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Sparks fly in Jeffrey Stepakoff’s Fireworks over Toccoa

It’s 1945, and Lily Davis Woodward is waiting for her husband to come back from World War II. In fact, the entire town of Toccoa, Georgia, is preparing to celebrate the return of its soldiers. The welcoming ceremonies will include a fireworks display, and the town has imported a technician named Jake Russo, a handsome young immigrant from Italy. Elaborate pyrotechnics are, of course, Jake’s stock in trade (and elaborate metaphors are, of course, this genre’s stock in trade).

Lily, who married just days before her husband went off to war, comes from one of the town’s leading families: her father is an executive with Coca-Cola; her mother is a self-appointed expert on all things expected and proper. Lily dutifully fulfills her role as a young Southern aristocrat, but she also has an artistic side that she has never shared with anyone. Naturally Jake also regards his fireworks displays as art, and a chance encounter between the two leads to a passionate love affair that has Lily questioning the life she knows and thought she wanted.

Jeffrey Stepakoff, author of Fireworks over Toccoa, is a screenwriter, and his shows include The Wonder Years, Sisters, and Dawson’s Creek. Fireworks over Toccoa works according to a similar story arc, and it’s easy to imagine scenes from this novel as they might appear onscreen. In a typical cinematic move, the story even includes a frame device: Lily’s granddaughter is engaged to a man who is perfect for her, at least in theory, but Lily’s story causes her to re-evaluate her own love as well as her understanding of her grandmother.

Fans of Great Love novels will not be disappointed by Fireworks over Toccoa, but there is more to this tale than the similarities to a Nicholas Sparks plot might suggest. Stepakoff looks beyond the love story to convey both the joys and sorrows of a post-war period, as well. Lily’s own brother died in the war, a fact so devastating to their mother that she can’t bring herself to mention his name. An old beau of Lily’s has also returned from the war, but in a wheelchair. His wife, pregnant with twins, exclaims that “everything is turning out just like we always dreamed,” but Lily acknowledges that the war has changed the simple dreams of childhood: “There were no dreams of handsome, carefree Mark Morgan in a wheelchair. … No dreams of her brother shot dead in waist-high water off a beach on some South Pacific atoll. No dreams of marrying Paul Woodward and one day having an affair in a cabin in the woods, one day out of the blue realizing that her perfect marriage to a perfect boy was not the culmination of all her dreams but quite possibly the biggest mistake of her life.”

How does a decent woman leave a husband who’s been at war for another man she’s known only days? Should she? Stepakoff brings off a surprising ending to the novel that will delight readers who love both romance and a good cry.

Jeffrey Stepakoff will sign copies of Fireworks over Toccoaat Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville on May 10 at 7 p.m.