PUBLICATION DATE: AUGUST 01, 2012
hen Amy King’s parents die in a tragic house fire, she and her fiancé decide to make a fresh start in the new Amish community of Harmony, Maine. John Detweiler’s brother and sister-in-law settled there a few years ago, and a smaller, more conservative community appeals to John after experiencing the ways that tourism can interfere with the Amish way of life in Pennsylvania. Amy’s younger sister, Nora, decides to join them in Maine, in the hope that she might meet some eligible young men in Harmony. But when they arrive, the King sisters are shocked at how small Harmony truly is, and they’re baffled by some of the community’s rules. There are limitations on the sizes of bonnets and the colours of dresses, courting buggies don’t exist and singings are chaperoned by the rest of the community. Amy is committed to making life work for her and John in Harmony, but Nora isn’t so convinced, and her behaviour quickly becomes the cause of disputes between the couple. But Nora isn’t the only cause of friction between John and Amy. John wishes to marry as soon as possible, but his minister brother isn’t keen to rush into things and believes that the couple needs a period of adjustment considering the recent death of Amy’s parents and their move to a new community. As time drags on and Amy, John and Nora continue to live with Thomas and Sally and learn the rules of Harmony, Amy and John’s relationship experiences more problems. John is keen for them to prove to the community that they’re ready to settle and marry in Harmony, but when Amy reaches out to a shunned family member, John is worried about the repercussions. He sees it as his duty to protect Amy from potentially damaging relationships. But is this the way Amy will perceive his actions? Do both of them have something to learn about love and commitment?
Just when you think nothing new and original can come out of the Amish genre, a book like this comes along and proves that you’re completely wrong. While I wasn’t exactly sold by the cover of Living in Harmony, the setting of Maine appealed to me, and I had hoped that at least the change of scenery would make this book stand out. Well, it looks like I severely underestimated Mary Ellis. After thoroughly enjoying both Sarah’s Christmas Miracle and Abigail’s New Hope, I knew that Mary was a great story-teller, and Living in Harmony proves this once again. This is by no means your average Amish romance, and it breaks new ground for Amish fiction by telling the story of a couple who have already fallen in love but still have plenty of obstacles to overcome before they marry. So many romances finish with the declaration of love and fail to mention the trials that are yet to come. The engagement period can be the most difficult in any relationship, as Amy and John soon discover. Don’t let the fact that this isn’t a standard romance put you off; Amy and John still have plenty of interesting twists and turns to take on the road to marriage, and they certainly make for a compelling read.
Since Living in Harmony begins with the death of Amy’s parents and her decision to move to Maine with John, it takes a while to get to know our principal characters and understand their relationship. This was an interesting route for the novel to take, as most Amish novels introduce the reader to the hero and heroine separately, let us get to know them as individuals and then make us fall in love with them as a couple. Living in Harmony is completely the opposite of this, and readers are forced to get to know Amy and John as a couple and figure out their personalities from the way that they relate to each other. Thomas and Sally also have to get to know John and Amy this way, and I imagine that they are just as bemused about aspects of their relationship as the readers are. As a newlywed, it was encouraging to read about a couple who still had doubts about their future and issues they needed to address before they finally made a commitment to each other. Their relationship was not perfect by any means, which sort of makes Living in Harmony an antidote for Amish romance novels with perfect happy endings.
While a large part of this book focuses on John and Amy adjusting to life in Maine and preparing to marry, they’re joined by a great cast of secondary characters. Amy’s younger sister, Nora, tags along for the journey but fails to adjust to conservative life in Harmony. Nora’s rebellious attitude may initially irritate some readers, but it’s soon revealed that she’s running away from a past mistake in Pennsylvania, and this revelation will make every reader want to comfort Nora and make her realise how much she’s truly loved. Nora’s past is reminiscent of Sally’s, John’s sister-in-law, who is struggling to adapt to life as a minister’s wife and is often made to feel that she’s not good enough by the women of the community. Sally’s growth as a character was incredibly encouraging to read about, and I loved how supportive her husband was. Thomas was quite different from the typical Amish male character, so he made for a refreshing change. His brother, Elam, isn’t typical either, and Elam’s rebellious nature causes him to get along well with Nora, much to Amy and John’s disapproval. I never really understood what Elam’s motivations were, but I’m sure this is something that’s explored in the second novel in the New Beginnings series, Love Comes to Paradise. Often with such a large cast of characters, a few come across as not being fully fleshed out or believable, but this wasn’t the case with Living in Harmony. Each character had their own personality and purpose in the novel, which means that there’s bound to be at least one character that every reader can relate to.
It’s hard to express exactly what I loved so much about Living in Harmony. It’s not just the setting, the new community and the realistic secondary characters that made this novel so refreshing and unique. Mary Ellis crafted her hero and heroine as incredibly relatable characters, flawed human beings who prove that even the Amish don’t have perfect relationships or marriages. John and Amy made a lot of mistakes over the course of the novel, which endeared them all the more to me. If you need a little bit more realism in your Amish fiction, or just don’t want to read a happily-ever-after romance, then Living in Harmony is the book for you.