same goes for The Heart of San Francisco.
They're not the O'Connors. If you've read any reviews about the individual books, then you'll know--no one thinks that they are anything like the 12 (currently) book-long O'Connor saga. Unfortunately, that's lets a lot of readers down, and with good reason. The O'Connors are exactly the kind of family you'd want to call your own--they're close-knit, they're large, they're spiritual, they're funny, they're oh, so love, and they're constantly taking in others and praying with each and building each other up. (All except for a certain Henry Dennehy. He's much better at knocking people down, and I mean literally! 🤣) The McClares--the family in the "heart" of San Francisco--aren't even the McShane/Donovan family of Nevada or the O'Brien/Carmichael family of Georgia. Sure, they share some traits with each of these beloved families, but they aren't the same.
They are roguish uncle Logan McClare, widowed mother Caitlyn Stewart McClare, rakish son Blake, tomboy daughter Allison, quiet middle child Meg, baby of the family Maddie, fourth cousin (twice removed, mind you) Bram Hughes, family friend (and nephew, believe it or not) Jamie MacKenna, and stepcousin Cassidy McClare.
They're high-society, highfalutin, and very Californian lawyers. (Bit of trivia here, Cait's from Boston originally and Cassie's a Texan.)
They're endearing in their own special way, made more so by a high-society family of my own (who are soon to make their debut into the world!).
As a whole, the series is just as funny and lighthearted, passionate and spiritual, deep and abiding, as anything Julie has written. Maybe not quite as passionate as Katie and Luke (my cheeks flame just thinkin' about them two), or even as spiritual as Mrs. Gerson--but, altogether, as good as series as any. Frisco comes to life in Julie's signature way, with a lot of flowers and a bit of wit, and each novel has some good points that might even make you like them even more than the O'Connors. You, not me. I'm still mooning over Mitch--ain't nobody takin' me from my man. Who might possibly be old enough to be my father...but that's beside the point.
Book 1: Love at Any Cost--Four and a half stars.
San Francisco, California
Cassidy McClare has been burned by a wealthy "pretty boy" before--and boy, was it bad! Mark Chancellor, the "rat" that broke her heart, is in fact the very reason why she's made the journey from her home of Texas to her aunt and uncle's in Frisco. Being with her cousins, lively Allison, tenderhearted Meg, fun-loving Maddie, and charming Blake, promises laughter, sunshine, and the easing of her heartache--and a position teaching at her aunt Cait's Hand of Hope school for the girls of Barbary.
There's just one teensy, tiny problem: a very "big" pretty boy by the name of Jamie MacKenna.
So, this sounds pretty familiar, doesn't? Ever heard of Shannon O'Brein, teacher from South Georgia who'd been burned by a handsome playboy? Or, maybe the name Sam Cunningham strikes a cord--you know, Shan's brother's best friend, a heartbreaker just like her ex? (A heartbreaker who is also very adorable in his charming little boy way and full of love and a trepidation of his own?) Well, I couldn't help but shake my head and laugh at how much Love at Any Cost reminded me of Love Everlasting. The "innocent" flirting between Jamie and Cassie, the tentative "friendship" they attempted, the woman that stood in the way of their future, the feelings of betrayal they both felt...oh, yeah. That had Isle of Hope written all. over. it.
So, yes, I loved this book in the same way I loved Love Everlasting. It was a walk on a tightrope, wondering whether or not the hero's intentions were true, watching as they teetered between friends, enemies, and something more, praying that when the truth came out that their relationship would remain intact (and knowing it wouldn't). Having the addition of Logan and Cait's tentative romance moved the story along, quite like Tess and Ben's in the Isle of Hope series.
That being said, it was easy to tell which couple Julie liked the most out of all five of the series--Logan and Cait. She poured a little more passion, a little more heart, a little more drama into their relationship, not unlike Libby and Finn's in Love's Silver Lining. I have to say, I was, at times, more intrigued by Logan and Cait's story than I was Jamie and Cassie's. And here's why...
These two characters fell a wee bit flat. All right, Jamie had a lot going for him--boyish good looks and a boatload of charm. No, wait. I meant conflict and depth within his immediate person and external relationships and circumstances. But...he felt too much like Sam, in some ways, so I had a hard time differentiating Jamie from not just Sam but also the feeling that he was a sort of repeat--a cliche, if you will. And this is something that has happened before with Julie Lessman's novels. She doesn't really use set cliches and archetypes from other works--she invents her own, and since they work so well, she keeps using them. I mean, you have the big brother figure and the "sister" romance, right? But once Julie gets a hold of it, it's a story all its own...which means every nuance she placed into the concept is reimplemented into other stories based on that same idea. *sighs, realizing she sounds more like a college professor than a book reviewer* More on that later.
Cassie, on the other hand, wasn't like Julie's other characters--since she was a "cowgirl." By definition, she should have been a lot of fun--wild, a little crass, uncomfortable in high society. And yet, she wasn't any of those things. Perhaps because of her father's upbringing in high society, she wasn't unaccustomed to it...but all the mentions of being disdained by high society and not fitting in and being tomboyish and hanging out with Indians more than wealthy whites made me wish that Cassie was a little more cowgirl-ish than she was. She lacked the ommph characters like Charity, Katie, and Gabe O'Connor and Cat O'Brien possessed. Both she and Jamie had a lot of potential that wasn't fully tapped.
Which is why it didn't get five stars.
Now, as a book, author name aside, I think Love at Any Cost moved along very smoothly, all but for the matter of betrayal toward the end, which I think could have been handled in a more deft manner to provide the conflict Jamie and Cassie's relationship needed--a sort of conflict that would have to do with name calling and object throwing and maybe a forceful kiss or two. The setting of San Francisco could have been touched on a little more, with different characters thrown in and more, well, more objectivity.
Had this been written by an author I didn't know so well, I would've had a lot more to say about it...but it was written by Julie Lessman, and I know she writes VERY character-driven novels, more so than mine, that focus more on dialogue, emotion, aura, and spirituality than plot, two thousand secondary characters, and a heap of action. She selects a handful of colorful characters, a building or two in which to set the greater portion of her story, and a key point--a moral of the story, if you will--and pours her heart and soul into it, coloring cardboard characters with bright hues of scarlet and lush green and violet and gold, masterly using wit and her characters' often crotchety personality to make you laugh, and cultivating a garden that quickly blossoms with a drizzle of rain and a load of sunshine.
So, yes, Love at Any Cost was not my favorite of hers. For once, I wished that she had abandoned her tiny garden and planted a field, branching off into the big city and the high society in a way that the close-knit O'Connors simply can't. It would have been different, and in a good way, but somehow, Love at Any Cost still managed to retain that warm, cozy feeling, even in Frisco. I think, for a reader willing to take a chance, you can easily see all of Julie's signature "moves" at work in this entire series.
Book 2: Dare to Love Again--Four stars
San Francisco, California
Allison McClare has worn three engagements rings in her almost twenty-three years--the most recent of which belonging to one Roger Luepke, the man who cured her of men for good. Now, instead of devoting her time to fawning over her uncle's handsome acquaintances and laughing with her cousin Cassie about her next prospect, she's giving it all to her mother's Hand of Hope school for the girls of Barbary Coast...and to whacking a certain Neanderthal with her stick.
Nick Barone--long e, mind you--has no use for highfalutin princesses like Allison McClare, and well she knows it. So why she ends up in his everyday life, a nearly permanent fixture, the police detective will never know. What everyone knows, though, is that sparks are flying between the "penniless cop" and the society princess, promising a very hot summer.
So, technically, it's Bare-on-ay--long a sound. And, yes, I have that on good record. And, technically, it's Burke--although I'm still not sure where the long e comes in. *shrugs shoulders, unable to admit how much she disdains the name Burke after it stole from her the only Italian she's ever loved* *sniffles, then blows nose noisily*
Now, as you can see, Dare to Love Again has garnered only four stars, the first Lessman book to do so since Lizzie and Brady, who we all know I'm not a huge fan of. So that's got to mean something. That I don't like grouches? No, no--I LOVE grouches, like Mitch Dennehy, for example. That man...oh, Lord.
I just so happen to also love legitimate Italians--that's long i, emphasis on the t, short a, soften the l, long e, short a, only a little emphasis on the n, stretch the z. I-tal-ee-anzz.
I'll go ahead and stop right now, before I start to cry. Or spoil anything.
Everything that I said about Love at Any Cost? Yeah, it doesn't apply to Dare to Love Again. This story features a lot more of Frisco--from the Coast to Chinatown, promising more fun in the sun. It also features a very independent "dizzy dame" and a delectable warm-blooded Italian police detective with a dark past--characters that appear sure to please.
Unfortunately, Dare to Love Again was a hodge-podge of settings, a constant back-and-forth, with neither place (the school, orphanage, streets, any of it) being developed enough. The story didn't flow smoothly at all. At one moment, Nick and Alli hate each other, the next he's about to kiss her. Their romance, for all its promises, was empty. It was rushed and, despite the initial first few chapters, devoid of any sizzle. They didn't even have a real kiss scene, people! For all but the last couple chapters of the book, I kept expecting the Italian--scratch that, the Roman--in Nick to come out and show them Irishmen who's boss...until I found out he *wails loudly* wasn't Italian!
Anyway, the usual carriage of the story by the characters was missing a few wheels. And Nick's issues--the notorious past I've always awaited with suspense--left much to be desired. I wanted more from him spiritually, passionately, and problematically.
I just wanted more from the story overall. The first couple chapters were great. Nick and Alli's banter was high-lair-ee-us and the book had all the trademarks of a great Lessman novel--i.e., a short, petite old lady by the name of Miss Penny. She was supposed to be our Frisco Yoda, like Miss Lilly. Only...she wasn't. She had a lot of moments to shine, and yet she didn't.
Now, I can't blame it on Julie. Once you've read her other work--particularly her indie Isle of Hope series--you'll see that she doesn't let ANYTHING--sparks, characters, plot lines, past issues, little old ladies--go to waste. And after she's abruptly ended the story of one couple in the previous book, she lets you have a peek of their new life as a married couple in the next. I will never forget what Sam said in His Steadfast Love...talk about God's honest truth. 🤣
No, it wasn't Julie's fault. She'll let you bask in the romantic and spiritual glory for FOREVER. Her O'Connors are such a wonderful family that lay it on thick in both the kisses, the prayers, and the chocolate icing (at least, they did, 'til Patrick's heart issues). You never abandon any of the characters--not with Christmas novellas and extra POVs involved. They keep coming back, so I keep coming back.
This was simply her attempt at trying something different--lighter, shorter, less passionate. And it's not her fault at all that she's better at heavy, long, and VERY passionate!
And I'm getting off track.
Dare to Love Again had potential...it really did. Unfortunately, it was never tapped. Either that, or I'm just upset that Nick wasn't really Italian--and you really aren't supposed to know that. Believe it or not, every single one of Julie's main characters are Irish--if not full-blooded and Irish-born, then Irish in origin. Only Alex Kincaid and Gabriella Smith (O'Connor) are not inherently Irish. Gabe's last name is Smith, so it's likely that she's just plain English. And Alex's surname is Kincaid, which is Scottish--although Scottish comes from Irish...and the Gaelic doesn't differ much...and I'm pretty sure his mother was Irish--so, yeah, we'll just say he's Scottish.
Which is beside the point.
Which is why we're moving on.
Book 3: Surprised by Love--Four and a half stars
San Francisco, California
Megan McClare left behind a childhood of baby fat, glasses, and braces when she went to Paris for her senior year. Now, she's returned to her loving family, supportive best friend, and all the memories of her childhood. In other words, Devin Caldwell, the bully who ruined her life. A new woman outfitted with stylish clothes, straight teeth, a slender figure, and contacts, she's determined to raise above the image everyone had assigned to her--that she'd assigned to herself--and prove to herself, Devin, and even her family that she's more than just a chubby face. And if she can prove that she's more than just a "sister" to Bram Hughes, her best friend and surrogate older brother, at the same time, then so be it!
Megan and Bram's story revives the friends-to-lovers/brother's best friend romance trope that even Julie adores. Like Lizzie and Brady in A Passion Denied and Jake and Sheridan in Love's Silver Bullet. Meg and Bram have known each other for years and have always relied on one another--Meg on Bram for emotional support and unconditional love and Bram on Meg to be the little sister he lost. Then everything changes when she returns home from Paris looking more like an "attractive young woman" than the little girl she used to be.
We've been through this plot trope before, it seems. But this time Julie presents a much less dramatic story bereft of shooting lessons and cracker crumbs and accidental kisses, and with a Sabrina twist. (If you've ever watched either Sabrina movies, you'll get it.) For the first time in this series, her shortened length and more lighthearted storytelling works really well eliminate the more stressful elements of the friends-to-lovers story.
Bram and Meg are still the stereotypical characters--Godly, big brother-esque family friend with a dark past and starry-eyed young girl with a quick mind but a gentle demeanor. Their main plot is still the same. Simply...less dramatic. More externally focused, to be honest. I still really like the drama and the back-and-forth that Love's Silver Bullet and even A Passion Denied had, and of course I like the multiple POVs of all the other family members, which I really missed in this series. But surprisingly, this new method worked wonders on Bram and Meg's story.
It also worked well on Logan and Cait's, which is finally completed in Surprised by Love. Their romance was able to drag out across three novels, of course, deftly entwined with the stories of Cait and Logan's children (not theirs together, of course). Their love story was a little more passionate, a little more dramatic (thanks to Andrew Turner), which was great, but I swanny if Cait wasn't crying in every. single. scene.
Either way, at this point (as in only two/three chapters from the very end), it appears as though Surprised by Love deserves five stars. It was short and sweet, and nicely so, and featured a little more of our character's lives outside the family (which was kind of depressing, since I do so like the family). But then...the end. It was the most rushed ending I have ever read in my entire life. At one point, toward the beginning of the end, Meg is laid up in her bed, bruised and battered, and only one scene with her and Bram occurs before she's back at the law office. Suffice it to say, the two snakes of the story are found out all in one fell swoop and, within seconds, the heroines are united with their heroes and every lives happily ever after. There's no confrontation--which was at least needed on Cait/Logan/Andrew's parts, after Andrew was found out to be a horrendous hypocrite. There's no "oh, my! How could I have be fooled? How was I so blind?" moment on anyone's part. Admittedly, Meg and Devin didn't need as much confrontation and "oh, woe is me" as Cait and Andrew did. We all knew Devin was as snake and we all knew Meg wasn't in love with him.
But Andrew Turner? Cait was going to marry him. Then she finds out that he's been funding the very brothel they're striving to shut down, and she--what? She just says goodbye and moves on. I mean, really? After all this time? After all the pretending? After all the pushing Logan away?
Yeah. I needed more ending.
Book 3.5: Grace Like Rain--Five stars
San Francisco, California
Blake "The Rake" McClare has grown rather fond of his reputation--and his nickname--as the rogue about town over the years. He's not afraid to have a little fun and break a few hearts...until Patience Peabody changes everything.
Patience Grace Peabody has been carefully avoiding Mr. McClare's easy flirtations and charming smiles for well over two years now, since she accepted the position of receptionist in his uncle's law firm. And her method of avoidance had been working quite well...until one stormy morning reveals something kind and gentle beneath a playboy exterior.
Leave it to me to pick the shortest story in the series as my absolute favorite. (Also leave it to me to pick the one about the girl who goes by Gracie, has brown hair that glints auburn in the sun, brown eyes, and a beauty mark on her right cheek as my absolute favorite. 😉)
In Grace Like Rain, we get one final glimpse at the McClare family through the eyes of the wayward son, Blake. Now, we've all loved Blake, haven't we? He was a great addition to the dynamics of the McClare family--but that was about it. No special insight. No conflict. No secrets. No...nothing.
Well, that all changes in this little novella. I'd venture to say that this is the shortest thing that Julie Lessman has ever written--shorter than A Glimmer of Hope, shorter than the O'Connor Christmas novellas, shorter, of course, than any of her novels. Of course, it was originally part of a novella collection--With This Kiss--so maybe that has something to do with it, but that hasn't stopped the O'Connors from having lengthy Christmases, if you know what I mean.
So, armed with two adorable main characters, Julie set about to craft a short but enjoyable story. She threw in Mr. Eugene Templeton (definitely one of her cutest kids, aside from Gabe, of course), some laugh-out-loud moments, and several delicious kisses--all of which were longer and more passionate than all of the kisses in the previous novels combined. Seriously.
Somehow, in such a scant amount of words, Julie threw in a quick twist and a heartfelt redemption story, all into one lovely romance. (Let's just say, the short part worked this time.)
Long story short, the Heart of the San Francisco series and the McClare family are not the O'Connors (which, spanning three series and multiple Christmas novellas, is easily one of the most popular families in historical Christian fiction). This series is short, sweet, lighthearted, funny, less close-knit, less warm and cozy, less spiritual, and less passionate. (As in, everything I love about Julie's books has been toned down considerably. Great for y'all haters--bad for me and Luke McGee.) It also focuses on a dysfunctional, motley family of sorts perched atop Snob--uh, Nob Hill in San Francisco, California. So, yes, this different take on Lessman fiction (which should totally be like a subgenre of its own) has many, many faults. The edge-of-your-seat suspense and sense of mystery that surrounds the simple not knowing the characters' pasts or what twist will appear next has been reduced to a couple thoughtful hmms throughout the story. The goosebumps-inducing spirituality--the moments of prayer, mentorship, Godly advice, Holy Spirit power, and witnessing--has been toned down to a few prayers, only or two sermons (wah!), and offscreen come-to-Jesus moments. Even the Catholic propaganda (and I use that term loosely and only because I'm Protestant) is nonexistent. That warm, homey feeling isn't the same as it is in Boston. In a way, it's there, but it's only as cozy as you can get on a stiff chaise lounge. The 170,000 words and 75+ chapters stories have been cut to 25 chapters and 90,000 words. The multiple--as in, more than four--POVs aren't present, neither is the wonderful continuation of the characters' stories throughout the entire series (you know, like where Charity and Mitch's book started with Faith, Collin, Marcy, and Patrick's perspectives/stories and we got a glimpse--to put it lightly--of Sam and Shan after they said "I do" in Cat and Chase's book and we continued to see more of Libby and Finn and Maggie and Blaze in Love's Silver Bullet). Those toe-curling, blush-eliciting, delicious to the point of insanity kisses that everyone loves (and complains about)...nil. I mean, there are kisses, don't get me wrong, and there are slightly delicious moments, but it's nothing like the usual. This entire series is nothing like usual.
But...(there's always a but, if you're wondering)...Julie Lessman has still written five wonderful stories. She's still invented ten wonderful main characters and a whole host of secondary ones. She's still crafted romances that make you want to laugh, cry, and hug someone all at the same time. She's still used her beautiful, passionate, descriptive prose to write four amazing books. Some things never change, do they? And Julie Lessman's talent is one of them.