Harlot by Victoria Dahl. A historical western about a heroine who is a whore? How can Wendy NOT read this?!? I didn't so much read it as inhale it. While it wasn't everything I hoped it would be, it was still pretty darn good. Albeit I recognize that it won't be a story for everyone. You know, for reasons.
Caleb Hightower left Colorado to make his fortune in California. The plan is to scratch together enough funds to marry the girl of his dreams, Jessica Willoughby. Jessica's is a doctor's daughter and Caleb views her as more angel than as young woman. What she sees in the likes of him, he'll never know. Finally, after two years away from home, he's back. Only to discover that his dream girl is now the town whore.
Well - sort of.
After Jessica's father passed away she was left with the mountain that was his debts. Correspondence from Caleb was so spotty, and due to behind-the-scene shenanigans from the villain, Jessica firmly believed he had abandoned her. So she struck a bargain to keep a roof over her head and when she spurns the wrong man - word gets out that Jessica is making a living on her back. Caleb shows up at her rundown farmhouse, says some awful things, but knowing that her taxes are soon due - Jessica makes another deal with the devil. She knows Caleb wants to "punish" her - but damn, the taxes are due. She'll give him a week and he'll give her $25.
This is one of those stories where I can immediately dissect why others probably won't like it. For one thing, it's a novella. I actually think the novella length works well for this story. Yes, I would have liked more background about Caleb's father - but honestly? The nature of the conflict (basically the evil-doing's of the villain) would have gotten tiresome in a full-length story. I've seen other reviews about not connecting with the characters (code for, in my opinion, thin character development) - but I didn't have the same reaction. I suspect because Dahl does a dynamite job with heartbreak and dialogue. I felt like I knew these characters and gods my heart broke for both of them.
Which leads us to Caleb. I suspect some readers will actively dislike him. He says some pretty awful things to Jessica. I wanted to slap him silly at moments, but I also understood his pain. This is a man who literally built up Jessica to an ideal. She's on a very high pedestal - one she certainly didn't ask to be placed on. And when she falls from that pedestal, Caleb reacts poorly. Now, is this her fault? No. It's Caleb's for idealizing "the ideal" - which stems from the belief that he's "not good enough" for her. Hence the whole going to California thing.
What made this story work so well for me was the angst and the dialogue. Our black moment comes in the form of Jessica putting her foot down. There's a Big Ol' Confrontation between her and Caleb to spur us towards the finish line and it's a doozy. I wanted to jump up out of my seat and cheer for this heroine. It was Everything. And the best part? Caleb has his own Come to Jesus Moment.
My one solid quibble with this story stems entirely from my own dashed expectations. I wanted a story about a heroine who was a whore. As in, living above a saloon, multiple "clients" whore. That's not Jessica. Yes, she trades sexual favors for security - but it's not like she's taking in clients on a nightly basis (to go into greater detail boarders Spoiler Territory). Is this splitting hairs? Probably. But my feeling is if you're going to write a romance novel with a whore heroine - why not go whole hog? Although I'm a big enough person to realize this is all in Wendy's head and I just need to get over it.
It's not going to be for everyone, but it was for me. I thought Dahl handled the time period well, the messy conflict, and made the happy ending actually believable (a tall order with a story of this nature). Also, it was a "gritty western" - which is Wendy Catnip. I know the contemporaries are doing well for her, but I hope Dahl has more westerns up her sleeve.
Final Grade = A-