Well, it looks like the only way I can now “read” romance is via audiobook. Roni Loren’s For You and No One Else worked this way for me and so did Jen Devon’s Bend Toward the Sun. While Loren is one of my tried-and-true authors, I would not have considered reading, or listening to Devon’s début without Tree at Words About Words’s review (check it out). I’m glad I did: it was thoroughly enjoyable and a dose of romance that I didn’t think I’d be able to enjoy again. Before getting into the details, here’s the Netgalley blurb:
Rowan McKinnon doesn’t believe in love. With a botany PhD, two best friends who embrace her social quirkiness, and some occasional no-strings sex, she has everything she needs. But she hides deep wounds from the past—from a negligent mother, and a fiancé who treated her like a pawn in a game. When an academic setback leads Rowan to take on the restoration of an abandoned vineyard, she relishes the opportunity to restore the grapes to their former glory.
She does not expect to meet a man like Harrison Brady.
An obstetrician profoundly struggling after losing a patient, Harry no longer believes he is capable of keeping people safe. Reeling, Harry leaves Los Angeles to emotionally recover at his parents’ new vineyard in Pennsylvania.
He does not expect to meet a woman like Rowan McKinnon.
As their combative banter gives way to a simmering tension, sunlight begins to crack through the darkness smothering Harry’s soul. He’s compelled to explore the undeniable pull between them. And after a lifetime of protecting herself from feeling anything, for anyone, Rowan tries to keep things casual.
But even she can’t ignore their explosive connection.
There is much to like, much to enjoy, and much to admire about Devon’s romance. Even though designated WF, this is a good, old-fashioned, well-developped classic romance. And, like the best romances, there isn’t much of a plot, instead a focus and concentration on the hero and heroine and their developping relationship. What makes Devon’s stand out is how authentic it feels, how believable and real the characters are, how much the reader cares about them, and how moving their story is.
The impediments to love are built on an “opposites-attract” canvas: Harry’s openness to Rowan’s guardedness. And, again like the best romances, this “opposites” set-up gives way to a reversal: Rowan opens up as Harry runs away. Devon also does a great job of surprising us against romance conventions: for example, Harry suffers from arachnophobia, which, in a vineyard and garden, wild and cultivated, is a “real” problem. There’s a wonderful scene where Rowan talks Harry down off the cobweb. Harry, in turn, challenges Rowan emotionally (so they’re equally balanced in their strengths and weaknesses); when she insists on “sex only”, Harry has already figured out that’s what they’re about: he tells her, “you’re talking about sensation and I’m talking about emotion.” Well put, Harry, well put. This, my friends, is compatibility, which, in romance, is so important and rarely taken into consideration as primary. Which is why so many romances collapse as trite, shallow, derivative and why Bend Toward the Sun doesn’t.
Devon’s romance has other strengths as well. It is well-written, with wonderful passages of descriptions of flora and fauna that aren’t solely based on visual imagery, evoking the other four senses as well. It’s funny: like the account of the sexiest, most hilarious three-legged race I’ve ever read in a romance novel. The secondary characters, like Harry’s enormous family and the ribbing amongst him and his many brothers, are a teensy bit too familiar from recent romance, but still well done. Something else I enjoyed was how Devon made Bend Toward the Sun about the two protagonists figuring out the trajectory of their vocations (botany for Rowan and medicine for Harry). It is an important aspect of Harry and Rowan’s story and it’s a narrative strength of Devon’s because she shows us how figuring out one part of your life can make love and commitment a richer, more lasting, more solid foundation for happiness.
Finally, the narration is solid. I enjoyed Chris Brinkley’s and Erin Mallon’s reading voices, though I think Mallon’s the stronger of the two. They were smooth, with a nice timbre, and emotionally resonant without being histrionic. (Brinkley’s “female” voiced high-pitch was awkward and I do wish he’d checked on the pronunciation of Debussy; hint, it doesn’t rhyme with Gary Busey.) However, whether you eyeball or ear Bend Toward the Sun, it’s one romance novel you shouldn’t miss this year. It releases tomorrow, August 9th. Miss Austen agrees, there’s “no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma, where Bend Toward the Sun is concerned.
I will never return to reading romance as voraciously as I did for years, but I’m glad I discovered Devon. She gave me hope that I’ll still read *some* romance if the genre can inspire books as good as hers.
Lastly, I am grateful to Macmillan Audio for an advance listener copy, via Netgalley.