If there’s one thing grown ubiquitous in the past five years in the genre, it’s the small-town romance. Beth Andrews’ fourth title in the “In Shady Grove,” Pennsylvania, series stands for the very idea behind the small-town romance. If urban dwellers leave big-lights, big-city behind, with its rat race, stress, temptations, and sped up lives where we lose sight of our humanity, to return to a smaller world, communities where everyone knows you and you know everyone, our lives will somehow be redeemed. As the hero of Small-Town Redemption suggests, less than a year in Shady Grove and he’s turned into a “boy scout.” The refuge that the small-town purports to offer is a venue by which life is renewed and made better, more human, less overwhelming, where a person can belong by laying down roots and participating in the life of the community, where the community gives the heroine and hero the perfect matrix, ultimately, to live a more sedate pace and bring up children. How accurate is this picture? Not terribly, but it is a powerfully attractive one. What is interesting about Andrews’ romance novel is that the small town promise of redemption figures next to … not at all. It is a novel devoid of a strong sense of place, focussed as it is on tormented hero, Kane Bartasavich, and paragon of virtue and compassion, heroine Charlotte Ellison. The town figures only as a foil for the hero to reject his dissipated Houston past. If this were a historical romance novel, Kane would be an intemperate rake and Charlotte, the sensible, loving, plain virgin-heroine who leads him to the promised land of virtuous family life in the country. In Miss Bates’ opinion, too many romance novels laud and advance the idea that couplehood and family life are defined by a withdrawal from society to a domestic enclave. Andrews’ novel is a romance heavily invested in characterization, not setting. It was a solid read; Miss Bates enjoyed it. She was, however, frustrated with it as well.
When Andrews’ Small-Town Redemption opens, our heroine, Charlotte, is not in a good way. She’s out of character. Gussied up in tight clothes and black bra, she shows up at hero Kane’s apartment to make an awkward attempt at seduction. She was rejected by the man she loved, James Montesano, her dream-man, the one who’d love, marry, and give her the 2.5 children she yearns for, in a house with a white picket fence. Sadly, James sent her packing, albeit nicely, because he’s in love with her sister, Sadie. Kane is everything James isn’t: he’s a bar owner, O’Riley’s, tattooed, long-haired, wild, gorgeous, and a womanizer. He’s love’em and leave’em Kane, too beautiful for any woman’s good. By seducing him, Charlotte hopes to regain her femininity, to feel attractive and confident. Except Kane, her senior by ten years and her sister’s boss, rejects her. Our heroine hits emotional bottom.
Seven months later, nurse Charlotte, a young woman given to closet organization and balancing cheque-books, has set her life and house in order. She’s still Pollyanna about love, chasing that crazy dream of middle-class, small-town respectability, a husband and children in her Shady Grove house by the Monongahela River. Kane’s fighting his own demons: a past of drug and alcohol abuse, estrangement from a wealthy and prestigious family he neither respects, nor understands … one desperate ride on his motorcycle one rainy night lands him in Charlotte’s ER with a broken arm and various scrapes and bruises. As difficult as it is to resist the demons of drink and drug, it is that much harder to resist Charlotte’s bright red hair, long-limbed beauty, and ease of manner, kindness, helpfulness, and compassion. She nurses him, drives him home, tucks him in, and is about to settle on his couch to watch over him when she surprises his teen-age daughter, Estelle, sleeping in his bed. There are so many complications and obstacles to reaching Kane. Charlotte, conversation by confession, encounter by encounter, learns them all in the course of the novel. Kane, in turn, terrified of emotional attachments leading to pressures that will have him fall off the wagon, feeling unworthy of Charlotte, can’t see how they can be together. Miss Bates agrees.
Small-Town Redemption is a romance novel that starts with promise and ends with a whimper and moue of disappointment for the reader. The opening chapters are great: Kane’s angst and sarcasm are balanced by Charlotte’s humour and no-nonsense attitude. Charlotte gives as good as she gets. Eventually, she’s too sympathetic to Kane and makes many excuses for him, He, in turn, to give him credit, doesn’t make any excuses for himself. But he does hurt and reject Charlotte over and over again. He’s a bad boy trying to be good and thinks the best thing for Charlotte is to stay away from him. He does make one lovely gift-giving gesture after a particularly difficult scenario. (You know how much Miss Bates loves gift-giving in romance.) When Kane ends up in Charlotte’s ER, their chemistry and banter are terrific. Increasingly, however, the novel loses humour and romance as we learn more and more about every way in which Kane has messed up and every way he does penance for messing up. So much so that the romance shrinks to pin-prick proportions.
One of the strengths of the novel is appealing secondary characters. Kane’s daughter, Estelle, is a sheer delight, smart, loving, smart-mouthed, and replete with cute little gestures that identify her as a teen-age girl, a hair twirl, a brush of toe polish as she chats with her dad. Her relationship with Kane is a joy to read; frankly, Miss Bates enjoyed them a lot more than she did Kane and Charlotte. When Kane’s father, brothers, and mother show up, the narrative is equally lively and interesting. Estelle’s relationship with her grand-father is engaging, again more so than Kane and Charlotte. In this sense, Small-Town Redemption does something the Superromance category does well: assemble an ensemble of characters and show their inter-relations, making it about more than the central couple. However, the external conflicts that plague Kane are more interesting than his obstacles to loving Charlotte.
It is a delicate balance: are we reading for the “super” or the “romance”? It’s easy to tip the balance: in this case, Small-Town Redemption tips to the super and the romance is less and less convincing, even though the sexual tension between Kane and Charlotte ratchets up. Conversations between Kane and Charlotte, however, consist of Charlotte lending a sympathetic ear to Kane’s troubled past, present troubles, and denials of his feelings for her. She’s sympathetic, supportive, loving, and encouraging, more nursemaid than vamp, in keeping with who she truly is. Kane, on the other hand, is an angst-ridden gorgeous mess. Andrews writes him well, but makes him so big, beautiful, and bad-trying-so-hard-to-be-good that he dominates the narrative. At the end of the novel, he’s all Miss Bates could think of, but she likes her romance boat riding smoothly, not tipping one way or another. In the end, Kane succumbs, most abruptly, to his love for Charlotte. She wins her man … and, it appears, her lower middle-class life with babies, and picket fence. Miss Bates can’t help but think, however, that her man comes with unresolved family issues and penchants for self-doubt, late-night motorcycle rides, and silent suffering.
Andrews has a nice way with words and her narrative control flows smoothy and well. Her plot and characterization suck some of the charm and humour out of a promising start. A narrative that felt like it was going to be about the heroine’s journey was overwhelmed by a larger-than-life hero. A narrative that felt like it was going to be about this opposites-attract working out was overcome by the hero’s relationships with his family. A narrative that felt like it was going to be about a small-town turned out devoid of any atmosphere in the setting. Miss Bates felt she was in the hands of a thoughtful and competent writer, but couldn’t wholeheartedly embrace Small-Town Redemption as more than “almost pretty,” Northanger Abbey.
Beth Andrews’ Small-Town Redemption, published by Harlequin, has been available since June 3rd, in paper and “e,” at the usual vendors.
Miss Bates is grateful to Harlequin for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for a review.