In Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter in Paradise, (Little, Brown and Company) Irene Steele leads an idyllic life. She is the mother of two adult sons, Baker and Cash, and the editor of Heartland Home & Style, a magazine that depicts the “bread-and-butter values of the Midwest.” She’s healthy and naturally slender (as in: has never had to diet a day in her life), and lives in a beautiful, luxurious Queen Anne-style home. And, of course, she is happily married to a loving, romantic man, Russ Steele.
And while it’s true that Russ travels a lot on business, it’s also true that he is the type to send flowers for no reason and to hire a barnstormer plane to circle Iowa City dragging a banner in honor of her 50th birthday. Irene is, by any reasonable metric, a lucky woman.
Until she isn’t.
On the first night of the new year, Irene receives a call informing that her husband has died in a helicopter accident, along with the pilot and a local woman in St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands), where he, unbeknownst to Irene, owned a house. A villa, actually – one worth $15 million. Irene is shocked and confused: her Russ wasn’t even in the Virgin Islands. Irene and her two sons travel to St. John, unsure of what they’ll find once they get there. Whatever it is, it cannot be worse than learning that Russ is dead.
What they find is this: Russ Steele had a secret second family. The local woman was his girlfriend, Rosie. Speaking as a married woman myself, this isn’t just worse. It’s much worse. From there, the story unfolds through the points of view of the Steeles (Irene, Cash, and Baker), Ayers (Rosie’s best friend), Huck (Rosie’s stepdad), and, for a brief chapter, Maia (Rosie’s 12-year-old daughter).
It is written in the easy, fast-paced style that crowned Elin Hilderbrand the “Queen of Summer.” Like all Hilderbrand novels, it is filled with contemporary book references (my favorite: Curtis Sittenfeld’s You Think It, I’ll Say It) and wine recommendations (a confession: I bought bottles of Kendall-Jackson, Simi, and Cakebread – and I’m not even a fan of Chardonnay).
This book is two things that I did not think could go together.
The first: This book is a vacation. The story is juicy and gripping, filled with paradisiacal descriptions that made me feel like I was in St. John, alongside Irene, Ayers, and Maia (Maia is, by far, my favorite). It’s escapist fiction at its best. There’s an addictive, soap-opera quality to this novel (I mean this in a good way). It’s a rare reader whose heart will not drop and soar as these characters scramble to navigate the labyrinth left by Russ’s duplicity. Simply put, it’s a page-turner.
The second thing: This book is a moving reflection on a family. Because it is told through so many points of view, it is able to tackle several big themes: regret, betrayal, grief. The question of whether we ever really know someone. The acute heartbreak that comes with being forced to grow up too soon. The snowballing pain brought by secrets. These unique characters are united by sorrow and by a thorny lesson: families are messy. Even the happy ones.
Which brings me to an important point: though it deals with loss, there is happiness in this book. Messy, imperfect happiness. Real happiness. It’s uplifting, therapeutic, and delightful. It’s Elin Hilderbrand at her best.
The cherry on the cake: this is the first book in Hilderbrand’s newest winter series. Which means that there is more to come. I, for one, cannot wait.
Cecilia Lyra is a guest blogger on BookTrib.com, courtesy of the Girly Book Club. Interested in joining a Girly Book Club chapter in your neighborhood? Visit https://girlybookclub.com for everything you need to know!
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ABOUT ELIN HILDERBRAND:
Elin Hilderbrand first discovered the magic of Nantucket in July 1993. Her recipe for a happy island life includes running, writing at the beach, picnics at Eel Point with her three children, and singing “Home, Sweet Home” at the Club Car piano bar. Here’s to Us is her seventeenth novel.