River Road is the name of a trashy, outrageous nighttime soap opera whose bad girl is played by a beautiful actress named Julia Summers. (I’m guessing that the name of her character, Amanda, is a tribute to my own favorite trashy nighttime soap, Melrose Place.) Julia has just achieved the dream of a lifetime: she plans to leave the show to become the next Bond Girl in an upcoming 007 movie – I always wanted to be Q, myself, but that’s the difference between me and Julia.
Julia’s happiness is disturbed by vaguely threatening stalker-like mail, so the show’s producer insists that she have a bodyguard on the upcoming location shoot in Louisiana. Enter Finn Callahan, a big, proud, dominating FBI agent on forced leave of absence after beating up an escaping suspect. Finn has returned to his Louisiana hometown, where he reluctantly agrees to guard the lovely redhead, expecting her to behave like a typical spoiled Hollywood diva. Julia, who was raised by anti-establishment hippie activists, sees Finn as a representative of everything she mistrusts. Sparks fly as soon as the two meet. But Finn is dedicated to his job, which is a good thing since someone is in fact out to hurt Julia, and there are plenty of suspects.
The thing I liked best about it was that it took place on the set of a soap. We see lots of amusing scheming and backbiting amongst the actors, producers, and writers. The plot of the soap is interesting as well, as Amanda gets sent back in time to a previous life in the 1800’s, and proceeds to embroil herself in Civil War espionage. Also, I appreciated the fact that Julia is a woman of sexual experience, and makes no apologies for it.
However, the relationship between Julia and Finn is just not as entertaining as the soap opera backdrop. For one thing, the conflict between Finn and Julia stems entirely from a case of clashing stereotypes. Can the straitlaced law-enforcement type find love with a glamorous free spirit? My response was, Why not? Both Finn and Julia are firmly convinced that it cannot be, without ever convincing me of the same. Long after they acknowledge their attraction they continue to fight it, for no compelling reason, which suggested to me that it wasn’t all that strong to begin with.
Then there’s the dialogue, which rang false throughout the book. Julia and Finn do a lot of arguing. I think this was supposed to read as witty repartee, crackling with sexual tension, but to me it came across as pointless bickering. Soon the bickering is laden with stale, unoriginal flirtation. Even when they’re not flirting and quarreling, characters say things that no one would ever say. There are tons of examples of this; my favorite is when Finn’s brother says, “I’m still running on Hawaii time and probably a bit jet-lagged, not to mention worn out from days of hot, steamy sex with my bride on every private beach we could find.” The effort of trying to imagine an actual human being delivering a line like that was more than enough to yank me out of the story.
The fact is that, try as I might, I just didn’t believe in Finn and Julia. They didn’t seem like real people at all, and the relationship between them didn’t interest me that much. For the same reason, the mystery of who’s out to get Julia didn’t have me riveted to the pages, either.
River Road has a fun setting and moments of humor. But much as I enjoyed these details, I was still unmoved by the central romance, and found myself a little bored. I suspect that others will probably like it more, but it doesn’t quite get a recommendation from me.