Why did I read this book?
I listened to J. F. Riordan speak about her North of the Tension Line series via Zoom. A Small Ernest Question, the fourth book in the series, came out in August 2020, so like many authors who had books coming out during the pandemic lockdown, Riordan needed to promote her book in a new way. Instead of visiting bookstores to meet potential readers, she used Zoom to speak to them.
By the end of her talk, I had three good reasons for buying all four books in the series. One: She has a German Shepherd. I grew up with a German Shepherd—he was the smartest dog I have ever known. Two: Her stories are set in Door County, with much of the action occurring on Washington Island. When I was twelve, my father, who was a private pilot, flew our family to Washington Island for their annual Fly-In Fish Boil. And I love a good fish boil. Three: Someone in the Zoom audience said to Riordan, “You must love all this extra time to write during the lockdown.” Riordan replied, “It’s much harder to write.” She explained that being out in the world among people inspired her writing. I felt a kinship with her because I was having a hard time writing too. Her words comforted me. So, without dipping a big toe in the water to test it, I dove in and bought her books.
What is this book about?
In North of the Tension Line, Fiona Campbell, a freelance writer, has moved from Chicago to Ephraim, Wisconsin, on the Door County peninsula. Her best friend Elisabeth Wright owns an art gallery there and a lovable German Shepherd named Rocco. Roger Mason, a former physicist, owns the coffee shop in Ephraim. His lack of social finesse and his disinterest in fancy coffee drinks makes him an unlikely coffee shop owner. Elisabeth and Roger seem to like one another, but his inability to show romantic feelings makes him an unlikely partner. Fiona meets an interesting man at a wedding in Chicago, but their encounter is only a brief conversation. At least Fiona and Elisabeth have Rocco.
The women enjoy taking day trips with Rocco to Washington Island via the ferry. Fiona loves the Island but cannot imagine living there. Then she accepts a dare to spend the winter in a house that she buys on a whim. Winters are long and lonely after the tourists leave, but winter becomes the least of Fiona’s problems. Roger, worried she will be lonely, gives her a goat named Robert that is part Satan, part Einstein. Her neighbors on the Island mistakenly believe she is a hooker. A critter is living in the walls of her house. And Stella, her nearest neighbor, loathes her. But Fiona makes friends, takes care of her goat, writes articles, works on her home, and discovers the local DNR officer has feelings for her.
What makes this book memorable?
Riordan creates main characters who are charming, amusing, and intriguing. They hope and dream, taking small risks and big leaps of faith while life throws them small curves and the occasional hairpin turn. Riordan uses gentle humor, keen observation, and tightly woven story arcs to create a tale that captivates but never dips to the level of a soap opera. Her minor characters also delight. Pali, the ferryboat captain who is inspired by a ghost, writes poetry. Stella who is nasty to the insides of her bones, hates everyone. Piggy, a small dog, fiercely defends its stretch of road with a fierceness that would make Cujo shudder. Mike and Terry, regulars at Roger’s coffee shop, patiently bear witness to Roger’s shifts in behavior.
Riordan captures the flavor of small-town life. Everyone knows everyone, and people with quirks or infuriating habits cannot be avoided. People know what their neighbors are up to before the neighbors themselves even know. They know alliances will be strong and grudges will be nursed. And while they might tolerate an outsider, they will only humor a foolish outsider.
Who might like this book?
This book is about people, their individual stories, and how those stories intertwine with the stories of their friends and neighbors. If you like a book that pulls you down a gentle river with occasional rapids, a book that allows you to admire the unfolding scenery along the banks of the water without worrying about too many rough currents, climb into a canoe and travel through Riordan’s North of the Tension Line.
I’m currently reading The Audacity of Goats, the second book in Riordan’s series, and so far, I am loving the trip.