What if Jim Sheridan’s 2009 film, Brothers, were a romance novel? What if the brothers were war heroes? What if one came home and the other didn’t? What if they were twins? What if they’d loved the same girl since they were children? What if pain and guilt and love and memories hung like a pall over the mourners? What if grief for the one who didn’t come home crippled the living … parents, brother, wife, friends, and a town? It might, says Miss Bates, be Juliana Stone’s second book in her Bad Boys of Crystal Lake series, The Christmas He Loved Her. How can a romance novel flawed in its inception be right in execution? How did Miss Bates come to enjoy a novel that pushed many of her ick-factor buttons?
Twin brothers in love with the same woman? A heroine who prompts Miss Bates’s most abhorred female lead in literature, the smirky, careless, superficial Daisy Buchanan, “I did love him once … But I loved you too”? Maybe things are that messy and conflicted in the real and Fitzgerald’s world, but they oughtn’t to be in a romance novel … and the heroine caught between love for two men is a trope Miss Bates avoids. Nevertheless, Stone’s novel captured and held Miss Bates during one of the busiest of her work weeks; by Saturday’s dawn, it released her, a little worn, with some niggling plaints, but justified in saying this is a great portrayal in romance of the wages of war as it claws at lives and echoes through them when the guns are silenced … in families, in widows’ hearts, in the survivor’s guilt of the soldier who returns whole in body, broken in spirit.
Jake Edwards, a former Ranger, returns to his home town of Crystal Lake, Michigan, on Thanksgiving; he’s in an emotional no man’s land. His brother’s death is behind him in Afghanistan and his parents’ and sister-in-law’s grief before him in Crystal Lake … guilt and pain and agonizing memories within. He’s been gone for a year and a half since Jesse’s funeral and returned to “make amends.” The first person he sees is his sister-in-law and Jesse’s widow, Raine. She lives in a house on his parents’ idyllic property. He finds a sliver of the woman he knew: diminished, demoralized, isolated, sad, and angry; his guilt spikes at the sight of her. His conflict is immediately apparent: he’s in love with his brother’s widow.
In these opening chapters, Stone’s prose is beautiful, thick with metaphors about the land’s and this wintry town’s beauty and choking with her characters’ grief. She skillfully doles out some background to Raine and Jake’s relationship: Raine feels Jake abandoned her when she most needed him after Jesse’s funeral. If Jesse was her love and husband, Jake was her best friend. But things are more complicated for Jake: he is and always has been in love with Raine, ” … he was still a mess when it came to the one woman he could never have. The only woman he’d ever loved.” With his brother’s death and the complications of one drunken night and one drunken phone call between him and Raine since the funeral, only guilt stops Jake from reaching for her. Except Raine’s feelings aren’t and have never been anything less than complicated regarding the two brothers, “Jake, he’d always touched something wild inside her – he got her, while Jesse took care of her.”
Jake is a great character; his mix of guilt, grief, desire, love, and protectiveness for Raine, his parents and Ranger buddies is eminently appealing. Raine has every reason to be as devastated as she is, but her emotions are vague, more difficult to be sympathetic to because the reader can’t understand why she married Jesse in the first place. We’re told she did over and over, but the only scene we’re given of her marriage is of her dancing, in the rain, in her wedding dress … with Jake. Nevertheless, Stone coaxes us over to Raine’s side by making her pain and loneliness palpable through great dialogue. Raine voices her pain and, even when we can’t understand her, we feel for her when she utters lines like, ” … my life disappeared and I’ve never felt so lost or so useless” or we learn that ” … she didn’t belong to anyone anymore.” What makes Raine sympathetic, in the end, is not the reasons she does things, but her need for connection, her raw honesty in acknowledging her desire to love and be loved.
In their separate angst-filled corners, there’s not much to Raine and Jake’s romance for the first third of the novel. This works for Stone’s novel rather than against it; however, Miss Bates did have moments when she doubted Stone could pull it off. Jake’s reticence, his agonizing guilt over his desire for Raine? Could he and the reader overcome it? Stone dealt with this by strengthening the protective hero factor: Jake cannot deny someone in need and Raine needs him, without sounding whiny or Betty Boopish. Again, Raine’s honesty pulls us in and, again, Stone accomplishes this through strong dialogue; here’s an early exchange: ” ‘You look … lost, Jake.’ ‘I’ve been lost for a long time, Raine.’ ‘You’re home now. We can be lost together.’ ” Lost, floundering, “drowning, not waving,” this is the state of our hero and heroine, but couple that with masterful sexual tension and it’s a pretty potent formula. Because Stone’s argument is: they’re young, healthy, attracted to each other, like each other … and they’re alive.
What the despondent soul won’t own, the body will betray. When the love scenes occur, though few, they are desperate, crude, and real. Miss Bates’s sensibilities had some trouble with that, but the novel was good enough to keep a hold of her and she’s very glad she saw it through to the end. Physical intimacy is the culmination of Raine and Jake’s search for an anchoring, an arriving, a home, “Wrong or right didn’t matter anymore, not when he’d been lost for so long and finally, finally felt as if he’d found himself.” (Italics are Miss Bates’s.) Therein lies Miss Bates’s strongest caveat with Stone’s novel: Raine’s and Jake’s broken-ness is of such enormity that it’s difficult to accept the “sexual healing” as the glue that put Humpty-Dumpty together again. The crudeness doesn’t help. On the other hand, Jake and his parents, Steven and Marnie, in a scene where he shares the story of Jesse’s death in Afghanistan, when all three hold each other and weep. That’s real, that’s touching and touch is essential to comfort and spiritual health, contradictory as that may sound. So Miss Bates concedes to the sexual healing as well, but retains a moue of distaste for the actual … um … proceedings.
This romance novel’s greatest strength lies in its last six chapters. Without recounting spoiler-esque events, Miss Bates says that they are still beautifully tense in angst, yet they’re funny … they’re sexy yet they’re more believable than the previous more explicit intimate scenes. The role of secondary characters is key, but the characters leading the interventions to ensuring Raine and Jake’s love are not merely functional. They’re likable and real. There’s Jake’s beautiful best friend, Lily St. Clare, who inspires a little green monster in Raine, who hands Raine Jake’s Bronze Star, with V for Valor. Lily urges Raine, “He needs to own his actions and he needs to realize that everyone else does too … Even the ones who are no longer here.” When Jake finds himself alone, in despair over Raine’s Big Secret (an unfortunate, unnecessary, and melodramatic note), his Ranger buddies show up because the bonds formed in combat are deep. They nudge him to happiness in charming “guy-talk” fashion, “Don’t step aside and play the good guy for a ghost. A ghost isn’t what Raine needs. You are.” Simple. True. And the prelude to an exceptional HEA, worthy, at least in Miss Bates’s greatest romantic scenes list, of … frisson of excitement … An Officer and A Gentleman. And a text message that redeems their often trite use in romance novels.
And the good stuff takes place over Christmas. And Miss Bates loves Christmas-set romances. That was probably the only thing this romance novel had going for it, in her books, as she turned on the e-reader. Even though it’s not an inspirational romance, it reflects the spirit of the season in its vision of love; as Raine observes of Jake’s appealing parents, ” … that kind of love. A love that grows with you. A love that is accepting and nurturing and forgiving.” It certainly looks from here that that’s where our hero and heroine are heading. Except there’s a sequel-hinting epilogue and Miss Bates has fallen hard for Stone’s series. As for The Christmas He Loved Her, Miss Bates acknowledges at play in it “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Juliana Stone’s The Christmas He Loved Her, released on October 1st, published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, is available in the usual places and formats.
Miss Bates is grateful to Sourcebooks Casablanca for an e-UAC (Uncorrected Advance Copy) via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.
Well, dear reader, what have you read that boded badly in inception, but proved wonderful in execution? What romance novel did you enjoy, even though your reader’s sensibility was unhappy going in? What produces moues of disappointment and doubt as you read the blurb of a romance novel?