I’m going to confess yet another reviewer secret: it’s the medium books that are the hardest. Loving a book is easy. Hating a book is pure reviewer joy. Enjoying a book for all the wrong reasons is a delight. But the lukewarm books are killer.
This is my second go-round with Rachel Gibson’s True Confessions, and it’s almost weird that my second reaction largely mirrors the first: I had a good time, but not enough to remember it a year from now. Which is a shame, because this time, as I read, I kept thinking, “Man, she’s a good writer.”
True Confessions tells the story of burned out tabloid – and by tabloid, I mean “aliens live among us” rather than “So-and-So is too skinny” sort of tabloid – writer Hope Spencer. She’s resting up in the town Gospel, Idaho after she loses her mojo. When it comes to making up Elvis sightings, mojo is all-important. She’s a city girl landing in Small Town, USA, which, naturally, catches the attention of super-hot sheriff, Dylan Taber
Attraction is instant (he’s a babe, she’s built and more, what’s not to attract?), and they spar and lie. They’re both hiding secrets. Dylan, in addition to being chased by every single woman in a forty-mile radius, has a son, and he’s protecting said son from the truth of his birth. Writers like Hope are the last thing Dylan wants sniffing around his neighborhood.
Hope is your typical fish-out-of-city character. What is it about smart women who dress stupid in novels? She’s all Diet Coke and dressing on the side and designer clothes and boots while she walks through piles of dirt. I liked Hope. Despite her desire to hide the truth about her work, she’s open and friendly and willing to take Gospel at face value. And she’s serious about her work. You feel her frustration when she can’t produce a usable paragraph, much less sentence. The nice thing about writers writing about writing is that the procrastination and lack of inspiration and desire to avoid the keyboard always feels real.
Dylan, on the other hand, had tasted the good times that come from being a Los Angeles cop, and decided he prefers Gospel to Northridge (and, yeah, I do appreciate that Gibson had her cop character living in the Valley). He has a son and the mother is alive, well, and not the maternal type. She’s also someone who has a lot to lose if the truth about Dylan and Adam (el kiddo) ever gets out.
This matters when it comes to the final black moment thingy. Dylan is a good old boy with that necessary edge of big city sophistication – no way would this story have worked if he hadn’t left Gospel. His outside world experience allows him to view his hometown with a necessary touch of distance. He’s one of them, but, being the sheriff, able to maintain a certain detachment.
Plot-wise, this book is weak (see below). Many of scenes feel like stock vignettes: Rachel is forced to care for Dylan’s son during an emergency, they take a romantic trip to the mountains, there’s a cute barbecue encounter. What separates these from standard-issue “get these characters together, now!” scenes is Gibson’s use of humor – her voice and style lend themselves to the slightly off-beat. These aren’t roll-on-the-floor funny, but the subtle, sly tone often sneaks up on the reader, making you laugh half a page later when the full impact of the joke sinks into your mind.
The humor also makes the confrontational tone of the hero and heroine’s interactions bearable. There is nothing less appealing than characters who engage in (lame) verbal battles because the author has confused squabbling with conflict. What these misguided authors see as cute and clever is more often irritating. Writing sharp, funny dialogue is an art. Writing sharp, funny narrative is an art. Gibson is good at both.
Hope and Dylan mostly spar because as their hormones are raging – and Gibson does a fine job with lust and the aftermath, this is a mostly good, strong romance novel, you believe, you really believe – they are hiding truths about themselves. Relationships are a funny thing, aren’t they? I mean, do you put the whole, unvarnished truth about your life story on the table the first time you meet someone? Or do you calculate the odds and reveal only what needs to be revealed? Or are there white lies, things you say to protect yourself in case this relationship is short-lived? Do you really want to leave a piece of you soul with someone you’ll never see again?
Hope lies about her job, her past, and the scar on her abdomen. Then slowly, depending on the person and circumstances, she reveals the truth. It’s a trust thing. She tells Dylan she’s had a hysterectomy after telling him a different story. He takes it in stride. It gave me pause and impacted my perception of the story, but that’s not my point right now.
The point is that you don’t tell strangers everything on Day One, and sometimes it takes a little while before you get around to confessing that you made stuff up way back when. So the lies between these two characters exist and are sorted out, one by one. Each onion layer of truth brings them closer together. Yet, at the end of the story, Dylan feels wronged about Hope’s lie about her career without taking the fall for hiding the truth about his son’s parentage from both his child and the woman he loves. He sees himself as the injured party without an ounce of proof about Hope’s wrong-doing. Yeah, I’m perturbed about this because when the truth about his son comes out in full tabloid glory, Dylan immediately blames Hope.
Without. Looking. At. The. Evidence.
Oh yes, definitely perturbed. Getting worked up. Maybe I’m not so lukewarm about this story after all. Dylan is a lousy cop if he can’t read people. Especially if he can’t tell the difference between a white lie and a whopper. He lets his ex blink her pretty eyes and make him think she’s changed (she hasn’t) while assuming the worst of Hope when she hasn’t really done anything to earn his wrath. Dylan jumps to conclusions when the news cameras show up in his town – his lack of trust in Hope at that moment really spoils the ending of this book. Dylan reconciles with Hope after he learns the truth about who betrayed his secret to the press – and she takes him back, just like that! No matter than he says he knew that he loved her before that moment, bottom line is that he makes the gesture a few pages too late.
It really kills what was a pretty good romance novel.
But, wait, I’m not done yet. Hope spends a lot of time and energy trying to sniff out the truth behind the suicide of the town’s former sheriff – a man who apparently suffered more than a few kinks – yet, oddly, the thread of that plot line is broken. At one point, Hope draws conclusions about what happened and its impact, but since she’s trying to write a serious news piece about the story, the fact that Gibson just drops the whole thing without tying it to the larger story makes it feel like word count filler. At the end of the day, who cares why former sheriff Hiram Donnelly killed himself? It doesn’t impact the current story (other than giving Hope an empty house to occupy) and there are no instructive lessons to take away. Gibson’s brief detour in the psychology of the Donnelly family is a story in itself, sure enough, but that makes the inclusion of the aborted sub-plot all the more curious. Why grill so much meat and then forget to serve it with the rest of the meal?
Gibson drops another character, Dixie Howe, in much the same manner. She seems important, but then, not so much. The way it works out, she comes off as a man-hungry caricature who doesn’t even get the dignity of a plot thread. I have a thing about filler and useless characters. If you’re going to make me pay attention to them, give me a reason. In a way, we’re seeing a fictionalized (but probably not inaccurate) microcosm of small town life, but even caricatures require story development.
Maybe this is the true limitation that romance authors place on themselves: determining that the overt story requires far more page time than it needs, to the detriment of the bigger story. Hope is probably going to live in Gospel for the rest of her life. Is she only going to find companionship with Dylan, his son, another couple, and the local grocer? Where was the humanity in the third tier characters? They’re on the page – give them some depth.
Then there’s this thing. The kid thing. I mean, I’m all for symmetry in fiction. I like symmetry. If life could be more symmetrical, I would probably spend less time doing stuff like, oh, trying to line things up. OCD, you know. But in my fiction, I don’t like perfect symmetry. It’s too neat. It’s boring.
Here’s how it works: Hope can’t have kids, Dylan has a kid. Symmetry. Conflict…poof (I’m assuming poof as the book doesn’t take me in to the future of these characters). It’s almost like serendipity, but tonight I had a conversation with a guy who described the time he and his almost-live-in girlfriend had the kid talk. Years later, they’re living together happily and still on the same “no kids” page, but it’s always at the back of his mind. What if she changes her mind?
And the problem is that Gibson almost went there. Dylan points out that Hope is getting a guy with a kid. Hope doesn’t counter with a “hey, you’re getting a chick with no uterus.” It matters. It deserves consideration, especially given the foreshadowing and build-up in the story. And, because I’m me and I live a fantasy world, I want it considered seriously. As in, we’re going go need to talk about this like non-horny adults.
Rachel Gibson is a bit like Stephanie Bond in my mind: I am sure she’s one book away from brilliance. One day, she’s going to find the right story, the right something, and we’re all going to be nodding our heads and saying, “Yeah, told you so.” Gibson tells about offbeat corners of the world and sucks you into her Idaho state of mind and it’s a part of the United States that has great stories, but I feel like she’s not quite ready to take a risk.
This is why I compare her work to Bond’s – both tend to use humor very effectively, but both tend to retreat behind the funny rather than using the funny to mine deeper emotions. Hope is many years away from her hysterectomy – scars have had plenty of time to heal. Likewise, she’s many years beyond her divorce; the wounds are barely throbbing. Dylan has been a single parent for seven years; he’s not crazy about the antics of his ex, but the initial rawness has passed. They’re pretty sanguine about their lives.
This leaves both of these characters in pretty safe places when the story begins. It’s going to sound like I’m a bit of a hypocrite here, but I dislike characters who carry their baggage to the point where they can’t see the forest for the trees. But I also, I have discovered in the course of this review, dislike it when characters are so far removed from their emotional conflict that it seems like convenient backstory. I’m sitting here wondering why Hope had to be sterile. Seriously, in the grander scheme of the novel, her inability to conceive serves as little more than a convenient out when, for the second time in Dylan’s life, the condom breaks. When I noted scenes that read like they’re out of the romance novel playbook above, this is the sort of thing that makes me bonkers: oops, no condom…that’s okay, honey, I forgot to mention that I’m on the Pill/the proud owner of a IUD/without uterus.
Letting the characters off the hook emotionally in this manner allows the author to escape going into uncomfortable territory.
Let me give an example (and, yes, it’s timeworn, I’m old, sue me). InIt Had To Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips, there’s a sex scene. Okay, maybe not a sex scene, but a seduction scene. It borders on way kinky and way, well, let’s just say (and if you haven’t read it, I don’t want to give it away because the reaction of romance readers who can’t take a joke has amused me for years, and I don’t want to ruin it for you), socially incorrect, in a “we don’t ever go there in romance, ever” sort of way. And Phillips follows this scene between the hero and another woman just a hair past uncomfortable – you believe this guy is breaking major taboos, and I’m not just talking romance-world taboos – before giving us the punch line. It’s painful and funny and completely important to the plot. The hero grows up.
That’s the kind of risk that I keep looking for in authors like Rachel Gibson and Stephanie Bond. Shredding the envelope. I want to be taken to an uncomfortable place and left there just long enough. Romance authors make an implicit pact with their readers – it will all work out in the end. But just because I get a happy ending doesn’t mean that I don’t want to bite my nails and raise my eyebrows on the journey.