Miss Bates loved Robin York’s Deeper. Highly anticipated Harder is the second part of Caroline Piasecki and West Leavitt’s story, in Ruthie Knox’s second incarnation as a writer of New Adult romance. It doesn’t feel as New Adult as the first, though. West and Caroline are grown up; they’ve made decisions and are living with the consequences. Their characters are set, though West must let go of the past to have a future with Caroline. The reader knows that, in ten or fifteen years, she would recognize them as the hero and heroine of Harder. If York wrote Caroline and West’s story twenty years down the line, Miss Bates’d be happy to read it. Caroline and West are just that likable. And why not? Knox/York was successful with Amber and Tony from How To Misbehave to ten-years-later Making It Last.
Though York tends to lean to the thematically didactic, her characters are consistently engaging and her writing inspired, skirting the edgy; in places, overwrought, but there is no doubt she is a stylist. Moreover, whether her vision is congenial to the reader or not, it’s undeniable that she writes with purpose and ideas. A character in Harder describes visual art as, ” … the purpose of art is to make you feel or think, and a lot of the time both.” York does both as well in Harder as she did in Deeper. Miss Bates read Harder with as much pleasure and interest as she did Deeper: she read through the day and she read through the night. And she loved near every moment of it.
At the end of Deeper, Caroline and West are separated: she, to continue her education in Putnam, Iowa; he, to Silt, Oregon, to take care of his ten-year-old sister, Frankie. His mother, Michelle, is re-united with Wyatt, her abusive husband, Frankie and West’s no-good father. Deeper ends on a low point: Caro and West don’t stand a chance of being together. However, they promise to be friends, text, speak on the phone once in a while. They love each other, but West must take care of his sister. She’s a child. Caroline understands. They are heart-broken, but doing the “right thing,” making the sacrifice for the innocent.
When circumstances separate Caro and West at the end of Deeper, Miss Bates assumed they couldn’t go any lower. How wrong she was. When Harder opens, West hasn’t contacted Caro in months, has told her he’s seeing another girl. But, he calls to say “My father’s dead.” Caro still loves him (isn’t even sure he’s telling the truth about the “other girl”); she travels to Silt to support him, help him, be his friend. West meets her at the airport bigger, angrier, colder than the West she knew in Putnam, a “big, hard, mean-looking man,” thinks Caro. Caro faced all manner of demons in Deeper and she won’t let anything deter her from ” … why I’m here. What I want. My purpose. West.” Miss Bates loved Caro; she loved her in Deeper and even more so in Harder. Caro sets out to rescue West and Miss Bates loved that in a heroine. Sadly, West does something that makes him near-un-rescuable. If the romance novel is the central couple’s quest-journey narrative, then this point is when West and Caro descend to the underworld; this is the dark night of their couple-soul. No wonder York named West’s hometown Silt, conjuring images of the slimy bottom of something. Silt is a no-where town where people lead difficult, no-where lives. It is not place to thrive, no place for West, or Frankie even to breathe.
Circumstances and bitter parting words from Caro conspire to bring West, with Frankie in tow, back to Putnam on scholarship. Miss Bates loved Caro’s persistence, courage, and tough love for West. She’s also utterly perfect with Frankie. Caro isn’t a doormat; she’s strong and smart and doesn’t get caught up in petty vendettas and comeuppance: for this, she wins West. She wins it all. Caro doesn’t make it easy for West, nor does she make excuses for him. She holds him accountable, but she never loses sight of where he’s from and what he’s been through: “Nothing I’ve done is as wrong as what is wrong with him.” Like the most perceptive people-people Miss Bates knows, Caro has the capacity to see through anyone’s BS. She certainly has that in spades when it comes to West and, boy, does he need it. West’s fists-up attitude masks a broken man, someone in despair. West has been taking care of his sister since he was ten, taking responsibilities a child shouldn’t. Now he’s a man and all he’s known are survival and necessity. Caro teaches him, as he puts, how to “thrive;” first, he has to let her in. When he does, the gates open wide for need, desire, and love. West rises to the occasion because Caro sees the best in him.
Does York go wrong anywhere? Miss Bates’ Apollonian side found some of the writing and, as a result, some of the characters’ sentiments, high-strung. Take, for example, Caro on West: “His need for me, his craving for my softness, his desire to claim something tender in this blighted life of his. I can see anguish too. Agony.” See what Miss Bates means? It’s all just a bit too much. On the other hand, if Miss Bates had been reading this at twenty, there would’ve been swooning. To a twenty-year old, it’s sublime and that’s for whom York is writing. York wants to recognize how difficult life is, but sometimes she couches it in colloquial cute that Miss Bates didn’t enjoy; again, Caro on West, “It makes me want to apologize for his lot in life and for the differences between his world and mine, because West is amazing and his life sucks.” West on his life: “It sucks and sucks and sucks and sucks, and it never stops sucking.” Moreover, there is a tendency, at the start of each section of the novel, for West, or Caro, depending from whose POV that section is narrated, to address the reader. Is this an NA convention? Miss Bates finds it contrived. Life wisdom is imparted, such as Caro saying to West, ” ‘The world’s not black and white,’ she tells me. ‘Life doesn’t have good guys and bad guys, or a beginning, middle, and end. Not while you’re living it. It’s just people doing stuff that’s beautiful or stupid or somewhere in the middle.’ ” Miss Bates loved Caro and West; there’s nothing inherently wrong with Caro’s sentiments. What Miss Bates didn’t like was that Caro was a mouthpiece.
Despite Miss Bates’ quibbles, she enjoyed Caro and West, cared about them. York’s Harder made her feel and it made her think. Though she wasn’t too keen on lessons being imparted, nevertheless, in the end, York is saying, “Be decent. Don’t hold a grudge. Work hard. Figure out what you like and you’re good at and do it. Find people to love. Take care of the vulnerable. Stand up for yourself. Commit to one person. Be faithful, loving, and generous. Make friends, break bread with them.” The idea of “thriving” as opposed to “surviving” is important to Harder. It is what West has to learn to do and Caro helps him get there. York puts these two through a two-book wringer, but she delivers hope, possibility, commitment, and love in their well-deserved HEA.
Miss Bates loved Harder more than Deeper: maybe because the heroine and hero don’t feel as young, maybe because there is a definitive HEA. Therein Miss Bates found that “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Robin York’s Harder has been available since July 1st, in the usual places and formats.
Miss Bates is grateful to Bantam Dell for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, for the purpose of considering Harder for review.
Miss Bates loved the idea that the heroine saved the hero in Harder. What other romances have you read that do the same?