Return to Oak Valley
The very first romance novel I ever read was Shirlee Busbee’s Deceive Not My Heart. It remains my all-time favorite romance, and I still proudly display three older Busbees on my keeper shelf. So when her first contemporary was issued, I literally begged my editor for the chance to review it. Sadly, it wasn’t everything I’d hoped for. Return to Oak Valley could have been a much better book, but it is unfortunately weighed down with too many old-fashioned elements, including an overbearing and arrogant hero, a heroine who’s run away from everything she loved because of his betrayal, and glacially slow pacing. In fact, it reads much like Busbee’s older books, leading me to the conclusion that while I’ve changed as a reader over the course of nineteen years, Busbee hasn’t changed much as a writer.
Born and bred in the cattle country of Oak Valley, California, Shelly Granger fled at the tender age of eighteen because of an unfortunate, ill-fated love affair with Sloan Ballinger that eventually ended in betrayal and angst. After spending seventeen years in New Orleans, Shelly has finally returned to Oak Valley because her beloved older brother Josh apparently committed suicide. But she hasn’t been back a day when her illusions about Josh are rapidly shattered. First, the housekeeper’s son Nick announces that he believes he is Josh’s bastard son. Then, as Shelly begins to go over the books and talk with her detective cousin, she begins to realize that Josh was in some sort of trouble before his death, forcing him to run the Granger Cattle Company nearly into the ground. Did he really commit suicide or was foul play involved?
Shelly isn’t a terribly well-developed character. We know that she ran from her home and everything she loved when she discovered Sloan apparently cheating on her. The fact that she ran away for so long doesn’t say a lot of good things about her character. We learn that she’s an artist whose work sells for quite a lot of money, but we don’t really get into what she thinks about her work and what it means to her. She’s suddenly grimly determined to save the Granger Cattle Company, even though she hardly gave it a thought during the years she lived in New Orleans, and she seems to have been completely oblivious to Josh’s character flaws despite the fact that everyone else in the valley noticed them. Shelly isn’t a particularly strong heroine, although she isn’t a terribly weak one either. She simply failed to impress me one way or the other.
The hero, on the other hand, makes a definite impression, albeit not a particularly good one. Sloan is an old-fashioned, utterly alpha hero. He and Shelly have a history, but that simply can’t excuse his outrageous behavior. When they meet again, for the first time in seventeen years, they have a brief conversation, and then she attempts to brush him off, whereupon he grabs her by the arms, swings her around, and presses her into his… well, what Busbee describes as the “blunt pressure growing against her stomach.” Does Sloan greet all his acquaintances this way? This is the kind of behavior so-called heroes routinely displayed in 20-year-old bodice rippers, but for a man to behave this way in a modern romance is disturbing. This is sexual battery, pure and simple, and it failed to endear him to me.
The next time Sloan sees Shelly, they’re having a perfectly civilized conversation when he suddenly grabs her and kisses her, a kiss described with a number of old-fashioned romance cliches – his lips “claim” hers, “possess” hers, and, of course, “plunder” hers. (Alpha heroes always plunder lips. Sounds painful, doesn’t it?) Mind you, this is only the second time he’s seen her in seventeen years. He starts rubbing that “blunt pressure” against her again, and then actually has thoughts about forcing himself on her – thoughts, I’m pleased to say, he doesn’t act upon. At least we’ve moved on into the era where actually raping heroines is unacceptable (although thinking about raping them is apparently okay).
Aside from its problems with characterization, Return to Oak Valley suffers from a slow, plodding pace. While Busbee’s style isn’t quite as ponderous as I recall from her early historicals that were written in an era when romances routinely ran to 150,000 words, her writing is still long-winded and much too heavy on the narrative. For example, we’re on page 25 before the first real dialogue takes place (not counting a brief flashback and a couple of sentences Sloan utters to his dog). The hero and heroine don’t actually come face to face until page 70, and they don’t interact nearly enough – there are too many plot threads going on, and the romance is badly underplayed as a result.
There are also far too many characters populating this book – I counted at least twenty-five besides Shelly and Sloan. These were not people who were merely mentioned in passing, mind you, but characters who had at least a few sentences of dialogue. Most of the secondary characters didn’t appear to contribute much to the story, although some of the more important ones might as well have had “sequel” printed on their foreheads. Nevertheless, a few sentences were devoted to describing almost all of them, no matter how irrelevant they were. I presume Busbee did this to add realism to the small town atmosphere of the book, but the plethora of characters cluttered the story badly.
This novel is really as much family drama as romance, since Shelly’s efforts to rebuild the Granger Cattle Company are virtually as important as the relationship between Shelly and Sloan. Busbee obviously did a quite a bit of work researching the cattle industry, and the scenes involving Shelly’s attempts to save the Granger Cattle Company were fairly interesting. But Shelly and Sloan don’t take center stage as much as I’d like. Even so, I would have enjoyed this book more if there had been real, genuine emotion between the hero and heroine when they were together. But what’s between them is sex – Sloan is completely focused on Shelly’s body in practically every scene they share. When they finally do have a real date, going to a restaurant and having a nice meal, we don’t get to hear them talk; Busbee simply informs us that “conversation flowed effortlessly between them.” It would have been nice for the reader to overhear a bit of that conversation.
Even had they conversed, though, one suspects their dialogue wouldn’t have come across as genuine, or genuinely contemporary. After all, the 35-year-old heroine says “Wow!” on a regular basis, making her sound more like a Girl Scout than a competent, twenty-first century woman. Some of the dialogue is worse than merely out of date, it is occasionally quite artificial and stilted. For example, when Shelly and Maria, the housekeeper, see each other for the first time, they have a conversation about Maria’s kids. Busbee wisely omits this discussion, but, unfortunately, has her heroine recap it immediately by saying, “My God – they were just kids when I last saw them. And now you tell me that Raquel is working in Santa Rosa as a dental assistant and Nick has started his own business.” People don’t conveniently sum up conversations this way, and it sounds silly. And in the minor nuisance department, I couldn’t figure out why in a brand-new contemporary romance Shelly was driving a “new dark gray Bronco” since Ford replaced the Bronco with the Expedition in 1997. The Bronco was mentioned frequently, so perhaps Busbee thought it sounded Western. Unfortunately, it also sounds out of date.
Once the book settles down to the romance in the last fifty pages or so, it is enjoyable. I really liked the way the plot threads about Josh’s death and Nick’s relationship to Shelly were resolved. But alas, it was too little too late. If the hero hadn’t been quite so obnoxiously alpha and if the plot had stayed focused on the romance rather than wandering all over Oak Valley and its myriad inhabitants, I might have enjoyed the entire novel a lot more. As it is, if you’re in the mood for an aggressively alpha hero, I’d recommend you give one of Ms. Busbee’s older novels a try.