Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Winning Ruby Heart

Disclaimer: Jennifer Lohmann is a librarian, and was RWA's Librarian of the Year for 2010.  We are, what I consider, professional colleagues - routinely chat at conferences and have presented workshops together.  
Winning Ruby Heart by Jennifer Lohmann is a good book.  However it's possibly a great book for all the things that it's not.  Which, I know, makes no sense.  But let me see if I can try to explain it over the course of this review.

Once upon a time Ruby Heart was an elite middle-distance runner with an Olympic silver medal to her credit.  It's while training for that elusive gold that her life comes crashing down around her ears.  She's found out.  Our dear heroine has been blood doping.  She's a cheater.  Stripped of her silver medal, getting sued by her sponsors, banned from any Olympic sport, hounded by the public, the press, the paparazzi and forced into a life of seclusion in her parents upscale home.  Ruby is now a 29-year-old with, literally, no skills - other than running.  Which she is very slowly, and secretly, getting back into via ultra-marathons - as of yet, and unlikely, to become an Olympic sport.  So she figures she's in the clear so long as her disapproving parents don't find out.  She did not plan on Micah Blackwell being at the very first race she was brave enough to enter herself in.

Micah works for an ESPN-like station, was an elite college and NFL quarterback until a hard tackle left him in a wheelchair, a paraplegic for the rest of his days.  Micah got tougher, learned to live his life again, went back to school, and has been clawing his way up the ladder at work.  When he learns there's an anchor spot with his name potentially penciled in, he is willing to do just about anything to secure that promotion.  And then he sees Ruby Heart at an ultra-marathon where he's covering another runner.  Micah interviewed Ruby immediately after her cheating came to light and needless to say he raked her over the coals but good.  He sees this "new" Ruby - without the glam make-up, flashy clothes and sexpot image and immediately realizes that she can punch his ticket to that promotion.

This story basically starts out with the enemy-to-lovers trope.  Micah has very strong opinions about what Ruby did - and make no mistake....she did it.  With her eyes wide open.  Oh sure, she was led astray by those around her, but in the end Ruby made her bed - she's lying in it.  And frankly she's tired of lying in it.  She's tired of not living and being too scared to even try.  For her part, Ruby is not happy to see Micah at that race.  She remembers all too well how he made her feel during that interview five years ago.  The short answer?  Like shit. Micah made her see just how massively she screwed up - how she not only cheated and lied to the public, but how she cheated on herself and threw her talent away when she stuck out her arm for that needle.

We all know what happens eventually.  Micah and Ruby are attracted to each other, but with Micah covering Ruby for the network there's a whole lot of "conflict of interest" standing in their way.  Also Ruby's past baggage and the fact that both of them are more than a little selfish.

This is where the book really stood out for me.  Ruby was raised to eat, sleep and breathe running competitively.  Everyone around her was "Team Ruby" - working towards that gold medal.  Ruby was raised, was trained, to think about Ruby.  For his part, Micah is selfishly looking at what Ruby can do for him, which equals that job promotion.  A decent chunk of the climactic finish is spent on the fact that both of these people need to see past their own noses.

This is a good story.  A nice story.  But it's more notable for what's not on the page.  For one thing, Micah's disability isn't used as a cheap writer's shortcut.  Micah isn't disabled to provide ready made angst for the author to milk.  Micah just happens to be disabled.  He's not hung-up about it.  He's not crying himself to sleep and shaking his fists towards the heavens cursing at God.  Micah doesn't need a heroine to come along to "teach" him that life is still worth living and how he needs to comes to term with the accident.  Micah is, simply, Micah.  He's a guy.  He's living his life.  He's ambitious.  He's a bit of a workaholic.  He's like countless other men we see in real life or read about in novels - it's just that he happens to live his life in a wheelchair.

Ruby is a complicated heroine.  Oh, make no mistake - she cheated.  But the author doesn't explain it away by making her some dupe.  Some naive girl who was lured to the dark side by villains twirling their mustaches.  Sure, Ruby's coach played his part - but Ruby said yes.  Ruby could have said no.  Something that she acknowledges, something she has to keep acknowledging because she'll have to live with it for the rest of her days.  I loved that the author didn't try to wash away Ruby's sins.  This book is about Ruby learning to live with herself, and her mistakes.

The author also says very interesting things in this book - a lot of it revolving around female celebrity, how the public reacts to that celebrity, and what it's like when that female celebrity falls from grace.  Ruby received rape threats even before the doping scandal broke, and she's well aware that as a woman she'll never be redeemed in the public eye as easily as if she were a man.

Where this book stumbles a bit for me is with the pacing and the romance.  Micah and Ruby are both athletes so there is a lot of body-talk in this book and naturally, as they are both athletes, you would expect that their mutual athletic physiques are a source of attraction for both of them.  But after a while I found this a little tiresome and wanted more lovey-dovey-mushy emotional "stuff."  I also felt the ending was really rushed.  The climactic moments are good - but Ruby's final race (a 100-miler!) is glossed over considerably, and the author deploys a villain to spur the couple towards a happy ending - which seemed a little out of left field for me.  Yeah, the villain is a jack-ass, but his motivations at the end didn't entirely work for me.

Still, this is a very good read.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, and think the author did a really good job handling elements that, frankly, we don't always see handled well within the genre.  To be frank, this story could have been a disaster in a lot of ways, but Lohmann never allowed it to go there.

Final Grade = B


Kate said...

Wow, this sounds right up my alley! There don't seem to be many running-themed romances out there, nor sports themes where the heroine is the one with complex issues. Maybe I'm not looking in the right places?

And, as I've begun watching Friday Night Lights and am completely obsessed, I'm certain to picture Micah as Jason Street :)

Lori said...

I don't read a lot of category romance these days but between the heroine who actually did a really crappy thing and the disability that isn't a plot crutch this one sounds like one I'd like to hunt down.

Lynne said...

Thanks for this review. Glad to know there are some non-formula selections out there.

Wendy said...

Kate: For a lot of years, unless your name was Rachel Gibson or Susan Elizabeth Phillips, authors were told athlete heroes didn't sell. Self-publishing has opened up that door for a lot of writers, but we're still waiting for athlete heroines. There really are not a lot of them out there. So yeah, this book is really different in a lot of ways. Definitely worth seeking out IMHO.

Lori: No disability plot crutch here - and man, it was GREAT! And let me tell you how great it was that the author didn't try to "redeem" the heroine by somehow absolving her of her sins. She was no dupe. She knew what she did and she made her choices.

Lynne: It was a really refreshing read for me.