REVIEW: Emily March’s MIRACLE ROAD, “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

Miracle RoadMiss Bates reached a point in March’s contemporary, small-town romance novel where she lost perspective, lost objectivity.  Since she started Miss Bates Reads Romance, she’s felt an especial obligation to keep an open mind, consider any given romance narrative on merits to which she might not adhere.  This to provide a fair and open consideration for whomever might drop by in the hope of being able to make a to-read-or-not-to-read decision.  There came a point, however, in reading Miracle Road where only a miracle could salvage it for Miss Bates.  Even now, as she pens this post, she recognizes the attraction of this romance for certain readers, in light of its positive and “life-affirming” message, inspirational drift, and competent writing.  It still pushed all of Miss Bates’ buttons of what she intensely dislikes about woo-hoo-miracles-do-happen-“touched-by-an-angel” narratives.  You’ve been warned, dear reader, what will follow is not necessarily snark, but a Miss Bates without sang-froid, or the balanced perspective that she likes to think she maintains.  It flew away on angel wings …

The premise of Miracle Road is the healing of two wounded souls.  What could be better?  What could possibly be wrong with this worthy theme?  A lot, in this manifestation.

Our hero, Lucca Ryan Romano, basketball coach, is wracked by guilt: returning from an OOT game, his team bus crashed, killing some of his players and injuring, or permanently disabling others.  He leaves the coaching job to drift, drink, and carouse.  His mother, brothers, and sister bring him home to Eternity Springs, Colorado.  Hope Montgomery, Eternity Springs’ new kindergarten teacher, is fighting her own demons: her daughter, Holly, was kidnapped five years ago by a sitter.  Her ex-husband, who makes an ugly, accusing appearance mid-way through the novel, blames her for their daughter’s loss and, even though she’s trying not to blame herself, she is guilt- and grief-ridden still.  When Lucca and Hope, strangers and neighbours, are brought together by a little dog and a desperate high school basketball team, attraction takes over.  Neither wants a commitment.  Good people both, with a penchant for humor and conversation, they make and fall in love.  Nice, you’d think; what could Miss Bates find off-putting about this harmless little narrative?

Plenty.  Starting with the first four chapters.  If there’s one thing Miss Bates hates, it’s numerous characters peopling initial chapters from previous books, married and in various stages of pregnancy or swaddling or cuteness.  After the first chapter, Miss Bates gave up keeping track, skimmed along, noting some of the names but not too assiduously and hoping for something interesting to happen.  The note in her reader’s journal reads, “the multi-character juggling is boring.”  Then, lo and behold, a ray of hope in a meet-cute where Hope’s dog bites Lucca’s butt … really, it’s quite amusing and Lucca can be a funny guy.  To follow, Hope and Lucca meet again when Hope finds him lying on her lawn, gazing at the stars.  He invites her to star-gaze with him and the scene is sweet and sexy and interesting.  Miss Bates was prepared to forgive all, even the myriad name-dropping from the other series books.  Because there was a starry kiss … and it was pretty nice.

Nevertheless, the treacly sweetness of the small-town romance done bad showed up in a Thanksgiving fund-raising scene that involved grown men and musical chairs.  Again, Miss Bates noted in her reader’s journal, “A book worth skimming.”  Ouch.  Following this scene, Miracle Road is paved with what Miss Bates has come to call the standardized, requisite angst of so many romance novels.  Here, it rings, if not false, then tired.  Lucca is tormented; Hope is twisted in knots.  They are tortured by bad memories, but staring at the stars and love-making set them on the road to healing, moving on, going on with their lives … every platitude that Miss Bates can think of is uttered or thought in March’s novel. 

We’re not allowed to walk Miracle Road with the characters; we have to be driven, herded, corralled.  Lucca who, unlike Hope, at least seems to have a sense of humor, spouts advice like a trite self-help manual.  Or Hope does; either way, March’s characters lose substance and become mouthpieces.  Ms March’s purpose is didactic: she wants to say something about recovery/healing from loss.  This is well and good; but to use an old schoolmarm’s adage, don’t tell us, show us.  Didacticism turns to melodrama and melodrama turns to what Miss Bates calls spiritual obfuscation: there are crystals, glass angels, New-Agey medallions, and schmaltzy aphorisms.  Miss Bates felt embarrassed for this novel.  It’s sentimental, corny, kitschy, saccharine.  It aims for subtlety because it doesn’t want to be an inspie, but manages only to be vague and New-Agey. 

It wants to be an allegory, but lapses into knocking-over-the-head reforming.  Here is one truly cringe-worthy “allegorical” passage spoken by the resident Wise Woman, “Life is not meant to be an interstate highway.  It’s a winding mountain road with hills and dips, stop signs and school zones.  Let friends and family be the data for your GPS satellite feed, and never forget that sometimes an unexpected detour can lead to a hidden miracle.”  Why don’t characters snatch pebbles out of her hand, Grasshopper?  Miss Bates can see where this novel tries to tackle some serious issues, especially the horrifically painful disappearance of a child … but the super-cop-out epilogue scene rings utterly false.

And yet.  Once or twice, March’s characters indulge in pithily humorous exchanges; witness this one between Lucca and Hope, ” ‘You have a lot of experience watching men’s butts?’  ‘It’s a pastime I can appreciate.’  ‘Pretty risqueé statement for a kindergarten teacher.’  ‘Hey, I’m not all apples and ABCs.’  ‘Don’t I know it,’ he drawled.”  Cute.  Funny.  Not mired in angst.  Too little.  Not enough.

Miss Bates admits that her response to Miracle Road is visceral; it managed to hit all her dislike buttons.  She can concede no more to March’s romance than “rubs and disappointments everywhere,” Mansfield Park.

Miracle Road has been available since early November and can be found in the usual formats and places.

Miss Bates is grateful to Random House/Ballantine for an e-ARC via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review.

The visceral reader reaction: of which we are all guilty.  We’re not always proud of it, especially when a novel doesn’t have that much wrong with it other than our dislike.  If it didn’t hit Miss Bates’ annoyance buttons, this’d be a meh read.  To what elements in a romance narrative do you have visceral reactions? 

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