Thursday, March 29, 2012

When Jane Comes Marching Home

A common "criticism" I see thrown at romance, and at category romance specifically, is that it's "not realistic."  Which, honestly, has always irritated the crap out of me.  No one type of fiction is wholly "realistic" and what feels "real" to one person can very well feel like a trip to Fantasy Land for another.  Life is full of gray areas, and what happens to people - the mundane, the fantastical, and everything in between - is never cookie-cutter.  What happens, how we cope with it, is going to vary across the spectrum.  Which is exactly what Soraya Lane tackles in her latest release Back in the Soldier's Arms.  The conflict alone will likely keep some readers away, but I can't help but admire the hell out of the author for "going there."

Daniel and  Penny Cartwright look like the perfect couple.  Both in the military (he's Navy, she's Army) they met, fell in love, got married, and have a 5-year-old daughter, Gabby.  The plan was to finish out their four years and settle into domestic bliss, but it didn't quite work out that way.  Daniel finished his stint as a Navy pilot, and just as she was about to walk away from the Army, they threw the ol' Stop-Loss card at Penny.  She was shipped back overseas, and Daniel was left at home to adjust to civilian life and being a single father.  It's a rocky adjustment which leads to Daniel falling off the fidelity wagon with a one-time encounter.  Now Penny is home on leave for their daughter's birthday, and to deal with the fall-out of Daniel's infidelity.

The story picks up with Penny coming home on leave, so the reader isn't privy to witnessing Daniel be unfaithful.  Still, a hero who lets Mr. Happy out to play with others besides the heroine tends to be a deal breaker for a lot of readers.  For me?  It's all about context.  This is a hero who isn't a jerk.  He's really not.  He feels like a complete and total shit-heel for what he's done.  Plus, he loves his wife.  The thought that she may leave him is enough to turn his stomach and he spends huge chunks of this book practically begging, on his knees over broken glass, for forgiveness.

For her part, Penny thinks she might be able to forgive Daniel, it's the forgetting part she can't deal with.  Just thinking about him with another woman leaves her feeling hurt, angry, and totally unworthy.  On top of this, she's been away from her daughter, and the adjustment home, for only one week before she has to leave again, is extremely bumpy.  Gabby has only had Daniel to rely on in the parent role for some time.  It's Daniel she wants.  It's Daniel she turns to.  And it breaks Penny's heart that, in some instances, her daughter flat-out doesn't want her.

This is a book about a hero who screwed up royally and spends the rest of the novel desperately trying to make things right.  Naturally, it does not go smoothly.  There are bumps in the road, there are angry words.  I spent every single page of this story practically having my heart ripped out on a continual basis.  The military "stuff," how that can effect a marriage, how it effects families, felt very authentic to me.  Granted, I have no first hand knowledge of the life, living with someone in the military, but these characters, their conflict, didn't feel silly or trumped up to me.  It felt painfully real.

If I had any one quibble with this story is that I wished it had had a stronger sense of place.  I'm still not sure where this story was set.  America (given the use of Stop-Loss), somewhere.  Also, while I think the author does a very good job with her conflict, and making her hero sweat blood to get his marriage back on track, I think I wanted him to suffer more.  Like say, the length of a SuperRomance as opposed to a Harlequin Romance.  That being said though, the author still makes him work and it's not like he doesn't work his ass off to get a second chance with Penny.

There is no such thing as a "simple" or "easy" relationship.  It doesn't exist.  Period.  Relationships tend to be one giant ball of gray.  As readers we all have "deal-breakers."  I have mine - certain things I can't forgive - and while generally speaking it's easy for me to say that infidelity is one them?  Ms. Lane gives readers a story where it's not so easy to make that statement.  It was, at many times, a very hard book to read, just because of the suffering these two people go through - both heroine and hero.  It's a book that the author should consider entering in the awards circuit next year, and a book that will move mountains when it finds the right reader, at the right time.  It's also a book that effectively cuts through the cookie-cutter fluffy label that gets slapped on category romance way too often for me to even be remotely tolerant about it anymore.  It's too hard of a book for me to declare undying love for, but it is brave as hell.  I hope the author is rewarded for it - whether it be with royalties, awards, or just really moving, awesome fan mail.

Final Grade = B+

18 comments:

azteclady said...

Damn you, Wendy *adds to list*

carly m. said...

I know, right. I would have never picked this book up based on the cover. But now here I am, adding it to the TBR mountain.

Phyl said...

Yeah. Me too :-)

JaneA said...

I'm curious, does this book take place over a week? Does it end when she leaves again to finish her term of service?

Wendy said...

My work here is done!

Wendy said...

JaneA: Yes, the story takes place over a week and readers do witness her having to leave again to rejoin her unit. But the author does include an epilogue that takes place after Penny is discharged.

Jill said...

(Tangent!) I find suspension of disbelief so interesting b/c it is so individual from person to person. My father can't read anything with even the tiniest smidge of fantasy or science-fiction b/c "it's not real." But he loooooves James Bond and willingly admits that it's not at all realistic.
My mother on the other hand, enjoys science fiction and fantasy, but can't read cozy mysteries where body after body keeps piling up in small towns and little old ladies solve crimes. I think all comes down to if it's a genre you enjoy and you want to go on that journey with those characters.
Also, this book sounds amazing and I so appreciate your reviews of category romance!

Susanna Kearsley said...

I will still argue with anyone, anytime, that some of the best writing around is found in category. Love that you review it and give it the respect it deserves. I'll be looking for this one.

nath said...

The book sounds very interesting :) And while usually, a cheating hero is a deal-breaker, as you said in your review, it depends on the circumstances. Most cheating men are really badly depicted... but every man is humane and can make a mistake or two. So I think this could work.

In any case, I have a book by this author in my TBR pile. Will try her first and then, will think about this one. Glad it's a B+ for you Wendy!

Leah Braemel said...

I bought Soraya's first book based on one of your reviews and loved it, and this time is no different. I love that she tackled such a difficult subject, and she handled it with such skill, without demeaning either, and giving a face to both characters that I could relate to.

Thanks, both Wendy for reviewing it, and Soraya for writing it. What a talent she is.

Nikki said...

Once again, I am off to buy another Harlequin on your recommendation. You have yet to steer me wrong. Thanks.

Leslie said...

I've read one from Lane and really enjoyed it with another on the TBR pile. I'm not crazy about the infidelity but it sounds like it was handled well so I'll be picking this one up too. Thanks for the review!

Wendy said...

Jill: I completely agree! I happen to like cozy mysteries (cut my teeth on them in fact), and while I totally see where your Mom is coming from (oh man, do I!) - I happily roll along until the wheels fall off. And usually the wheels falling off comes in the form of sloppy plotting or writing - not another murder victim popping up in a town with a population of 2000 :)

Wendy said...

Susanna: Digital has chewed away a bit at this - but when I give talks to librarians about category romance I mention how "timely" a lot of the plots can be because of the quick turn-around in publishing time. First mentions of 9/11 and the War On Terror that I read....anywhere? Category romance featuring military characters.

Wendy said...

Nath: I've really liked the author's military-themed books. She had a cowboy one out late last year that didn't work nearly as well for me - but so far she's batting 3 out of 4 :)

Wendy said...

Leah: That's what I really liked about it too (and didn't quite convey in my review!). That she gave a "face" to both characters, humanizing both of them, and not demonizing either.

Wendy said...

Nikki: WooHoo! And hopefully I'll continue to steer you along in the right direction :)

Wendy said...

Leslie: Believe me, I totally get it's a subject where readers may not want to "go there." But it is well-done, and handled with a mature eye. It was worth me moving out of my comfort zone a bit.....