Miss Bates selected two Julia London titles as part of her 2013 favourite reads list. She wrote lovingly of London’s first book in the Pine River trilogy, Homecoming Ranch, and an unrelated, but terrific novella, “The Bridesmaid”. She eagerly awaited the sequel to Homecoming Ranch, Return to Homecoming Ranch, despite the uninspiring title. Return features the same alternating narration of first-person Leo Kendrick, the physically-challenged brother of the first book’s hero and voice of wisdom, and third-person omniscience. It is set in the same beautiful Colorado mountains, though descriptions of nature and wildlife, which Miss Bates loved in Homecoming Ranch, were less of a focus. The prose is as smooth and controlled in the second Pine River novel as it was in the first. It offers a hero and heroine who, like Madeline and Luke of the previous volume, are hurt, broken by what life threw their way. In Homecoming Ranch, the reader glimpses Madeline and Luke’s potential, the capacity for shoring their failures and starting anew, their capacity for happiness. Though similar elements are present in Return To Homecoming Ranch, Miss Bates couldn’t warm to it. Pages turned; the story held her attention, but she didn’t embrace it as she had London’s previous effort. Miss Bates’ dissatisfaction comes from feeling a tad cheated in the romance department, and a tad cheated in the believability of the HEA, and she feels a heel for saying so. She’s coming down hard on Return because it is women’s fiction, a designation she abhors and books she avoids. As a critic, she should review a novel on the basis of its parametres, not her expectations and preferences. As a reader, she didn’t enjoy it. She respected it, though. London took on serious issues: a mental breakdown in her Libby and alcoholism in her Sam. She handled them with sensitivity and originality … with caveats. Libby and Sam apart dominate the narrative; Libby and Sam together, though sexy and funny in places, are unconvincing; their love and future, dim.
Libby Taylor has unraveled: her life, mind, and emotions are a mess. She’d invested heart and soul in her fiancé, Ryan Spangler, and his two children, Alice and Max. She’d cared for them, loved them, nursed, fed, and cuddled them. She’d been head over heels in love with Ryan … and she mistakenly thought he with her. But he broke off their engagement, callously and suddenly, when the children’s estranged mother and his wife, Gwen, returned. Libby broke down: depressed at the loss of her life’s meaning and purpose, enraged at the injustice of Ryan’s actions, she took a golf club to Ryan’s truck windows. Officer Sam Winters was at the scene when she was arrested; her mother ensured that Libby spent some time at a therapeutic centre, suffering from what her therapist, Dr. Huber, called a “brief reactive psychosis”.
When Return To Homecoming Ranch opens, medicated and armed with relaxation techniques, Libby is back in Pine River. She’s unemployed, hoping for a reconciliation with Ryan, and ignoring the restraining order Ryan demanded from the judge to keep her away from his family. Libby doesn’t recognize the seriousness of her situation: she follows the kids to their activities, talks to them on the phone, and seeks out Ryan, ostensibly about seeing the children she genuinely loves. Ryan publicly berates and humiliates her, and calls on Sam to enforce the restraining order. While Ryan is not a good guy, he and his family should be left in peace. Libby has no claim on them. The law is on his side. Libby never seems to accept or understand that, not until late into the narrative, so late that Miss Bates thought it compromised the romance. She may not be in love with Ryan anymore, but she wants him to acknowledge his asshole-y part in their break-up and let her see the children. It is evident, at least to Miss B., how quixotic and mistaken Libby is. Initially, she seems fey and naïve, but serious problems underlie her playful demeanor. It is also obvious to the hero, Sam Winters, a recovering alcoholic, whose sobriety is maintained partially by a single-minded determination to aid the most difficult, most vulnerable members of his community … one of whom is Libby. Except he has a thing for her, an attraction, a liking.
Officer Sam Winters is a man with rigidly held control. He is a good man, a thoughtful, quiet man, whose sombre demeanor is hard-won. At one point in his life, he was anything but sober, sliding into alcoholism along with his “wild child” ex-wife, Terri. Sam knows that the last thing he should engage in is saving another out-of-control woman. Look where his attempts with Terri led him. But Sam is that kind of guy: he drives through the mountains that surround Pine River, caring for a curmudgeonly old woman, Millie Bagley, and an alcoholic, suicidal veteran, Tony d’Angelo. Also Libby, showing up when she harasses Ryan, or follows the children to their soccer games, hauling her away, threatening to incarcerate her, but never going through with it. He’s smitten, but keeps it under wraps. Libby is oblivious to him, but she vaguely likes him. There are glimmers of attraction too, but she’s too obsessed with Ryan and the children to consider her incipient feelings for Sam. Her grip on reality remains tenuous. Thrown together at a Kendricks’ barbecue, Sam succumbs to his attraction and kisses Libby; she responds passionately. Sam’s serious conflict of interest compromises the romance, heck, the narrative, and Miss Bates had difficulty accepting this. It ruined the narrative for her from hereon. It niggled in the back of her mind as she read to the end.
But the heart will have what the heart demands and the body will lead you to the trough no matter what. There are wonderful, beautifully written moments in the narrative. There’s also annoying sexual healing for Libby, which can kill a narrative for Miss B., especially with a heroine this troubled. But it’s at a minimum. There are deeply-felt, raw conversations between Libby and Sam, confessions of what their lives have been. Libby does begin to recognize her ill-considered behaviour; she takes action to do something with her life as a way of putting Ryan and the children behind her. Sam gives in to his need for solitude and control, but he concedes that it keeps him from living life fully. His pursuit of the newer, stronger, not-quite-sensible-and-never-will-be Libby is charming, but he’s right when he says, “We’re a pair, aren’t we? So much crap to overcome?” Maybe too much crap to overcome, says Miss B. Miss B’s doubts about this novel, her conflicted admiration and distaste for it remained to the end. Julia London’s Return To Homecoming Ranch offers “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Julia London’s Return To Homecoming Ranch is published by Montlake Romance and has been available since July 22nd at your favourite vendors.
Miss Bates is grateful to Montlake Romance for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in order for her to consider the novel for review.