REVIEW: FLAME TREE HILL BY MANDY MAGRO

FLAME TREE HILL

Author: Mandy Magro
Michael Joseph RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Book Cover:  Flame Tree HillA light and largely pleasant read, Flame Tree Hill is a nice way to pass time on a lazy afternoon. Mandy Magro is a new author to me and is by all accounts well on her way to establishing her place in the Australian rural romance genre. Her voice is distinctly Australian and conveys a love of all things ‘country’ – her books are bound to appeal to those with similar leanings.

At its heart, Flame Tree Hill is a romance between two twenty-something protagonists – Kirsty and Aden. Kirsty has just returned to her family’s property – Flame Tree Hill – after three years overseas. She left the farm a few years after a tragic accident that left her emotionally scarred and the keeper of a secret too devastating to share with anyone. The last person she expects to see welcoming her at the airport is Aden, the boy she had a high school crush on; last she heard, he’d headed to the city and married. Turns out he’s also returned to North Queensland, he’s separated and he’s staying on the farm. And he’s still just as hot as she remembered … hotter, even. Her crush rekindled, Kirsty is surprised to find that Aden has always harboured feelings for her as well.

Their romance is a slow building one – Kirsty puts the brakes on the sexual side for reasons that become evident later. I didn’t mind this aspect at all because I think the slow build is often underrated; when flames are too hot too soon, they can die down just as fast. However, those who like something spicier may be disappointed. Aden, to his credit, is very accepting of Kirsty’s boundaries; he’s a patient, giving man who makes it clear that Kirsty’s the one for him … even when she is diagnosed with breast cancer while their relationship is in its infancy. It’s a big call so early on, but he insists on staying with her through her chemotherapy program, despite her fluctuating moods, fear, anxiety and tendency to push him away. Although the book is mainly written from Kirsty’s perspective, the few insights the reader has into Aden’s mind shows that as time goes on, he’s starting to feel the strain. Will their relationship make it?

Kirsty’s feelings for Aden are complicated by the secret she’s buried deep inside – the reader knows it’s something to do with the accident mentioned at the start. The reveal, when it came, wasn’t such a surprise for me; there was plenty of foreshadowing, though some reviewers have described it as a big ‘curveball’. For me, the reveal wasn’t what surprised me. It was what happened next – the consequence (lack of), or resolution. I’m not at all convinced that the resolution was realistic – the initial reaction to the reveal was, but the actual resolution … I don’t think so. Multiple people find out Kirsty’s secret and nothing is done about it. I think realism was sacrificed here for a happy ever after ending, but ironically, such a resolution only invites cynicism about the ultimate outcome beyond  the page. How can you believe in the HEA if you don’t believe in the characters’ choices?

What I liked about this book was the effort Magro put in to raising awareness of breast cancer, including the effects of treatment, emotional impacts and flow-on effects to others. Choosing a 25-year-old to be affected by breast cancer has been questioned by some reviewers in terms of realism; I think it highlights the fact that breast cancer has little discernment when it comes to age. Rather than consider the rarity of breast cancer at this age, I’d rather let this plot choice act as a reminder for all women to be more aware of breast cancer – basically, to be breast aware no matter their age. Only recently I read a truly sad story of a young Australian woman dying of breast cancer – despite having the breast cancer gene, she chose not to have a mastectomy so she could have children, with tragic results.

Kirsty’s Aunty Kulsoom was a lovely character; her own experience with breast cancer made her the perfect ‘counsellor’ for Kirsty. This was particularly important for Kirsty because she lived in a relatively remote area and access to counselling would potentially have been difficult, so having a beloved relative come to her was a bonus. Access to health care is a major issue in the bush and one those of us in city areas often overlook. Writers like Magro do a wonderful job reminding us of what it’s really like to live in the bush.

There’s no doubt that Magro writes what she knows. Her descriptions of the country that is her heart and soul are testimony to that. I’m not sure what her experience of breast cancer is (I sense a Q&A coming up), but she writes about this with insight and compassion – this aspect is very well rounded and at the least, she’s done her research very well. She also writes with a light touch, a style that has its good and not-so-good points. The good lies in the refreshing feel of the story that still shines with hope even with the cloud of cancer hovering overhead. The not-so-good lies in the character development of Aden – he was just so nice, so accommodating that he seemed a bit flat – and in the way Kirsty’s big secret was dealt with. It was glossed over and Flame Tree Hill would have been a more full story if it hadn’t been.

Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was courtesy of Penguin.

Bookish treat: A good old Aussie BBQ would really hit the spot about now.

Here’s the trailer: