As our regular readers know, every now and then we like to have a little love fest — a favorite book, a favorite author, a favorite book by a favorite author. It’s also a great way to break in new victi–reviewers. Since I’ve been long convinced that Wendy and HelenKay have missed the magic that is Nora Roberts, when I discovered that new PBRer Lorna Freeman is a Nora fan, I thought, “Cool. It’s time for Carnal Innocence.”
Carnal Innocence is your basic small-town mystery: someone’s killing the fast and loose women of Innocence, Mississippi in particularly brutal ways. Caroline Waverly, a world-renowned violinist comes to Innocence after inheriting her grandparents’ home. Her goal: peace and rejuvenation. Of course, with a serial killer on the loose, peace is tough to come by. Enter Tucker Longstreet, known lazybones and the richest dude in town (and possibly the state). Not only is Tucker, uh, well-acquainted with the dead women, he’s also impossibly charming, the backbone of his family, and all-around ladies’ man. I mean that as a compliment.
First, let’s let Lorna introduce herself:
[Lorna Freeman] I am an avid reader of most genre fiction (no horror, please), and I particularly enjoy a well-done romance. Though I’ve been reading some of the heavies like Jayne Ann Krentz and Linda Howard for quite a while, I discovered Nora Roberts only a few years ago, and that was through her alter ego, J.D. Robb. Since then, I’ve read most of her post-Silhouette books.
[k2] Lorna, welcome to Paperback Reader. I’m really excited that you agreed to join me for my long-envisioned review of Nora Roberts’ Carnal Innocence. I personally think that Wendy and HelenKay have not spent enough time in Nora-world, and I’m hoping they’ll read what we have to say and then run out and buy every book she’s ever published. In addition to busting their budgets, they’ll be very happy campers!
I find that I reread Carnal Innocence about once a year or so, and it never gets old — each time, I’m still a little shocked when the villain is revealed. It’s like I want it to be one of the characters I loathe, yet it never turns out that way. This title is one of Nora’s “who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of people” stories, and I really enjoy the juxtaposition of the hot, languid lifestyle of Innocence, Mississippi against violence and racial issues that fill this story. What about this book grabs (or doesn’t grab, I shouldn’t assume…) you?
[Lorna] Ms. Roberts is on top of her game here. I could feel the heat of Innocence, the sultry air, the lazy rhythm of life in summertime, small town Mississippi. And her characters are just as impressive. Well drawn with layers upon layers, not only within themselves but also in their interactions with each other. They remain true to who they are, no matter if they’re minor characters (I especially enjoyed the three old men that sat outside the sheriff’s office), no matter the twists and turns of the plot. This is what I love best about Nora, her creating a sense of time and place that is populated with real people, not cardboard cutouts.
The only quibble I have is one that I occasionally run into in Nora’s other books–her villains are sometimes over the top. It would’ve been enough if Austin Hatinger was a wife-beater, but he was also an insane religious fanatic and a rapist. So much badness piled into one person without one single redeeming quality made him seem rather flat, especially surrounded by much more developed characters.
[k2] Funny how I immediately notice the all-bad-all-the-time villains in other books, but didn’t focus on this flaw here. Someone is clearly a bit too starry-eyed. I do agree that Nora’s villains tend to go that one extra step necessary to reach over-the-tophood. I would argue that Austin used his religious fanaticism as a justification for his other behavior. It’s easier to excuse beating your wife if you can point back to the Bible, I suppose. The rape scene, however, made a little less sense to me (though it was critical for the story) until I focused on the little things, like the fact that Madeleine Longstreet was carrying a “basket of charity” and was in every way the opposite of Austin’s wife.
I want to circle back to the other characters, but first, feel compelled to dwell on one my favorite topics. The hero, Tucker Longstreet, is a favorite of romance readers everywhere. His lazy charm and little quirks are memorable for me. Do you find Tucker compelling, believable, and, well, heroic?
[Lorna] I love that first image of him swinging in his hammock, trying to nap away a hot afternoon. He is a slow-burner of a hero, someone who shows just the surface at first, then a little deeper, then more deeper, then even more–and suddenly we realize that what we thought was a pussycat lazing in the shade is actually a tiger–who has just awakened. Golden eyes and all.
I also liked the fact that he had to work to get the heroine, Caroline. That she didn’t fall into his hand like a ripe plum. And in his working, he confronted facts about himself that made his transition from womanizer to committed lover more believable.
[k2] I think that’s the ultimate fantasy — taming the tiger. Tucker wakens slowly, stretches, circles a little, thinking that maybe he’ll close his eyes for just another minute, realizes he can’t, stretches some more, and then defends his territory. Like a cat, he expends the necessary energy to achieve his goal, and, like a cat, he takes the time to enjoy the finer things in life. When Caroline catches him working, a lovely scene where he tries to brush off his considerable effort as trivial after she’d imagined him “…taking his early evening, post-afternoon, pre-bedtime nap.”– he notes that taking time to watch the sunset is just fine because the work will always be there. And it is always there. Rushing to get stuff done doesn’t mean we wake to less stuff the next morning.
You noted how all the characters, great and small, are given layers. We have Della, the longtime housekeeper who rules the roost and is always surprisingly competitive when it comes to church bake sales. We have Burke Truesdale, former rich kid turned sheriff, whose life took a bad turn or two, yet even as the FBI is taking over his turf, he’s thinking about his daughter’s wedding — something that’s really important to him. Even Teddy, the “dead doctor”, who knows he’s not especially good looking, but figuring that women can always be won with humor. You don’t confuse Teddy with Special Agent Burns, even though they’re both Feds and from outside the community. These are rich characters.
I will say, however, that I wasn’t so taken with Caroline until she picked up the pistol and learned to shoot. At that point, she moved from lovely and frail into a woman-who-will-survive territory. In the beginning, I was sure she had the grit to tough out Innocence, Mississippi.
[Lorna] I have to admit that I didn’t wonder whether Caroline would end up with Tucker. In Nora’s books you know that the romance will work out all right. What’s interesting is the journey–how the hero and heroine get together at the end. (It’s sort of like a Toll House cookie. You know you’ll get chocolate chips, you just don’t know how many.) Though I agree with you that when Caroline picks up that revolver she stops being the standard wounded waif who needs rescuing and becomes someone who could slay the bogeyman herself. I also like the fact that she is neither overly squeamish about learning how to shoot, nor does she do incredibly stupid things once she know how to handle a gun.
As far as Austin’s wife, Mavis, is concerned, I have to confess that I found her more interesting than Madeleine Longstreet. At least, I wondered more about her: Why did she marry Austin? What was she like before life–and her husband–beat her down? While Nora does touch on the town psychology of turning a blind eye to abuse that happens within a family, I would’ve like to know a little more of Mavis’ story.
But the rest of the supporting characters are wonderful. Even their names are great: Earleen, Birdie, Happy, Junior, Bobby Lee, Marvella, Cousin Lulu. They could’ve so easily been southern caricatures, pompadours and all, but they’re flesh and blood, with foibles and scruples that are both universal and unique to their location and lifestyle.
[k2] They are lovely names, aren’t they? Granted, my time spent in the South is relatively short, but I felt like these were real people. populating a town about as far away from my own reality as possible. Yet…there’s also a sense that what’s happening in this book could happen in my neighborhood.
Your comment about Mavis is interesting because she’s the classic abused woman, and I think she made a choice early on that this was the best her life would ever achieve. She’s also on the page in a more real, visceral way than Madeleine could be (being dead and all). One of the flaws with a story this big, in my never humble opinion, is that there are so many interesting threads to follow, and Nora’s never been one to go deep with the peripheral characters in the villain’s life. I’m not sure how she could have here, short of creating an unconvincing scenario where Caroline somehow insinuates herself into the situation. I dunno.
Carnal Innocence rises above so much of we read these days because it’s strongly grounded in character. You become invested in the lives of Tucker, Caroline, Marvella, Cy, and the rest, and you, the reader, want them to find peace. Even at the end of this book, when the killer is revealed in full ugliness, I kept hoping that all the people of Innocence would somehow be, well, innocent. Maybe in time…