It’s been eight years since Riley has been back to Vermont. After a horrible accident occurred when he was a teen, Riley had never planned to return. But with his grandfather in the hospital and in need of someone to help with his care, Riley finds himself back home. And not just back in Vermont, but in Meadows Park, his family home and the location of their historic and abandoned amusement park. Dealing with his ornery grandfather isn’t easy, as Gene won’t even tell Riley what caused his hospital stay, but Riley’s fondest childhood memories are of spending summers with his grandfather in the Park and he is determined to be there if Gene needs him.
What Riley doesn’t anticipate is facing his past head on when he learns Peter Landry is also back in town. Peter grew up in the area and Riley and Peter were the closest of friends growing up, until those feelings began to turn into more. But when the boys faced a bad accident, it tore them apart and they haven’t spoken since. At first things are awkward for the men, as so much remains unresolved between them. But the connection they once had is still strong, and they begin to rekindle their friendship, with the Park still bringing that same sense of magic for them both.
Unfortunately, Gene is facing some serious financial issues and runs risk of losing his land. As it turns out, he should have the money, but in a moment of madness, he buried the cash somewhere in the Park. With Peter’s help, Riley is determined to find the money and help his grandfather save the family land and perhaps even bring the Park back to its former glory. But locating the cash amidst acres of land isn’t going to be easy. However, the hunt may just be the chance for Riley and Peter to find their way back to one another.
Wonderland by Rachel Ember is part of the multi-author In Vino Veritas collection of books, a set of stories that feature the wine bar/bookstore in Burlington, and a follow up to the original Vino and Veritas collection. This one stands alone quite well, and while the guys hang out at V&V on occasion and there are pretty clearly some characters from the other books who show up here, I had no problem reading this one, even not being familiar with all the various side characters.
I have enjoyed Ember’s work in the past, and this sort of crazy set up drew my attention to this book. The idea of this two million dollars hidden somewhere in an abandoned amusement park is just one of those original storylines that you don’t see too often. I think Ember really does a nice job with this aspect of the story. The search gives Riley and Peter a chance to reconnect and gives them a reason to be together day after day as they look for the money. But it also gives a lovely sense of nostalgia to the story, both in the near past as Riley and Peter share their memories of playing at the abandoned Park, but also the older history as we learn about the Park in its full glory and what it meant to those that visited. Ember does a nice job really painting a picture of what this place is like, both when it was open and thriving, as well as this abandoned and falling apart park that seemed magical to the two boys.
From a relationship end, it is clear that Peter and Riley never got over one another and seeing one another again is a chance to rekindle that love they had for each other as teens. Sometimes in books where the characters have been apart for years, it can be hard to believe they still have a connection so many years later, particularly when they were kids when they last saw one another. But Ember does a nice job establishing the bond of friendship and romance they once had, so I found it worked for me here. The guys were separated by circumstance, as well as Riley fleeing, and while it is clear there is still heat between them, they have a lot to talk about to get things sorted.
I did find that there were issues put out there that weren’t ever fully explained, or at least not early enough in the story for me. Both Riley and Peter are at a crossroads and things wrap up fast for them at the end of a fairly long book. For Peter, we know he had planned on being a high-powered lawyer and realized it is not what he wanted. But he seems so unsure about what he does want to do and most of the book he is in limbo until suddenly he is not without much explanation. For Riley, I felt like we needed a lot more backstory. Bits and pieces are dropped in to indicate he had a rough childhood, but a lot is left unexplained and I never really understood where he was in his life prior to coming to take care of Gene. I was expecting more background on him, but it never came.
I also kept waiting to learn more about what was going on with Gene. When Riley first arrives, Gene has been in the hospital, a social worker is involved, Gene seems to have injured his leg, and his house has fallen into a hoarder disarray. He refuses to tell Riley anything about what is wrong with him, so we have no sense of what his health issues are that caused him to not only be in a hospital, but need a social worker and a caregiver. And then we basically go the whole book without ever learning the answer, except for a sort of throwaway line about why he was in the hospital at the very end. But no word on what caused the hoarding (or why it is now better). More importantly, we get no real clarity on what was going on with him mentally to make him bury the money in a sort of nightmare-fueled rush and then forget where he buried it. We know he has always been wary of banks, but his mental state seems concerning and is never really addressed. So I think there a few areas here where we get things set up without a lot of answers, and the resolution to a lot of issues comes quickly and without a lot of detail for all of the build up.
Overall, however, I found this one a fun set up and an enjoyable story. There is nice sweetness to the lovers reunited aspect of the book, and I loved the way Meadows Park is incorporated into the story. This is an entertaining contemporary and a nice installment in this larger V&V world.