Desert Isle Keeper
As a long-time Nora Roberts reader, in my mind the author and her audience have an unspoken deal. Depending on the format (series, paperback original, hardback), the reader is guaranteed a certain “degree” of Nora with, not surprisingly, a higher price delivering a higher degree. Since this unspoken deal is one the author very rarely breaks, I always approach her major hardback releases with a great deal of anticipation. I couldn’t be happier to report that not only does Northern Lights more than deliver on its promise, it is undeniably Ms. Roberts’ most ambitious and engrossing release in years.
This is a romance novel with a difference and it’s a big one: The main character in this novel – and the one through whom we view the vast majority of the action – is a guy. Yep, believe it or not, Nora Roberts thinks her audience is ready to embrace a romance (though the book is far more than that) told from the male point of view and, for me at any rate, she’s absolutely right. But, with that said, there’s no denying that this book is dramatically different from the usual romance fare, so different, in fact, that some core readers may not be able to make the leap.
Still reeling from the death of his partner and desperate to drastically change his life, Baltimore cop Nate Burke accepts the position of police chief in the remote town of Lunatic, Alaska. Arriving just before the new year, a time when daylight in the far north is limited to just hours a day, Nate is met after a terrifying plane flight by the town’s no nonsense female mayor and installed in The Lodge, Lunatic’s only hotel. Run by a serious man-eater in her late forties, The Lodge largely serves as the center of town life.
Nate quickly discovers that the town is peopled by a large cast of colorful and often eccentric characters. In addition to man-eater Charlene, these include her sexy pilot daughter Meg; John, the crusty intellectual who’s passionately in love with Charlene, a woman more than happy to sleep with him only when someone better (and usually younger) isn’t available; Ed, the stick-up-his-you-know-what town banker; and Max, the aging former counter-culture type who edits and publishes the town newspaper.
Nate’s adjustments to the rhythm of town life are interrupted, however, by a town crisis: Young men climbing the mountain outside of town have disappeared. With little hope of finding them alive, Net sets off with pilot Meg to scour the mountain. But, much to everyone’s shock, Nate not only discovers the boys alive, he also finds something even more extraordinary in the cave in which they took shelter: A long-dead man with an ax buried in his chest. This discovery – especially when the man is identified as someone thought to have left town more than twenty years earlier – sets in motion a string of events that will change the town of Lunacy and pilot Meg forever.
Nate is a wonderful, fully-drawn character who goes far beyond the stereotyped cop-guilty-over-his-partner’s-death whom we’ve all met in book after book. His growth and his healing are palpable here, as is his growing love for Meg. With his naturally laconic nature, his direct and take-no-guff approach to his job, and his very real depression and fear, Nate is very much a “real guy” hero far from the fantasy figure found in many romance novels. To be sure, I love those fantasy heroes, but I found myself loving real guy Nate, too. Meg, the woman Nate grows to love, is less three-dimensional. We see her almost completely through Nate’s eyes, with several very small exceptions. To be honest, these moments are so very rare that when they did occur they felt forced to me and not part of the natural rhythm of the novel. Frankly, I would have preferred if these skimpy glimpses into Meg’s feelings were avoided completely, thereby limiting our view of her to what we see through Nate’s eyes. Yes, we wouldn’t completely understand her, but then men never completely understand women, do they?
Some readers may not care for what they do know of Meg. Largely estranged from mother Charlene, there’s an edge to her that might strike some as abrasive. Additionally, Meg sees sex largely as sport and is a woman who has probably had a one night stand – or six – in her past. While I wasn’t especially put off by these qualities (though Meg sometimes reminded me of the infamous Ripley of Heaven and Earth, my least favorite Roberts’ heroine), I have to admit that I was also not entirely certain why Nate wanted her as badly as he did.
But there’s another major character in this novel that I did love: Alaska. Ms. Roberts does a wonderful job of bringing this incredible state to life – the rhythms of its extreme nature, the stunning beauty of the northern lights and the immense mountain that stands guard over the town, the society that forms when people are secluded for days and weeks at a time, and the kind of personalities drawn to life on America’s frontier. Alaska is a vigorous presence in this novel and the book is far richer for it.
If there’s a man in your life who wonders (or, let’s face it, teases you) about your choice of reading matter, Northern Lights is a book I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend as possible conversion material. He’ll like Nate, he’ll like the story, and I’m dead certain he’ll like the Alaskan setting.
Ultimately, however, this book is both Nate’s story and, equally, a tale of the power of unfolding secrets on a small and insular community. And, yes, there’s a love story here, but for me, that relationship isn’t the biggest reason to come to the party – that honor belongs to Nate and to the great state of Alaska. When all is said and done, Northern Lights is a rich, complex, deeply satisfying story about a man and his return to life, about a town and its secrets, and about a place of deadly and fascinating beauty.