Courting Mr. Emerson is the second Christian romance I’ve read by Melody Carlson. Even when something in her books isn’t to my taste, I still can’t stop reading. Courting Mr. Emerson was just such a book – entertaining even when I had concerns or pet peeves. And as its merits outweighed any of my pet peeves, I’ll probably seek Carlson out again.
The plot (SPOILERS): George Emersen is a young retiree. He leaves teaching not because he has reached the normal age to retire, but because he can afford to and teaching is just something he does out of habit. Turns out George does a lot of things out of habit: maintaining his grandparents’ lavish house years after they’ve passed, eating peanut butter and honey sandwiches every day for lunch, and ducking social invitations like Neo from The Matrix dodges bullets. Yet for all his set-in ways, I found him endearing. He reveals himself to be, if unadventurous, steady and truly decent.
He’s a guy who seems content to just be left alone, and I want to take a moment to say, maybe that’s ok. Because George is also implied to be neurodivergent. OCD is suggested but never officially diagnosed outside a self help book and the speculation of friends. George is also easily overstimulated by crowds and noise and things being out of place. Our heroine and many others around George seem to see this as a flaw. While sometimes they just accept his “quirks,” there are also multiple efforts to pity and fix him. If George is simply an introvert or his biological makeup and personal preferences mean he’s happier keeping himself to himself, I don’t see that as something that needs to be fixed.
But that’s not the only thing making George put up boundaries between him and close relationships. He has suffered loss so many times it’s traumatic. I don’t mind so much when those who come to care about him push a just little because they sense that hurt and need. And George himself simultaneously craves and cringes from connection. When people issue an invitation enough times, sometimes he meets them in the middle. I don’t mind this so much because then I believe the desire to connect is coming from within George, and that is a vital distinction.
Strangely, this is a book as much about boundaries as romance. George calls our outgoing, artistic heroine Willow a “camel’s noise.” He relays a story where a camel wanted to warm his nose in a tent. The owner said yes. So the camel asked to put his whole head in. The owner said yes. And little by little the whole camel crowded into the tent, crushing the owner. And it’s true, multiple times in the book Willow pushes George to do things outside his comfort zone. Some turn out well, like enlisting his help to decorate an apartment. Some cross the line (like kidnapping George for a surprise hot air balloon flight while he’s hollering to get off the ride. Turns out he’s afraid of heights).
And then Willow gets a taste of her own medicine when George pulls some strings to get Willow’s grandson Collin into his alma mater without asking her. I didn’t have so much an issue with this, as in chapter one Willow is seeking out George’s help to get Collin into a better school. Collin is a high school graduate who can make his own choices about school, and he agrees to let George help him. But the point is the theme of boundaries. Every time one is crossed, and the tentative friendship between this odd couple seems shaken, both of them apologize, like adults. There’s perhaps one conflict too many for my taste, but you do get the sense these are two mature people who can actually learn to have a wonderful relationship despite drastic personality differences.
Carlson’s prose flows extremely well. I experienced it as an audiobook and it was a pleasure to listen to precise, reserved George and impulsive, extroverted Willow try to figure each other out.
The supporting cast is strong. I thought the nosy neighbor on page 1 would be comic relief, only there to annoy our main characters and complicate their relationship. Instead, she turned out to be an unexpected ally. George’s ability to see her as something other than a nuisance reflected his greater growth as a person opening himself up to relationships. There’s also a great storyline with Willow’s grandson Collin and daughter Josie. Josie has been an absent mom most of Collin’s life. She shows up at his graduation without any seeming intention to do anything but fight. I thought the reconciliation of this prodigal daughter/mom was going to be a main plotline. It wasn’t, but Josie just steals the show anytime she’s on the page. There’s no great moment of healing between her and Collin, but their stuttering steps toward family harmony seem real. Josie also picks George as a mentor figure, which is kinda delightful, as he clearly has no idea what to do, yet manages to do her good anyway. I wish the Josie plotline had been featured more through the end of the book. We just really need a second book to flesh this out.
The development of the relationship between set-in-his-ways George and free-spirited Willow seemed very natural and sincere. Gotta be honest, though, it worked better as a friendship-building book rather than a romance. That’s not a complaint about age. Kudos to Melody Carlson for featuring characters in their 50s as the main romance! But there was really no romantic chemistry between our main characters until the very end, which made it seem rushed. Dare I say people in their 50s are not too elderly for a little Christian-approved sexual tension? George and Willow made for a wonderful odd couple, though, in terms of friendship.
Really, I just think we need a sequel to transform the friendship into a romance more naturally. The pacing of the first two-thirds is strong. The pacing of the last third is off just a bit, and I think I can put a finger on why. George is a great dynamic character, slowly breaking out of his set-in ways, discovering he might have OCD, healing past trauma, just beginning to explore faith again. I love that Carlson is featuring a character like this. But George is still in his lowest crisis point 85% of the way through the book. There’s simply not enough time in the last 15% of the book to let him convincingly deal with all this and bring him to the point a romance really works.
I don’t expect a main character to be “fixed” by the end of a novel. “Fixed” here is in quotes because I don’t think George needs to be somehow not neurodivergent. He can develop awareness of having OCD (like getting an actual diagnosis) and learn new skills through a neurodivergent lens. At the same time those close to him can learn to better accommodate his needs. We do see a little of this in the book. What George does need is help navigating past trauma and possible depression. And there’s my pacing issue – it’s unrealistic that he can be magically rid of depression and trauma in a couple days. Carlson knows this and doesn’t let it happen. I applaud her for letting her characters live on a spectrum.
But here’s why it doesn’t work in a romance. Willow still views George as someone who needs to be fixed. She is more accommodating to his needs by the end of the novel, yes. She still pushes him to try things outside his comfort zone but is more respectful of his boundaries. But even in our climatic scenes, she’s still thinking of him as “poor George.” In her eyes he is traumatized, stunted, and lonely. How can they have a believable romance if the reader feels she pities him? I actually think her daughter Josie has a better appreciation of George’s good qualities than Willow, while still being empathetic to his faults.
Not that Willow is a lost cause. I do think she appreciates him on some level. But what I really wanted at the end was an ah ha moment when Willow recognized George’s true strengths, and how much he added to her life. We got it in a vague, one-line hey-you’re-nice-too kind of way, but not a satisfying way.
I wanted Willow to see that the relationship was not one-way, not just her pouring into him, but him in his quirky quiet way being a stabilizing force in her own life. George can be fusty, but he also is reliable, capable, smart, hard-working, and polite. He does chores around two houses, apologizes when he’s wrong, and got her grandson into a good college. ALL THREE of Willow’s family members find themselves turning to George in a crisis or for advice. Collin does when he goes through a bad breakup. Josie does it when she is struggling to find a new path in life and he encourages her to pursue art. Willow comes to his porch with bran muffins looking for a shoulder to cry on when her family life is tumultuous. In the end, George tells her what she brings to his life. Why oh why, Willow, can’t the reader have the satisfaction of you doing the same? As someone married to a person with a neurodivergent condition, I just craved that moment for both their sakes. I think we just need a second book to allow time for this.
I also was stunned that no reviewers I found on Goodreads mentioned the egregious breach of privacy near the end of the book. The pastor George has been going to for counseling sessions seeks out Willow to reveal all kind of private information from George’s therapy session. Now I’m no expert on therapy from clergy vs from medical professionals, but as far as I can research, it’s at least a breach of ethics (outside of criminal activity like abuse). Having a member of the clergy break confidentiality could hurt anyone, but given that George is at a very tentative stage of his exploration of faith, it seems especially risky. He’s just beginning to trust God and now you’re going to break his trust? Really, pastor? I can get why Carlson chose this plot device. George is leery of loving anyone due to his prior losses. A meddlesome pastor might move that romance right along. But in the end, it’s not even necessary. Willow doesn’t change anything about her own behavior with the new information, other than being receptive to a romance with George maybe five minutes before she would have anyway. George’s journey to opening himself up to a relationship didn’t need any clerical interference.
To summarize, I enjoyed this book, especially the thought given to the characters. It just needed more time at the end to fully develop and give us a proper payoff.
I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.