Barefoot by the Sea
There are few things more painful for a reviewer than having to negatively review a book by an author whose work she has enjoyed very much in the past. Still, if one receives an advance reading copy, the review, and an honest one, is owed. So here it goes: As much as I loved Roxanne St. Claire’s romantic suspense books in the past, I thoroughly disliked Barefoot by the Sea, the fourth installment in her Barefoot Bay Series.
Together with her three best friends, Tessa Galloway, a gardener by profession, has founded the Casa Blanca Holiday Resort specialising in destination weddings on a paradisiacal island in Florida. The first three volumes described the three friends’ road to their happily-ever-afters, and now one has a baby, the next is expecting, and the third is married. Tessa, on the other hand, is divorced after a marriage that went sour partly due to her infertility, partly due to her husband’s lies and cheating. She longs for a baby, has begun to arrange for a surrogate, and is looking for a sperm donor.
One evening in a bar with her friends, Tessa attracts the notice of John Brown, big, brawny and tattooed – a “smokin’-hot bad-ass sex god” her friends call him before they push Tessa at him because they believe what she needs is sex with a stranger. Tessa and John share a drink and start to sound each other out: John for the chance of a one-night-stand, Tessa for a sperm donor, both without any commitment … and when John understands how they are at cross purposes, he storms off in a huff. As it happens though, the resort is in dire need of a good chef, and guess who is hired the next morning for that very position?
John’s life is far more complicated than it appears at first. He is in truth Ian Browning, an English banker who has been in the witness protection program for the last three years after his wife was killed by a gang member and he testified against him. He lost custody of his twin toddlers, and now his single goal in life is to get them back. Unfortunately he got into trouble and was recognised in Singapore, and now he needs to lay low and gain stability ASAP. So he needs the job, but he can’t speak about his past and his true purposes to anyone.
As this sounds quite harmless so far, you may ask what was so awful about the novel. Well, it started with the scene in the bar. It was supposed to be funny, but I found the relentless insistence with which three adult women push their reluctant friend at having sex with a biker they’ve never clapped eyes on before implausible and rather painful to read. Tessa and Ian’s first discussion at cross purposes was funny for a short time, but Ian’s self-righteous outrage at what Tessa wants from him is never really questioned considering what he wants (only to use her body, which apparently is fine!).
Many of the elements of the plot that bring Tessa and Ian together are awfully contrived. I fully believe that there is terrible pressure on getting positive online feedback for a new resort. But the sequence of demands placed on the owners of this resort, and their ways of solving them, which only serve to push Tessa and Ian at each other with all the subtlety of a bench vise, had me rolling my eyes several times.
Tessa’s utter horror of secrets and lies, and her friends’ dutiful acceptance of the edict “thou shalt not lie when talking to Tessa” make her appear spoilt and immature. Of course she has skeletons of her own in the closet, but in spite of this she expects each and everyone to dance to her tune in this particular, and reacts very coldly when Ian begins to open up to her. Oh, and among all the people at Casa Blanca, it’s Tessa alone who has an unerring sense of when Ian lies. Right from the start, she just knows, which makes her appear even more self-righteous.
Ian/John is another problem. He is a tattooed, long-haired body builder who rides a motorbike. He is a self-trained fabulous cook. In his first life, he studied in Cambridge and then became a hugely successful London banker. He was a pattern-card father and husband. Seriously, he looks like he was created from a list of “what ingredients do I need to make a hero perfect.” Yet this is entirely unnecessary: Some of the best parts of the novel were Ian’s inner monologues about how torn he is between his love for his children, and his feelings for Tessa.
What I did like, besides Ian’s musings, were some conversations between him and Tessa once they stop lying to themselves and each other, and a subplot concerning the teenage daughter of one of the friends. The dilemma that Tessa and Ian find themselves in appears unsolvable, and it seemed to me that some painful but realistic decisions would have to ensue.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. What finally pushed the novel firmly into D territory was the ending. Rarely have I seen a romance ending in which coincidence was employed with a heavier hand. Without giving away too much, first everything seems to go wrong dreadfully, and then with equal suddenness everything goes right to such a degree that my teeth hurt with all the sugaryness.
I will go on reading Roxanne St. Claire’s romantic suspense novels, and if she should go and write a contemporary romance set in grittier circumstances, with dilemmas that are not solved with a magic wand, I will certainly give that novel a try. But having read Barefoot by the Sea, I am wholly done with Barefoot Bay (by now the brand has been entended to encompass Barefoot Bay Brides and Millionaires of Barefoot Bay) and any St. Claire novel set within 50 miles of a destination wedding resort. There is only so much sugar I can stomach.