Father by Choice
Normally, the hugely pregnant heroine on the cover of Father by Choice would make me think twice about buying the book. But M.J. Rodgers is one of my favorite romance authors and I would jump at the chance to read anything she writes. This is also the first of three prequels to the upcoming Code Red continuity series about medical personnel, police officers and firefighters in a small California town. It sounds really appealing, so I figured I might as well get in from the beginning. The book does serve as a fitting introduction to the town and its characters, but it doesn’t rank with the author’s best.
Emily Barrett is the curator of the Botanical Gardens in Courage Bay, California. One day she collapses inside one of the greenhouses and is transported to the emergency room. She’s startled to wake up and find herself being treated by Dr. Brad Winslow. She’s never met him before, but she recognizes his name. He’s the anonymous sperm donor of her unborn child.
She was never supposed to know the identity of the sperm donor, but thanks to some convoluted circumstances, she inadvertently learned the truth. She doesn’t want anything else from him and doesn’t plan to tell him he’s the biological father of her baby, intending to raise the child as a single mother. But when Brad learns the truth, he sets out to learn more about her and change her mind. He always believed his contribution would go to help a childless married couple, and after being raised by a single mother himself, he believes Emily is underestimating how hard it will be to raise the child on her own.
Brad and Emily soon have a chance to get to know each other better. Emily is a member of the Courage Bay Historical Foundation, which plans to open a long-buried time capsule from 1904 at the town’s annual Founders Day celebration. When the capsule is unearthed, a skeleton is found buried on top of it. A century-old murder isn’t a high priority for the police, but then the time capsule is stolen and someone tries to steal the skeleton from the morgue as well. Someone is working hard to make sure some old secrets remain buried, and Brad and Emily come together to solve the mystery.
Books in these editor-controlled continuity series are a strange breed, an often uncomfortable combination of the author’s style and the story she’s been assigned to write. Rodgers managed to pull off some excellent books in Harlequin’s previous Delta Justice and Cooper’s Corner series, but the third time isn’t the charm. The main problem is that the basic premise is too far-fetched. The author does her best to explain her way out of it, but it’s still not entirely believable.
On the other hand the mystery is clearly Rodgers’s; she creates complicated, detailed, and multilayered puzzles for her readers. The terrain in this novel is somewhat familiar for Rodgers; she wrote about a heroine with a sperm bank baby in Baby Vs. the Bar and a mystery involving the discovery of a long-buried skeleton in Bones of Contention. Both of those books were much better than this one. The mystery is interesting enough, a very complex web of past and present-day secrets involving more than a dozen of Courage Bay’s residents. But as intriguing as it is on an intellectual level, it’s never really compelling on an emotional one; it’s simply too dry. The main characters lack a personal stake in solving the mystery – they’re doing it mainly out of curiosity – so there’s no real sense of urgency or emotional investment for the reader.
The romance is definitely pushed into the background by the complicated investigation. That’s often the case in the author’s books, but the amount of romance is usually just right for me. Here it wasn’t. As always, Rodgers’s hero and heroine are two very intelligent people. She provides enough small moments that show how they come to admire and respect each other to make the romance believable. But the characters are as dry as the mystery. I did admire and respect them. I can’t say I felt like I knew them personally or really cared about them all that much.
There are some nice touches throughout the story. Emily writes nightly journal entries to her unborn child, who she affectionately calls “Sprout.” I liked that Emily’s knowledge of plants (she holds a Ph.D in botany) plays a role in the mystery and wasn’t just window dressing, like so many romances where the characters’ careers could be anything. I appreciated the main characters’ intelligence and ingenuity as I always do in this author’s work.
Father By Choice may be worth a look for readers interested in following the Code Red series. It does a good job of establishing the town and its residents in the readers’ mind, exactly as the first book in any series should. If only the premise wasn’t so farfetched and the characters were more engaging. (As for the cover, if that’s what Emily looks like at eight weeks, I’d hate to see how big she is at full term.) Rodgers has another book coming out later in the series. Hopefully that one will be more up to her very high standards.