Miss Bates loves American Western-set romances. She cut her teeth on Cheryl St. John and Lorraine Heath and hasn’t looked back since. If there’s a cowboy romance to be had, she be reading it. Bittner’s Paradise Valley is only a shadow of the heart-wrenching and well-written romances of St. John, Heath and the more recent Kaki Warner, and it was a near-bust for Miss Bates. Her spinster’s heart hardly beat for this old-fashioned Western romance. Miss Bates knew there was a lot wrong here, but struggled to articulate what. Yet, the pithy chapters and clipping-along plot kept her reading. Sometimes, she felt that she was clopping along on an old nag in a John Wayne film; sometimes, she thought she was caught in an episode of Deadwood. Those two contradictory views of the “Old West” pretty much sum up Paradise Valley. Bittner wrote the Wayne version, and maybe that’s what turned Miss Bates off.
Our hero and heroine are Sage Lightfoot and Maggie Tucker. (Getting used to a hero, a rough outlaw cowboy type, named Sage was challenging!) In 1886 Wyoming, Sage and Maggie meet on Sage’s land, the Paradise Valley of the title, over her husband’s grave. James and Maggie had been attacked by outlaws who robbed them, killed James, and raped Maggie. Sage had been riding for these very outlaws, who murdered his best hand and raped the hand’s wife. Sage returns to the ranch with Maggie, where she convinces him to bring her along when he seeks revenge against the bad guys. For the most part, though Miss Bates loved the idea of Paradise Valley as an idyllic place of plenty where innocence is restored, the novel really only took place “on the road.” This is a revenge road romance. As Maggie and Sage travel together to avenge the death of her husband, her brutalization, and the loss of Sage’s hand and money, they fall in love.
Conflict in this novel is two-fold: internal and external. The external conflict is obviously that between Maggie/Sage and the nasties. Internal conflict has to do with the Other Woman and the Big Secret, Sage’s former wife, Joanna, and Maggie’s “carrying” of a child bred of rape. Sage’s been hurt and, even though it doesn’t take him long to realize he loves Maggie, he can’t trust her. Maggie too loves Sage, but keeps the pregnancy from him, fearing his judgement of her and timorous about his mistrust of women. Keeping the Big Secret ensures that she deceives him. But, Maggie is “feisty,” she’ll take his love as long as she can get it … then, be willing to lose him to the Big Secret, rather than lose him on the trail to the bad guys.
Miss Bates had a hard time warming to the hero and heroine. Bittner’s aim in creating her novel’s characters was to capture something raw, harsh, and vulnerable about the people who’d settled this land at this time: does she succeed? She wants her characters to reflect the harshness and beauty of the landscape: does she succeed? Miss Bates would say “no.” She found the characters unsympathetic, unlikeable, and unlikely. A case in point is our first meeting of Maggie, digging her husband’s grave, having just hours ago survived a rape. She’s matter-of-fact and feisty, no trauma, no fear … just forges on ahead to revenge. Sage too is hurt, by his past, ex-wife, status of being half-white, half-Native. He derides “Indians;” Bittner creates a Native secondary character, a baddy named Cutter, whose stereotyping horrified Miss Bates. Sage keeps saying he loves Maggie, but behaves coldly and abandons her in several places when she’s obviously scared and uncertain, even sending her off to the murdered hand’s abandoned cabin to spend the night when they finally return to Paradise Valley. What’s he doing? Why just having dinner and having it out with the ex. He redeems himself finally, but does Maggie the Ninny deserve it? Miss Bates isn’t so sure. Moreover, Sage behaves with such brutal violence that Miss Bates was distressed, waving her sprigged hankie as she read. A successful romance novel pulls the reader closer to the characters; in this case, Miss Bates felt alienated from them.
Miss Bates’s troubles didn’t end with the H/h. Most problematic for her was the very ethos of the novel: the desire for revenge, taking the law into their own hands, the vigilante justice that Sage and Maggie pursue. Miss Bates had a lot of trouble with these ideas and the gratuitous violence that comes with them. Bittner tries to make a case for this by including passages such as, “It’s a strange sort of character you’ll find in country like this. There’s the good, the bad, and sometimes they actually work together to survive.” Miss Bates guesses this would be the idea that there are nuances of character here, but when you examine the actions of the badies and compare them to the hero and heroine, they don’t look all that different. The hero and heroine have no redemptive moments, which would have redeemed the narrative, where say, they realize that life and love are more important than revenge and go home to Paradise Valley and marry and breed many babies. Just on a practical level, Miss Bates wanted to shake them and say, “You’ve found each other, just let it go … why put yourselves at risk of being killed when you’ve got a chance for a good life?!” And boy, that violence visits our hero and heroine too: they are shot with arrows and bullets, attacked by a bear, etc. Bittner was trying to portray what passed as justice in that time and place and that may be accurate and true, but to sanction it is problematic for Miss Bates and will be, she might think, for readers.
This encapsulates Miss Bates’s criticisms of the novel, but she has two more niggling points that troubled her. One is Bittner’s propensity for the declarative sentence, especially at the end of chapters. For example, when Sage’s socalled good nature forces him to bring Maggie back to the ranch to heal from her ordeal, Bittner writes, “He cursed the awkward situation he’d got himself into.” Something we’d already figured out from the context of the chapter. And the love scenes, which are thankfully few and quickly over, are quite purple-prosy with a significant ick factor involved in phrases such as, Maggie’s “gasp” of ecstasy “with the splendor of his manhood.” Gah.
What can Miss Bates say in favour of this novel? It is a novel that at least tries to recapture the sheer sweep of Old Skool romance; Miss Bates just wishes it had left the ethos behind. It is well-paced; it does clip along and the chapters are nice and short. This helped Miss Bates at least finish the book and she wasn’t bored, just flabbergasted.
Miss Bates really really really wanted to like Bittner’s novel; in the end, she couldn’t and has to say, “Rubs and disappointments everywhere.” Mansfield Park
This review is made possible by a generous e-ARC from Sourcebooks Casablanca via Netgalley. Paradise Valley is available as of July 2nd from the usual places in the usual formats.