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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Fireworks over Toccoa by Jeffrey Stepakoff

Fireworks over Toccoa by Jeffrey Stepakoff
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Genre: Contemporary, Historical
Length: Full (272 pages)
Heat: Spicy
Rating: 3 Books
Reviewed by Dandelion

Every so often that story comes along that reminds us of what it’s like to experience love for the first time—against the odds, when you least expect it, and with such passion that it completely changes you forever.

An unexpected discovery takes eighty-four-year-old Lily Davis Woodward to 1945, and the five days that forever changed her life. Married for only a week before her husband was sent to fight in WWII, Lily is anxious for his return, and the chance to begin their life together. In honor of the soldiers' homecoming, the small Georgia town of Toccoa plans a big celebration. And Jake Russo, a handsome Italian immigrant, also back from war, is responsible for the elaborate fireworks display the town commissioned. But after a chance encounter in a star-lit field, he steals Lily's heart and soul--and fulfills her in ways her socially-minded, upper-class family cannot. Now, torn by duty to society and her husband--and the poor, passionate man who might be her only true love--Lily must choose between a commitment she's already made and a love she’s never known before.

Fireworks Over Toccoa takes us to a moment in time that will resonate with readers long after the book’s unforgettable conclusion. A devastating and poignant story, this debut novel will resonate with anyone who believes in love.

This book strikes me as a cross between Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook and Robert James Waller’s The Bridges of Madison County. It captures the same idea of star-crossed lovers, of a man and woman who meet at the “wrong time” in life, when both are promised to other people and yet feel the tugging of a true soul mate. It’s set in the Deep South, in a small Georgia town rich in culture and tradition. Jeffrey Stepakoff does a nice job of bringing Toccoa to life, from its charming Main Street to its quirky small-town neighbors and wide-open fields under the starry skies.

Lily and Jake meet one afternoon, as she’s returning home from running errands and he’s setting up fireworks in a deserted field. Though Lily is married, her husband has been fighting in WWII for the past three years, and when she meets the quiet but intriguing Jake, it’s a combination of loneliness and mutual understanding that draw them together. Of course there’s passion, along with the frustration of knowing that timing isn’t on their side. There’s also an ending you might not expect, though. While this isn’t a traditional romance with a happy ever after for everyone involved, there is hope and a satisfying resolution for these characters, which I enjoyed.

Unfortunately, however, the heavy-handed narrative of this story really slows down what could have been a passionate love story set against the angst of a war-torn community. Lily is a woman who’s struggling to decide which fate she’s supposed to accept: that of a carefully prescribed Southern wife, or that of an independent artist who follows her heart. And Jake is a captivating man who understands that his nomadic lifestyle doesn’t match well with Lily’s. Still, they’re willing to give up everything for each other – and the story would be magical if that were the focus.

But Fireworks Over Toccoa attempts to frame itself inside a modern-day setting, with Lily’s granddaughter “hearing” the story along with the reader and learning a lesson about love which felt much too forced. There are also a few awkward chapters right up front that set up the history of Toccoa, which aren’t needed once we’re back in the 1940s with Lily and Jake. Beyond that, there’s a lot of unnecessary exposition that impedes the natural progress of the love story. We enjoy a few beautifully written lines like “’Do you ever wish you could divide yourself in two?...One life could follow all the wishes of your heart. The other life could fulfill your desires.’” But just as the story of Lily and Jake moves forward, it’s interrupted with flashbacks to Lily’s relationship with her parents, or a retelling of Jake’s time on the front, or a lengthy description of the history of Italian fireworks.

Still, Fireworks Over Toccoa and its message of “carpe diem” is a tried and true one. If you have the patience to get through a lot of narrative, and if you enjoy historical love stories set in the mid-twentieth century, the overwhelming passion of Lily and Jake will capture your heart. Just bring along a box of tissues!

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