From Alaska with Love
There are second-chance romances, and then there are secondhand-embarrassment romances, which capture the squirm-and-hide-your-face awkwardness of attempting to get a love life. From Alaska With Love is the latter, and a little too realistic to ever really work as a believable romance.
Sara Ryan is currently living at home with her brother, his wife, and his daughter. As James writes, “there were essentially three people in their marriage, instead of two.” It’s not as creepy as it sounds, but it is infuriating. Sara is in her thirties, has a business degree, and left her career to work as a live-in nanny for her niece so that her brother and sister-in-law can have a home life that they put no effort into while they spend all their time at work (and no, they aren’t a pair of dynamic surgeons saving the world). Sara’s entire family treats her with casual derision, and she tolerates it all because she has a big heart and takes joy in caring for her niece (personally, I don’t like children in my romance novels and would rather Sara have lavished her love on small mice who could sew her a gown for the actual ball she eventually goes to).
Gabe Randall is a career military officer in the Army, deployed to the Middle East. Like Sara, he’s in his thirties and has never had a meaningful relationship (red flag, anyone? More like a red herring – Gabe turns out to be okay). Gabe and Sara connect when she writes him through one of the many ‘letter to the troops’ organizations that exist in the US, and they begin a romance that isn’t quite epistolary, but is built mostly out of emails and FaceTime sessions. Midway through the book, they meet when he returns to his base in Alaska and Sara goes to visit.
One of the main problems in this romance is that based on Sara’s early interactions with Gabe, if I was her friend, I would have told her He’s Just Not That Into You. Sara’s first letter to Gabe, which she herself admits is “insane” (quote: “if you play your cards right, I’ll let you take my scooter for a ride. . . . Don’t get excited, I was speaking of my future motorized chair. . . . According to my family, I’ve never given a single ride of the other variety”) and “a reply was doubtful after the letter she’d written” is the sort of personal stuff you share in your first exchange with another person only if you want them to vacate the seat next to you on a bus. He responds, but, as she admits herself, he “never asks me questions” and she laments that “the hardest part of communicating with a stranger was keeping the conversation ball in the air”. Well, that’s true. . . unless the strangers take a liking to each other. In a romance, the earliest interactions between the hero and heroine need to show that something special is afoot. They should be “giving off sparks” as Bonnie Tyler once sang, even if they’re fighting. Gabe and Sara do not, and when they finally end up in each other’s presence, they don’t give in to any of their physical feelings for quite some time. I just can’t believe that a couple that struggles to have authentic conversations, but doesn’t struggle to keep their hands to themselves when in the same space is a Great Romance Couple.
Other little problems corrode the book. James has a stylistic habit of reprinting the letters between Gabe and Sara – Sara sends an email, the reader reads it in full, and then is subjected to it again a few pages later when Gabe receives it. Why she doesn’t just include each letter once and then say ‘Gabe read Sara’s letter and replied thus:’ is unclear. Was James squeaking towards the required wordcount? Concerned readers have no attention span or retention? And the letters, texts, etc., with content such as “I’ll hit you up later” don’t really burn into your soul. Finally, as someone who’s worked for members of the armed forces, I find it especially irritating when a book about the military gets basic details wrong or includes unlikely scenarios. For example, Gabe refers to himself as “enlisted” which is incorrect – officers are not enlisted, at least in the US military. It’s also unusual statistically that Gabe hasn’t been married before – members of the military, either enlisted or officers, marry on average by their mid-twenties. James isn’t writing about Seal Team Six here – none of the errors/incongruities are things that couldn’t have been fixed with the help of a Google search.
All in all, From Alaska With Love is somewhat like a riff on Disney movies (which is apparently something James has done before – the blurbs that accompany this book refer to the author’s other work as “Cinderella-style”). But From Alaska With Love doesn’t have magic – either from a fairy godmother or from a love story that sparkles, and so I can’t give it a recommendation.