Deep in the Valley
This sweet-natured book has many good elements, but almost the last and the least of these is romance, despite what the back cover suggests. Deep in the Valley is a dryly humorous slice of contemporary small-town life, an intricate character sketch that incorporates dozens of well-drawn characters, and a fascinating glimpse into the life of a rural doctor. A conventional romance novel it isn’t, but with all of its appeal I didn’t miss the romance – at least not much.
June Hudson, 38, is a lifelong resident of Grace Valley, California, where she has taken over her father’s role as the local doctor. June is devoted to her all-consuming job, but it’s beginning to overwhelm her, so she hires another doctor to be her partner. John Stone is a nice family man with a wife and kid and a prestigious medical background; although June isn’t sure why he wants the job so badly, she’s happy to give him a try.
John is smart, funny, and engaging – all of the qualities of a good romance hero, except he isn’t one. In a way, however, John shares co-hero detail with the actual hero, Jim, a mystery man introduced late in the book who’s undercover investigating Grace Valley’s thriving crop of pot-growers. The division of hero duties is interesting; June has a hot romance with Jim but has a Big Misunderstanding with John, and it’s intriguing to see how much more plausible a Big Mis is when it’s between new co-workers, rather than lovers.
June is an all-time great heroine. She’s intelligent, dedicated, capable, and funny. And unlike many nurturing heroines, June is never a doormat. The biggest romance in the story is not between June and Jim, but between June and her hometown. Grace Valley is located about halfway between Lake Wobegone and Peyton Place, and it is lovingly depicted with near-perfect pitch. While the characters are familiar, nearly everyone in town is at least a little more complex than you expect them to be. Happily, the author also avoids the too-common trap of bundling up a bunch of benignly eccentric quirks and calling it a character. Instead the characters act in a very natural way. The good guys don’t always think in tandem, and no one ever does something illogical just to advance the plot.
Plots we got, quite a lot – at least a dozen. The story meanders hither and yon, though there is a wife-beater motif that can seem a bit repetitive as it emerges in several different instances. The writing is extremely diffuse and organic; we wander around town in long narrative tracking shots, following one character into a diner and leaving with another. There are a bewildering number of characters and stories, and while I never had too much trouble keeping track it does make for a somewhat demanding read. There’s a sense of total immersion in the setting, and a feeling that the author could provide pages of backstory on any character in the book.
The outstanding human insight and dry humor are remarkably delicate, never forced. A mother with terrible facial scars recalls her surprise that her babies were never afraid of her. There’s the local quilting circle of like-minded women, ranging from the judge’s elderly wife to the local Goth with a multi-colored mohawk. And there’s John’s reaction to his new home’s guardian angel folklore: “We’re going to be drinking bottled water, for sure.”
I enjoyed this book very much, but the main thing that edged it out of DIK status for me was the lack of romance. June and Jim are a strong couple when they’re together. Trouble is, they hardly ever are. In the interests of science I worked up some statistics: the romance is only even alluded to in about 1/5 of the book. Jim’s on-stage presence makes just one-tenth of the page count. The HEA isn’t resolved on-stage, though it’s not a UHEA either. What’s more, we only see Jim through June’s eyes; he never makes a direct impression on us. None of that tanks the book, but it makes the romance seems weaker than usual. Maybe this is what you get when you have a realistic take on Workaholics In Love.
Then again, maybe this is the beginning of something bigger, although there are no obvious tags for a sequel. For my part, I’d be delighted to visit Grace Valley again. Fans of small-town stories, from James Herriot to Garrison Keillor to Jennifer Crusie, should give this book a try. If you don’t mind the understated romance, this could be just the ticket.
P.S. One of AAR’s main goal with reviews is to be consumer advocates, and this book is tricky from that standpoint: it’s very good for what it is, but not what readers will expect based on its marketing which stresses the romance as if there’s little more to this book. I’d hate for anyone to pick this up expecting a romance and be disappointed because there’s less romance than we fans of the genre are used to; there’s no shortage of other good things in this story. At the same time, while I don’t blame the author for the romance-hyping cover, I did think that the romantic side of the story was marred by the fact that June’s relationship with her co-worker received more attention and enthusiasm than her relationship with her lover. I enjoyed Doctor John but would have liked more time with Mystery Man Jim. If there was a sequel of equal quality that continued with June and Jim’s relationship after Deep In The Valley, I would happily upgrade both books to DIK status – and settle down for a very good read.