The Sweet Smell of Magnolias and Memories - Celeste Fletcher McHale

Jacey and Colin shared the three most intense days of their lives together, waiting for help as Mississippi floodwaters surrounded them. Jacey knew Colin was the love of her life—until her rescue boat went under water, along with Colin’s last name and pieces of Jacey’s memory.

 

The last thing she remembered was being submerged in water. Again.

 

As Jacey walks down the aisle as the maid of honor in her friend’s wedding a year later, the last person she expects to see is Colin. The biggest surprise, though, is that the man of her dreams is not wearing jeans and flip-flops as he did when he held her through those long nights of the flood. He’s the preacher.

 

As Jacey’s memories come flooding back, it’s almost more than she can take. The fate of the young family trapped with them haunts her. The unwavering honesty—and support—of her best friend Georgia forces her to take a fresh look at herself. She’s spent her life afraid of love. But this flood is opening Jacey’s heart in the most unexpected ways.

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Jacey is a writer for a regional Southern life magazine, on location for a story in Mississippi. Colin is a traveling minister specializing in disaster relief (specifically, building houses for the needy). As life would have it, Colin finds himself caught in one such disaster when the Mississippi town he's currently located in -- the same as our Miss Jacey -- is hit with a storm that brings devastating flooding. Both caught in the storm, Jacey and Colin meet when Colin pulls her onto the roof he and a local family are clinging to while awaiting rescue. 

 

Three days pass while the sodden group awaits rescue of any kind. The reader is told that something magical happened between Colin and Jacey, but honestly we're not given many details about what went down that was so world-rocking between them other than some hints that they talked about the need for survival and then there was some time for cuddles and make-out sessions. But what led to those stolen kisses? Your guess is as good as mine 'cause I kept waiting for those deets that never seemed to come. A couple swears they fell in love in 3 days -- is that not a story the reader deserves to know in ally its swoon-worthy details?!

 

Anyway, when help finally does arrive, Colin makes sure Jacey and Lillian, the mother with the 4 boys that shared the roof with them, all make it into the boat, his plan being that the boat now looks crowded so he'd just wait for the next boat to come around. But he doesn't let Jacey go without writing down all his contact info on a piece of paper and shoving it in her pocket. Just moments after being saved, Jacey's rescue boat collides with another, throwing all the passengers back into the water. Jacey suffers injuries that leave her hospitalized for a time with months of physical rehab after. She also finds that the trauma has left her with not only PTSD but also temporary amnesia regarding events of that harrowing day.

 

Fast forward a year later and we meet the chick-lit standards McHale includes in the plot: the group of besties who met in college and have sailed through thick & thin together since. Best girl Willow is now getting married while other best girl Georgia is struggling with having recently lost the love of her life to his lapse in fidelity. Jacey is at Willow's side as maid of honor and gets the shock of her life to find that none other than Colin is officiating! Now back in each other's lives, the two have to discover if what felt real truly was or if it was just a case of fear-of-death-fueled emotions.

 

This one proved to be yet another case of a novel where the secondary characters entertained me far more than our leads. Maybe it was because I as the reader wasn't made privy to any of the heart-melting conversations that must have went down between Colin & Jacey... must have been something pretty heady to feel love after 3 days ... but I don't know the details of their romance, if it can be called that, so for much of the book I wasn't that invested in their story. In fact, their back and forth cold-shoulder drama and hurt feelings based on assumptions got tiring.

 

It's generally presented as a given in romances that our female lead be irresistible to those around her but I wasn't entirely sold on Jacey in this sense. It was undeniably kind and moving what she did for Lillian's boys later on in the book but the way she was with Colin at times struck me as gratingly childish. Especially a moment near the close of the book, where Colin just wants to put all the miscommunication behind them -- he approaches her humbled, ready to explain his side of things -- and can I just say, about the worst thing he did IMO is send an insensitive text which masked some of his unspoken insecurities, a text he shortly after profusely tried to apologize for --  and she bald-face lies to him (more than once in one convo!) and then boots him out her door! Girl, what?! And then she has the gall to call Georgia and whine that she wishes Colin would just explain things if he really care. He tried, you goob! Then the inevitable make-up scene -- she admits to lying but gets away with giggling and telling him, "It's your fault though!" which he seems to gladly accept? Colin, in response, admits to being tempted to take her right there on his buddy's ottoman.. okay, I'm done with these two and I see them as the type that ends up divorced in 5 years or less lol 

 

But yes, those secondary characters came in to save my interest! Colin's bartender friend Julie was an admirable tough-as-nails type with a quick wit, and my heart immediately warmed to the elderly Mrs. Ernestine. Shame she didn't have more book time.

 

They heard screaming and both turned their heads to see Georgia running up the back steps, chickens nipping at her heels. 

 

"These freakin' chickens are trying to kill me!" she said, a short but piercing scream escaping her lips every few seconds.

 

Mrs. Ernestine looked at Jacey. "Does she belong to you?"

 

"Yes, ma'am." Jacey laughed.

 

"God help you."

 

 

 

The real show-stealer though -- Miss Georgia. Girl had SASS for days and I loved every bit of it! 

 

Jacey :(after a date with Colin): He was quite the gentleman. 

Georgia: Oh, how boring. 

 

Colin: Gotta be some kind of record, eight seconds in the door and the interrogation begins.

Georgia: I must be slipping. 

 

Georgia was the definition of the perfect best friend. Day or night, if Jacey called and said she needed her, Georgia was there in minutes. If someone hurt Jacey, she was quick to say, "Oh no, I'm not having that." But she also wasn't shy to set Jacey right when her behavior was sometimes slightly out of line. Also, in a nod to McHale's previous novel, The Secret To Hummingbird Cake, Georgia has a story about binging on hummingbird cake while working through a heavy bout of depression, "And I hate hummingbird cake!" {Sidenote: In the author acknowledgements it is revealed that Georgia and Jacey are named after two close friends of McHale.}

 

There are some good thought-provoking themes that stand out in this novel. For one, the reader is introduced to Colin's moneyed background. His story of stepping away from the family fortune to pursue a life of service and the challenges that brought him, in regards to familial relationships, will give the reader pause, having one consider that yes, maybe now that grass over there doesn't seem so green! Colin, through his family struggles, is also given a rough crash-course in the lesson of forgiveness. He carries a lot of deep-seated anger and resentment towards his parents, but over time discovers that perceived sins or mistakes often have more complicated backstories to them that must be considered. As one line in this novel points out, "Forgive people even if they're not sorry." Again, something that readers will likely find applicable in difficult areas of their own lives. 

 

Aside from the dud of a romance (at least for me) between Jacey & Colin, another area of the story that left me somewhat troubled was how the topic of race was handled. It was disappointing to see McHale lean on racial stereotypes to craft the personalities of so many of the African-American characters in this book. Lillian, the mother of the four boys, was a single mother, the father of her children serving a life sentence in prison, Lillian herself described as having little education, living what seemed (by the few descriptions given) to be a low-income neighborhood. The black servant working for Colin's rich white parents, even though this story takes place in present day... Sometimes it just struck me as there being this whispered tone of "well, that's just the way things are around here." I feel as if an opportunity was missed to shed life on these impoverished communities that do indeed exist but also commonly have a rich sense of community behind them. Had that been worked in a bit better, I think the novel would have had some more depth to it. Instead, the plot's focus, in regards to the African-American characters, seemed to be on how the misfortunes of these characters ended up (in a roundabout way) bettering the lives of already-privileged white characters. That undertone made me a bit sad, if I'm being honest. But again, I can appreciate what Jacey ended up doing for those boys, and the willingness to serve and love that that act demonstrated. 

 

While the plot itself wasn't a slam dunk for me personally, I applaud author Celeste Fletcher McHale for announcing her intent to donate a portion of the proceeds for this book to the victims of Louisiana's devastating floods of 2016. She also provides contact info for relief organizations working in the area should you yourself wish to contribute to relief / rebuilding efforts there. 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own.