REVIEW: Victoria Dahl’s TAKING THE HEAT From Living a Lie

Taking_HeatReading Victoria Dahl’s Taking the Heat means taking the heat. To a love-scene-shy reader like Miss Bates (what else when you’ve lived in a Jane Austen novel?), Dahl’s raw love scenes stand in contradistinction to Miss B’s sensibilities. But Dahl convinces in the best way possible: intelligently, using love scenes to reveal character, show growth, and develop a relationship from superficial fun to emotional stakes that come with vulnerability and openness to the Other. Taking the Heat follows from the thematic concerns we saw Dahl work through in the novel that precedes it in the Girls Night Out series, Flirting With Disaster.

Taking the Heat picks up on the woebegone friend of Isabelle and Lauren, Veronica Chandler, a mysterious young women, déprimée, dominated by her powerful, indifferent-to-her judge father, and difficult to know. But Isabelle and company befriend her and bring her along on their girls night outs. Getting to know Veronica is one of the pleasures of Taking the Heat: she’s an endearing heroine. She’s funny, kind, and intuitively smart, which serve her well because she’s “Dear Veronica,” the local rag’s advice columnist. When we meet her, her publisher-editor has talked her into a stint at the local bar where she’ll pull Dear Veronica letters out of a fishbowl to respond to as bar patrons listen. She’s terrified and, as we soon learn, feels a fraud. Veronica Chandler is a girl living a lie: she dispenses advice like a pharmacist eking out pastilles, but she’s a virgin whose dream of big lights big city ended in failure. She returned to Jackson, Wyoming, needing her father’s help to find work and a place to live. Much of the novel’s success lies in witnessing Veronica’s emergence into strength and confidence without losing her generous heart. Our Veronica-butterfly comes forth from the chrysalis of her encounters with Gabe Mackenzie, librarian, rock climber, search-and-rescue officer, looker and lover extraordinaire.

Taking the Heat felt like a smaller book than Flirting With Disaster. One of the reasons is because Gabe and Veronica felt young to Miss B. Their character premises required them to work through their daddy and, in Veronica’s case, high school issues. Like Veronica, Gabe feels like maybe not an imposter, but living a life he loves on borrowed time. Gabe’s a great guy, considerate, a reader, gentle, sweet, with a love of family and deep sense of loyalty and obligation to them. In Gabe’s family, he is “the one who likes to keep the peace and make things right.” Gabe’s father runs a successful line of Manhattan restaurants. Lately, his health has faltered. Gabe has convinced him to retire next year and Papa Mackenzie agreed on condition Gabe take over the family business. Problem is Gabe is savvy enough to do well at this job, but it’s not his calling or dream. He wants to live in this great rock-climbing town, overseeing innovation in the library, enjoying the outdoors, and working search-and-rescue. His dad is a great father; his mom, loving, kind, and sharp; his older sisters, affectionate and loyal, but unwilling to give up their dreams to run the family business. Veronica’s father is the opposite, harsh, cold, and dismissive. Moreover, Veronica carries a psychic wound from the stepbrother who came along with her father’s short-lived remarriage when she was in high school. Dillon tormented her psychologically, carried his jibes and cruelties to the high school, and left her confidence and sense of self in tatters. One of the interesting aspects to Dahl’s Taking the Heat is the hero’s and heroine’s response to their family dynamics. Though Gabe knows this isn’t the life he wants, he gets deeper and deeper into seeing through his promise because he doesn’t want his family, or anyone, seeing him as the bad guy, the spoiler, the selfish one. Victoria, on the other hand, even when she’s terrified, is willing to take risks and even appear the fool, as in her Dear Veronica bar stint, rather than give in to her father’s and Dillon’s diminishing of her.

Gabe and Veronica meet casually when Gabe joins his library colleagues, including Veronica’s friend Lauren and heroine of “Fanning the Flames”, at the local watering-hole where Veronica does her Dear Veronica shtick. When Gabe first meets her, he thinks her a high maintenance Manhattanite, a girl to avoid. But Veronica proves funny and down-to-earth, with a love of the outdoors that matches his. Veronica’s butterflies over her performance see her imbibing one too many and Gabe, gentleman that he is, escorts her home. Miss Bates loved how Veronica lavished Gabe with compliments about his good looks: it was refreshing and fun. And Gabe lapped it up. She makes a pass at him and again, good guy Gabe, desists, given her inebriated state. But the attraction is set. Though Veronica is mortified at her behaviour, including ‘fessing her virgin state to Gabe and propositioning her choice of him as gentle deflowerer, Gabe asks her on a date. She’d vowed never to leave her house, but he coaxes her into burritos and ice cream. These initial scenes are downright hilarious and Miss Bates guffawed through them. Gabe and Veronica are adorable; their love scenes are earthy and hot. Their obvious liking for each other and compatibility turn sexy times to “shared secrets and pleasure and trust.” And that, my reader friend, is the road to love.

But in this marriage of true minds and scorched sheets, whither impediments? Well, really, just one impediment. Because as our heroine grows in courage and confidence, as her lovelorn and lost readers take on a more serious tone and she takes them on with sensitivity, compassion, and the utmost responsibility for their welfare, Gabe wallows in avoidance. He does not tell Veronica about the time limit on their relationship. When the fecal matter hits the fan, our hero lands in some serious emotional poo. As for our heroine, she wallops him with all the force of her big blue spitting fire eyes and boy, is she ever right! She calls him on his cowardice and lack of ability to choose the life he wants to live for fear of appearing as less than the good boy he is.

Despite all this loverliness, Taking the Heat doesn’t exhibit the heights of Flirting With Disaster. The reason is one that plagues contemporary romance: the stakes are just not high enough. The key to the romance’s tension is for the reader to experience a moment of despair as deep and insurmountable as the couple’s. The moment of betrayal (see Miss B’s review of Flirting With Disaster), schism, separation, or loss has to appear unassailable, hopeless, and impossible. Yes, even when the romance reader acknowledges the genre’s paradoxical nature: that even the most unconquerable obstacles to the couple being together will be breached, the impediments have to be experienced as such. In Taking the Heat, the breaching of the rom walls can be seen pages away. If the walls are flimsy, the rom house will fall too early, or too obviously and that makes for a less memorable reading experience. Yet, it’s Dahl and she, like Molly O’Keefe, is writing deeply interesting and challenging rom. In this case, it’s more fun than challenging, but still worth reading. Miss Bates and Miss Austen say of Taking the Heat, here is “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Victoria Dahl’s Taking the Heat, published by Harlequin, was released on July 28th. It is available for purchase at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Harlequin, from Netgalley.

13 thoughts on “REVIEW: Victoria Dahl’s TAKING THE HEAT From Living a Lie

  1. Librarian, rock climber, search-and-rescue officer? – did he also secretly write poetry or play the guitar? Because that would be like the QUADFECTA of hunky-hero-romance guys…swoon! 🙂

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    • He is a coward when it comes to losing his daddy’s approval … but he’s all of those things and … my favourite, he tells the heroine that he spends his life rock-climbing, or reading in his underwear! What more could one ask for in a rom hero?! 😉

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  2. I put off reading this when it first went up because coincidentally I had just taken this book out at the library ! Now that I’ve read it, I’ve also read your review and I think your point about the stakes being a bit too low is spot on. I basically enjoyed the book, especially Veronica’s evolution as a person and an advice columnist, but the whole crisis felt a bit too manufactured, or maybe it was just underdeveloped. Definitely agree about Gabe’s virtues as a romance hero! There should be a whole series focused on sexy librarians: surely there are enough firefighter novels already? 😉

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    • I think it’s hard for Dahl to write a bad book and even a flawed one is worth reading … she has such zippy, fearless prose. I think one of the reasons her stakes were “low,” as we agree, is her themes/agenda were more important than her story. I think she wanted to find a way to write a virgin heroine and she wanted to write her in a particular way. I think she wanted to write about a hero who’s the family fixer, the one seeks approval. It didn’t make for a very good conflict though.

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  3. Pingback: sREVIEW: Maisey Yates’ BAD NEWS COWBOY, Or When Love Comes Calling | Miss Bates Reads Romance

  4. Pingback: Victoria Dahl and Taking the Heat | Shallowreader's Blog

  5. Your post is spot on. Gabe is a pleaser, but I also felt deeply for him. However, I don’t think that his dilemma re: his ill father was an easy one to decide upon, particularly as he is not living close by. But I do think that the writing, though trademark Dahl good, lacked building the tension that she is usually much more capable of.

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    • Thank you for the linky to Miss Bates. 🙂 Dahl’s good but not great is still great relative to dross. But I think these two were just too idealized to make for that tension that we found in Flirting With Disaster … but that was out of this world!

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      • I though Veronica was more a conduit for Dahl to voice her perspective on societal issues. I think she did this really well as it could have easily tipped into preaching. I also loved that she wrote a youthful couple. Both protagonists read as young adults as they both had strong emotional ties and scars relating to their childhood as well as the expectations that families carry. If anything, the ending was too neat, his father’s turnaround too complicit in needing the book to end with an HEA. But that is my romance/love saga voice whispering to me 😀

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        • I’d have to say that I thought the entire novel was a conduit for Dahl to “voice her societal issues” and that’s why it wasn’t as successful for me. I kept thinking about and identifying what “issues” she was tackling. It wasn’t preachy, but it did take me out of the narrative. But her writing, her skill and humanity, pulled me back in … so I was all judge-y as I was reading it, yet I couldn’t deny my enjoyment either. That’s exactly it … that *whisper* 😉

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  6. I don’t know, I thought the emotional stakes WERE pretty high here. Gabe has to break his dad’s heart if he wants to be with Veronica. That’s no small thing to do! He has to be selfish, admit he’s been lying, and trust that his dad will make the right decision for his health (which could result in him working himself to death). I thought the conflict was pretty well done! Plus I just love Gabe and want to eat him up. 😉

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    • I agree with you on cannibalizing Gabe! 😉 And I greatly appreciate hearing someone else’s take on the romance novel’s conflict. It IS hard to break dad’s heart, it’s true. That’s the beauty of reading and sharing one’s reading, to hear about different responses. Glad your comment resides here.

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