Rarely does a romance novel see Miss Bates guffaw, snort-laugh, and then read the final page with gulping sobs, but Ruby Lang’s Clean Breaks did!
Miss Bates hates it when romance reviewers dub romance novels “fresh”, as if every other romance written to this point were stale. But Lang’s Clean Breaks felt, to MissB. at least, that Lang’s voice, characterization, conflict, were, ugh, she hates to say it, a “fresh” take on the genre. Clean Breaks made MissB. stand up and take notice instead of sink into the comforting, stock romance arc. What was “fresh”? On a micro-scale, Lang’s ironic quip of a title – that “clean breaks” aren’t possible. As her heroine realizes, love doesn’t call when one is ready, cleansed of messy conflict and perfected in career, life-style, and balanced inner workings. Nope, it asks admittance and its call must be answered, even when life is uncertain and messy. On a macro-scale, Lang made MissB laugh and cry, and discover a “fresh” new romance voice. Not bad for a few hours reading on a lazy summer Sunday afternoon.
Lang’s hero and heroine are delightful: complex, interesting, engaging; funny, angry, frustrated, sexy, vulnerable and strong. One would think that a newly-divorced hero and recently-free-of-cancer heroine would display as more vulnerable. We meet them, however, at the “things-are-looking-up” tail-end of suffering. Sarah Soon and Jake Li are resilient, evident in every scene, exchange, thought, and utterance, but it doesn’t take anything away from their troubles. Lang’s achievement is in creating characters with strong personalities, strengths and weaknesses, self-determined identities as well as family-and-adolescent accretions, confrontations with life’s vagaries, and believable, compelling growth.
Lang introduces us to her heroine with a few, well-chosen phrases, capturing her personality and life-stage perfectly: “Sarah Soon, obstetrician/gynecologist, maker of lists, taker of names, kicker of asses … her new motto was, Try new things. She’d had a brush with mortality, and she loved lists. It was a perfect combination of old and new.” What distinguishes Lang is her love and compassion for her characters. They’re not drawn to suit the story/genre/narrative, but created out of an interest in human foible and fortitude. Lang’s description captures Sarah’s spirit, pluck, metier, survival, humour and, most loveable, obsessive list-making (guilty as charged is MissB.; she LOVES this bit with many heart emojis).
Lang does no less to pull us toward the hero, who is worthy of our resilient, ass-kicking, itemizing heroine: ” … while he was glad that he was no longer married to Ilse, being not married was strange … He felt relieved and lighthearted and free and all of those things that he’d never been allowed to feel for all of his responsible and conscientious life.” Again, there is Jake, drawn with affection and charity in his people-helping-pleasing vulnerability and love of fidelity and commitment. But what a truth-teller and admitter Jake is and a lovely hint that he might want to break a little of the “responsible and conscientious” mold. But Lang doesn’t have characters who act “out of character” with sudden derring-do, Jake’s changes are a certain foul-mouthed charm articulating his attraction to Sarah – for a preacher’s son and social worker. It’s the most fun romance-reading Miss Bates had in ages.
Sarah and Jake share a history. They grew up in the same town, went to the same schools, and were subject to the same parental pressures: honour the family, succeed, make the community proud; in short, to always be good. In Sarah’s case, condemnation when she was perceived not to have been when she was caught, in high school, with her shirt off and a boy named Dixon. As a bystander to that and the sniggers, catcalls, and disapproving stares that followed, when Sarah and Jake meet again, Jake is associated with that part of her life. With the psychic dislocation of her brush with mortality, Sarah is a great combination of angry-vulnerable and strong-independent-take-no-prisoners mouthy. Jake is a perfect foil.
None of this deadly serious stuff, however, is ever done “stuffily”. Jake is sexy and Sarah, earthy. Together, they’re a hoot. Other than the male/female flipping of professions (Sarah’s the doctor; Jake is the social worker – take that, every small-town romance under the sun), with Sarah as the more high-powered one, Lang also flips the come-on line and body-checking-out to emerge from Sarah:
“Are you checking me out?”
“Force of habit,” she said.
“Are you taking advantage of this fraught and tender moment to feel me up?” he rumbled.
“Okay. Good. Carry on.”
There’s no alpha/beta-either/or to Jake. He’s beta in his thoughts, emotions, and needs and alpha in the bedroom.
Jake and Sarah aren’t just fun: they’re good at self-revelation and still sound natural and compelling. They grope towards each other out of the darkness of their vulnerabilities. Witness Sarah:
“We’re both … vulnerable right now.” The way she said that word, vulnerable, with a grumble in her voice as if it irritated her to apply the word to herself, made him almost laugh, even as his heart did a painful flip-flop. “
Why isn’t this the time, then? he asked. “This is the perfect time. Because nothing of significance happens if we aren’t even a little vulnerable.”
Sarah runs scared, running away from love and Jake, who ever runs toward it. Jake and Sarah are nothing short of painful truth-tellers, honest with themselves and each other, even when it takes them time and confrontation to come to certain realizations. Witness Jake to Sarah:
” … we all try hard, Sarah. You attempt to be perfectly organized and on top of it. I try to do the right thing … And look at us, we’re a mess.”
That seems to be Lang’s strongest message: even though we’re a mess in one form or another, we can still choose love if we’re brave. We don’t have to be perfect, we just have to be courageous, like Jake:
” … there was an unexpectedly deep vein of yearning in him lately, and he just couldn’t stop excavating more and more of it.”
“Things didn’t have to be perfect for her to move forward with her life.”
People aren’t perfect and neither are books. There is a near-unbelievable food fight in Clean Breaks, but a book, like a person, doesn’t need to be perfect to be loved. Miss Bates LOVED Lang’s Clean Breaks – and not only because Lang’s self-portrait could easily be that of MissB. herself, “Ruby Lang is pint-sized, prim, and bespectacled.” 😉
With Miss Austen’s wise approval, Miss Bates says, in Ruby Lang’s Clean Breaks, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Ruby Lang’s Clean Breaks is published by Crimson Romance. It was released in February 2017 and may be found at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Crimson Romance, via Netgalley.