Heart and Soul
I’ve been excited to see more series romances with interracial relationships and ethnic characters in recent months. However, my enthusiasm has waned as I’ve actually read some of them. While it’s nice to see different characters and subject matter introduced into the series world, it would be even nicer if the books were actually worth reading. Too bad then, that Heart and Soul (by an author who previously earned a DIK review at AAR), though very different from the norm, is also not very good.
It’s a difficult book to characterize. It’s not really a romance novel. It’s not quite women’s fiction or an outright saga, but it is the story of several different couples. Christina “Kris” Gilroy is a young black woman from rural Georgia who came to San Francisco to care for her dying great-aunt. She immediately took to big city life, and fell in love with public relations guru Tom Harris. But he’s white, something her father, a conservative minister, would not find acceptable.
Kris gets a job working at Chandler Associates, a large corporation that has spent years taking over smaller companies. Finally it has been bought by the even-bigger Randall Enterprises. Kris’s friend Jill Ferrell is the company’s deputy CEO and the highest-ranking officer left after most of the higher-ups jumped ship. She soon butts heads with her new boss Scott Randall over the fate of the old company’s holdings.
Meanwhile, there’s the book’s least developed subplot. Scott’s sister Claire is married to politician David Bernstein, one of Tom’s P.R. clients. He was insecure about her family’s wealth and didn’t want anyone to think he was marrying her for her money, so he made her promise that they would live on his salary and she would never use her own money. But the strain of living on his salary has taken its toll on Claire, who may have started drinking to compensate.
It’s certainly an ambitious story for a series book, but it ends up as a case of trying too much and doing little of it well. None of the plots offer a satisfying love story. Kris and Tom are on the cover of the book (and I applaud Harlequin’s art department for putting the interracial couple front and center like that), but it’s actually Scott and Jill who have the main romance. The attraction between them is minimal, but then Jill’s brother is injured in a fire and Scott helps her through it. This leads to sex, and directly afterward, a marriage proposal, which seemed really fast and unbelievable to me. I didn’t believe they were in love, let alone anywhere near ready for marriage. Then, for the second half of the book, they…don’t do much of anything really. Kris and Tom are already in love by the time the book starts, and only a lame Big Misunderstanding that briefly separates them ever puts the relationship in any jeopardy. Claire and David appear the least, and the money conflict is overblown and uninteresting.
If the book doesn’t offer much in the way of romance, then what does it offer? I’m not really sure. It’s almost entirely character-driven, as the characters deal with the issues of their everyday lives. Not much happens and none of the story threads goes anywhere. It’s almost like a series of loosely connected vignettes. Something will happen, then it will peter out and the author moves on to the next character. There’s not much in the way of an actual plot. It’s just shapeless and meandering, not really exploring any of it in a satisfying way. The business world inhabited by Jill and Scott, in particular, felt unrealistic. There’s something outdated and unconvincing about it. Rutland has written a number of traditional Harlequin Romances, and the business scenes have that kind of old-fashioned feel to them.
A low-key, character-driven book requires good characters in order to work. This one doesn’t have them. The story is told from numerous perspectives, not just by the six major characters but occasionally from secondary ones as well. As a result, the characterization is sketchy and no one is developed very well. The characters are all wooden and one-dimensional, if that. Kris is too sweet and naïve to be believed. Claire is too weepy and Jill is very bland. None of the male characters makes much of an impression. This was definitely a problem with David, whose unwillingness to let his wife spend any of her own money seemed incredibly petty. Watching her make sacrifices for no good reason other than his ego made him seem like an unfeeling jerk. That may not have been the case if there’d been any insight into his thinking, but other than one brief moment, there isn’t any.
Heart and Soul is not poorly written, and for all its problems, I read it quickly enough. But aside from a nice moment or two, or the very occasionally compelling scene, the story doesn’t go anywhere – there’s really no narrative flow. I never managed to muster up more than a passing interest in the characters or what happened to them. The characterizations are hollow, the various story threads fade in and out without building much drama, and resolutions are often happen “off-stage” or are delivered in off-handed ways, if they come at all.
I didn’t hate this book. Mostly I found it odd. I couldn’t really figure out what it was trying to be or what the point was. All I knew was that, whatever it was, it wasn’t good and I didn’t like it. It’s different enough that I wish I could recommend it, but I can’t. Unfortunately, Heart and Soul merely shows that it takes more than being different to make a book good.