A Girl's Guide to the Outback
As someone who has enjoyed both Christian fiction and sex-not-included romantic comedies, I consider myself to have been fairly well-prepared to enjoy a Christian romance that combined both genres. Having reached the end of A Girl’s Guide to the Outback, I have to say that I found it neither excessively Christian nor excessively romantic. Ultimately, the book’s inability to ever really break out in any way, coupled with a slow plot and long page count, means it never quite hits the proverbial sweet spot.
Kimberly Foster is the “business brain” of Wildfire, a Christian ministry for youth in Virginia that has thrived on the ministering talents of Samuel – Sam – Payton, a self-taught pastor of sorts from Australia. Wildfire recently attempted to create an Atlanta location that failed, but while Kimberly wants to try again, Sam doesn’t. Sam’s family dairy farm in Australia is having financial problems, and when Kimberly pushes the board for another Wildfire in Baltimore, Sam takes it as an opportunity to quit. Fast forward five months, and Kimberly has her Wildfire Baltimore and it’s reenacting the demise of the Atlanta location. Sam, meanwhile, is in Australia, attempting to help with the farm. Urged by outside forces (neither like the idea) Kimberly and Sam compromise: she’ll go to Australia for a few weeks and try to solve the farm’s money problems, and Sam will go back to the US for a few weeks to straighten out Wildfire Baltimore.
This book is all about location, location, location. Jessica Kate is an Australian, and the story is full of Australian and agricultural details related to the Payton dairy farm. It’s tragic that the book’s release coincides with the fires in Australia (the fact that the ministry is called “Wildfire” is disconcerting in this context, too), but the book’s details authentically reflect the news’ depiction of Australia as a country of geographic challenges. For better or worse, the storyline around the farm’s problems owns the novel. This isn’t a tightly focused romance in which The Cause and Effect of Everything Is Love. The farm facilitates everything that happens in Kimberly and Sam’s romance. Their interactions include a dunk in the cattle trough (bacterial infection?) and pivotal emotional bonding moments which happen while attaching a milking machine to cows (I could almost hear it when “the cups slurped up onto the cow’s teats” and I wasn’t even listening to this as an audiobook).
Sam is not an alpha bull on the farm. He’s much subtler than that. He wanted to be a café owner originally; he boasts of his “double-decker pavlova” dessert, and despite his rural Australian childhood, he is “rubbish at identifying snakes”. He’s dyslexic, and educational challenges paired with past failure and guilt have led him to make life choices that fence him in along with the family cows, metaphorically (sort of) speaking. He is, we’re told, a uniquely stirring minister for Christ. If this conjures up images of a loud, wired man preaching to thousands in a megachurch (this might just be Americans like myself), wave away those images. What makes it believable that he’s a good minister is that, throughout the book, he acts with decency. Initial struggles with Kimberly aside, when it comes to men, women, friends, parents, siblings – we see him interact with all of them and he’s eternally consistent. I myself wouldn’t object to sitting with the man and talking about my worries. There’s something about him that’s soothing.
Kimberly is a character who initially comes off as refreshingly confident – a heroine who likes her own appearance? Praise! However, that girl is soon replaced with one who spends her days slugging it out on the farm in old t-shirts, roiling with issues that all trace back to the death of her idolized alcoholic father, and her upbringing by an emotionally abusive mother. It’s been mentioned at AAR before that some take issue with miracle fertility plots in romance. I, personally, struggle in a similar vein with miracle parental reconciliation plots, and the story’s resolution to Kimberly’s problems with her mom offended my sensibilities. I will say I was entirely convinced about her attraction to Sam, and I was surprised by their palpable chemistry and the fact that she mentioned how her “uterus did a backflip of approval” in regards to him – I hadn’t really expected that from a Christian romance.
There are a lot of significant secondary characters in this book. Sam’s sister Jules gets her own second chance romance, which runs concurrently with Kimberly and Sam’s throughout the book. She’s a diehard farm girl who loves their neighbor-turned-beach-boy-veterinarian. I enjoyed their story, but if you’re a reader who likes only one love story at a time, this book doesn’t give you that. I also thought it unusual that Jules and her guy get an HEA while Kimberly and Sam just get an HFN.
My biggest issue, and what ultimately kept the book from a low-B grade, is that it is. . . quite. . . slow. . . and. . . long. I had to read this in dedicated, disciplined stages, because it never reached a level of engagement that meant I either desperately wanted to keep reading or return to it quickly. The second half is more vibrant, but this isn’t a book that’s light on its feet, and with a page count of 368, it needed to pull its weight earlier.
All in all, A Girl’s Guide to the Outback is a book that commendably acknowledges its unique setting and has a heart that clearly has malice towards none, but doesn’t ever raise its voice above a whisper.
Buy it at: Amazon
Visit our Amazon Storefront or Shop your local indie bookstore