In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” a wife convinces her husband to allow their former “hired man” to stay with them, though he’s “ditched” them in the past and can’t work as he once did. She argues that home is “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Their farm is the only place he’s ever been valued, or felt useful.
Julia London’s contemporary romance, Homecoming Ranch, is centered around the idea that one comes home when one recognizes home not only as a place of blood ties, but belonging. The hero and heroine answer the questions: “Where do I belong? Where am I needed? What is important?” Their HEA is not a narrow world of two, but extended family, community, and nature. Don’t mistake London’s Homecoming Ranch, however, as a story sombre and serious; Miss Bates spent four hours non-stop reading this novel … alternating between snorty guffaws and sniffy sobs. This novel fulfilled that most difficult of tasks in the romance writing world, to create a beautifully written story that is highly entertaining, deeply moving, and utterly believable.
London’s storyline is familiar, Miss Bates might even say banal in light of an abundance of small-town romances. But it goes to show that even the most clichéd of story-lines can be made new by good writing, honest emotions, believable conflict, and a gloriously down-to-earth, thoroughly romantic relationship between hero and heroine. You’ve read this story before, dear reader, if you’ve enjoyed Kristan Higgins, Jill Shalvis’s Lucky Harbor series, maybe even Knox’s Camelot series, or the more recent Sanctuary Island by Lily Everett (Miss Bates reviewed it here). If you’ve enjoyed them, you’ll love this one!
Nothing much happens in this story after the initial set-up. What ensues? Did it ever move Miss Bates and make her laugh. What more could we ask of a novel than to give pleasure and draw us in so that we live half in our world and half in it, anticipating that next cup of tea and e-reader in hand that we snatch from the jaws of mundane and too-busy daily lives? The hero’s and heroine’s emotional revelations, the romance’s unfolding, the resolution to the heartaches their “flesh was heir to,” the damage that our amour-propre inflicts and the power of our ability to redeem ourselves, transform our lives and win what is essential to the good life, love, companionship, understanding, and purpose: these things make this book.
The heroine of Homecoming Ranch, Madeline Pruett, monstrosity-house realtor, highlighter connoisseur, organizes her life on an Excel spreadsheet. She’s a workaholic, rarely dates, martyrs herself to taking care of a hard-drinking, hard-living mom, who is unemployed and with too many shiftless boyfriends. Madeline conducts her life like a tightly-run military base. Into her life, however, a little chaos must fall and it does … big time … in the form of the-father-she-never-knew leaving her a Colorado ranch and two sisters. When this descends on her, she thinks, “She needed a script, something to follow.” But there is no script to life, or as the hero tells Maddie, in “chaos is the joy of discovery.” Unable to leave any loose threads, Madeline travels to Pine River, Colorado, and the Homecoming Ranch where she aims to sell it and return to her path of becoming a high-powered mover and shaker in Florida real estate: “She knew what she had to do: Assess the situation, take control, and restore order.” Ha. What she finds, instead, is herself … and passion, family, love, beauty, and community … but only after she screws up royally!
Passion and love show up in the form of hunky Denver architect, Luke Kendrick; Luke and Madeline do not meet as friends. Luke finds her and her match-box rental with a flat, changes her tire, notes her beautiful blue eyes and goes home to his father’s latest mess. Bob Kendrick, desperate to take care of his ill and handicapped younger son, Leo, unwilling to ask Luke to put his dream of building custom homes in Denver on hold to help out, sold Homecoming Ranch to Madeline’s and her two sisters’ Dad, Grant Tyler, to defray the cost of Leo’s medical care. Luke is devastated at the loss of his childhood home and legacy. Luke’s journey is the discovery of how the ties that bind are “He’s not heavy, he’s my brother,” and that a heritage of land and roots is more precious than the money and status that city-living brings.
Thus, Luke and Madeline, with friends and family thrown in, are set on a collision course of opposing interests regarding Homecoming Ranch … their attraction, desire, genuine liking, empathy, and deepening love amidst the splendid Colorado mountains is a wonderful, real, heart-wrenching, but not “false-angst,” love story (there’s no trauma, but there is negligence in Madeline’s childhood and loss and debilitating illness in Luke’s). There are some very very funny bits too, involving Madeline’s run-ins with “wildlife,” like domesticated dogs and cows!
In Miss Bates’s wordy opinion, London made interesting use of narrative voice in Homecoming Ranch. It may not be thoroughly successful, but Miss Bates welcomed a romance writer willing to experiment somewhat. Miss Bates would say that not everyone may find what she attempted successful. London uses sporadic first-person narration in the voice of Luke’s physically challenged brother, Leo, as well as third-person omniscience. Leo’s role here is the out-of-the-norm one. Miss Bates thinks it serves two purposes. One is to give a more distant, more objective view of the hero. Leo’s voice is not a boring, God-like, flat-toned one either: Leo is loveable, engaging, admirable, funny, and caustic. And when his interference brings about the HEA, it’s not with woo-woo, sports metaphor.
Leo serves as master-manipulator, a deus ex machina, whose suffering gives him the wisdom to understand what the people he loves want and need better than they do. Leo is key to the HEA. Miss Bates thinks that Leo serves as an inspirational thread to Homecoming Ranch: his knowledge of others, his suffering, his GRACE under suffering, and his insight lead the hero and heroine to the right place, lead them home. Don’t imagine Leo as a saintly, insipid character a là Tiny Tim. Leo swears like a sailor, has in-depth knowledge of popular culture, is a fiendish video-game player, and uses sports metaphors to make his point. He totally worked for Miss Bates: he may, or may not work for you, dear reader. But the book is worth reading to find out.
Miss Bates is at a near-loss for words when it comes to expressing how much she loved Madeline and Luke. London writes such wonderful dialogue; their weaknesses, insecurities, and vulnerabilities are real, familiar, but they’re both hardy and humble, without being whiny. They admit their wrongs and work to redress them. They’re easy to love and they love easily. They know how to say I’m sorry; when their love is at its lowest and there doesn’t seem to be any dawn in their souls’ dark night, the reasons they are apart make sense. They come from within, from genuine hurt and two people with different paths, not misunderstandings! This is the most refreshing thing about this novel: nothing operates on misunderstanding. When it occurs, it is cleared up immediately and does not serve the purpose of keeping our lovers apart: their natures, temperaments, and circumstances do. The other wonderful thing about this novel is how London turns the hero’s grovel on its head: it’s the heroine, without any loss of dignity, who “grovels” and Luke deserves it. She does so because she has integrity. And may Miss Bates just add that these two are … bonus!! … sexy as heck together. The love scenes are lyrical, earthy, and transformative.
Miss Bates was very attracted to the ethos of this novel: it is about leaving the rat race, living on less, but more love, family, and community. It doesn’t mince words about ranching, a way of life that is as exhausting as it is dying out; small communities built on it have to change, think of new ways of making a living, of accepting change without eradicating tradition … all of this and a love story to boot! Moreover, the beauty and majesty of nature are key to a sense of freedom, serenity, and purpose; protecting this beauty and sharing it are the means to preserving and learning from it. Indeed, there is a wonderful scene with Madeline and an elk that is key to understanding how and why the mountains and Luke have given Madeline a way out of her fears and anxieties.
Miss Bates has lost her critical perspective, she loved this book so much, loved Madeline, Luke, and Leo (and other characters that she didn’t discuss, but you’ll love them too). She recognizes that Homecoming Ranch isn’t particularly original in its content, but it is one where elements that romance readers may find tiresome in small-town romances coalesce into something wonderful. In London’s Homecoming Ranch, Miss Bates finds that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart” Emma. (Miss Bates can’t wait for the next book!)
Homecoming Ranch is available in the usual places and formats. It was released on August 13th of this year. Miss Bates urges you to read it and drop her a line about what you thought!
Miss Bates is grateful to Montlake Romance for an ARE via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review. (Lovely cover, Montlake!)
What have you read lately that surprised or moved you? Or, like Miss Bates and Homecoming Ranch, made you read it straight through because it was so darn good?