Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner write one of my favourite historical romance series and Free Fall is their fifth story in it. I love that it’s set in the 1960s, a decade I was born into, but don’t remember much of … other than a vague black-and-white memory of MamaB, in bouffant hair, sitting on the coffee table, smoking, and weeping over Bobby Kennedy’s assassination flickering on our tiny, bunny-eared TV. Barry and Turner’s series avoids America’s many ’60s tragedies and focusses instead on the American race to space. Their novels are peopled with astronauts, space scientists and engineers, and Jello-mold-making wives. There is one marvelous female engineer heroine and her grumpy second, Parsons, the scowling engineer who makes an appearance in this present volume. To us, living in these bizarre times, and without the ’60s’ take-to-the-streets ethos, Barry and Turner give their novels a setting that feels like a more innocent, less fraught one. Yet, just around the corner are the women’s movement that will change the genre and us forever and the loss of whatever hope and possibility our American neighbours wrought in Camelot. What I really liked about Free Fall, by way of introduction, is how it’s a domestic novel and more focussed on the heroine’s growth. Vivian Grace “Vivy” Muller is loud, brash, colourful, big in every way, physically, in her laugh, walk, and taste for “bouffant hair” and “winged eyeliner”: “She laughed too loudly, and she did more than wink at boys, and she was always losing her gloves.”
Yet, “there was no girl in Houston with more money or better breeding”. When we meet Vivy, she leaves a boring party with hero Dean Garland, American Space Department astronaut set to make the first space walk. They spend the night together and two months later, at the insistence of Vivy’s father, defense contractor Benjy Muller, Dean is called into ASD’s director’s office and told ” ‘ … she’s pregnant. And Muller wants you to make it right.’ Everything stopped. The clock. The rain. Dean’s heartbeat. Pregnant.” Dean and Vivy’s marriage-of-convenience is made of two nice-enough people who are very very different and don’t know each other at all. How they work through their differences, find points of compatibility, discover enjoyment in each other’s company, and fight as newly-weds do when the confetti settles, are the pleasures of this Barry-Turner effort.
Into the who-are-you-and-why-did-I-marry-you mix Barry-Turner add two plot points, one of which I found a tad lame and the other way more interesting. First, Dean and Vivy have to rescind the one lodestar in their relationship, their genuine attraction and sexual chemistry, when the ASD’s director orders his astronauts not to have sex lest it distract from the mission. *eye roll* from me and the characters, but Dean “likes to get the job done” and the order also gives him permission to avoid Vivy. She conjures all manner of pesky feelings and needs in him. Secondly, and more compelling, Vivy’s father and now Dean’s father-in-law manufactures the space suit the astronauts will wear on their space walk. It proves defective when one of the trial-run astronauts is seriously injured by it. This causes a rift between Vivy and Dean when he doesn’t share his doubts about the suit’s safety.
As this particular story unravels, Vivy, only 19, newly married and pregnant, has to contend not simply with divided loyalties, but the possibility that her beloved, larger-than-life, indulgent “Daddy” may be involved in unethical business practices. Vivy also comes to realize that “Daddy” is an arms manufacturer; those Vietnam conflict images she sees on the TV mean that someone may die, kill and be killed because of what “Daddy” manufactures. Vivy makes some brave moves regarding her father. This particular narrative thread adds richness, but Barry-Turner keep it front and centre to Vivy and Dean’s relationship and Vivy’s growth. One of the many things I like about this series is that so many of the sombre spectres of the 60s hover over the narrative, without being ignored or “revisioned”. Nevertheless, the series is written in a comic mode and the romance aspect is wonderful in each and every story.
I found the first half of the novel tottered, establishing the characters, but the 60s ambiance was spot-on and I loved the writing throughout. The second half, on the other hand, was as smooth and appealing as cherry jello. I came to care for Vivy and Dean. Vivy is young, tender, and full of life, smart and funny, flamboyant, brave and honest. Dean is quieter. He struggles to express his feelings and figure out how to be a good husband and father. He stumbles and isn’t often a great communicator, but there’s never any doubt that he cares. Dean recognized Vivy’s worth from the get-go and was only ever doubtful about his own: “Vivy was a firecracker, all shimmer and colour and explosion. Dean had ice water in his veins, and with what he had to do, he couldn’t be sorry for it. He needed that ice water to keep him alive in that suit. Although he found himself wanting that fire and heat of hers all for himself.”
In a way, it’s Vivy who has to recognize Dean’s quieter qualities, how his silence might give her the room she needs to be heard. I loved the allusions Barry-Turner used to bring Vivy to this realization: “Her taciturn John Wayne astronaut with the sapphire eyes and the sensual twist of a mouth … She kept flinging open the door to his cave and shining a flashlight around in there. She was Nancy Drew, and he was the secret in the old clock.” This tongue-in-cheek cultural referencing peppers Barry-Turner’s narrative and I smiled every time I came across a clever metaphor. Moreover, when the betrayal occurs, I loved that Dean and Vivy were both in the wrong and in the right and had to work through it. Dean makes the first foray into reconciliation and it involves a letter, damn you B-T, which saw me dissolving in tears, as much as it did Vivy. I loved Barry and Turner’s latest. With Miss Austen, we found in it evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Emma Barry and Genevieve Turner’s Free Fall is self-published. It may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from the authors.