Reading 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.