The Devil in the Saddle
Sometimes you just need a book to be good. You sit down, and you hope that the author knows what they’re doing because you’re too tired to make the effort to try and be entertained. You just want to be entertained and not end up mentally bracing yourself for the next dreadful line of dialogue like a parent clinging to the handle of the passenger door as their learning-to-drive-teenager takes a turn like a racecar driver in the family car. In case you haven’t caught on, ‘You’ means ‘Me’. But if it happens to be you, too, at any point, I can inform you that Julia London’s The Devil in the Saddle is quite good, if imperfect.
Hallie Prince is not “thirty, flirty, and thriving” to borrow a quote from the 2000s rom-com 13 Going On 30. Hallie is thirty, lost, and in a state of disarray, to such an alarming degree that I was embarrassed on behalf of the sisterhood when I first encountered her. She’s taken the abrupt end of her life plans very poorly. She’s dumped her fiancé after finding him “when he pile drove his body into” her bridesmaid (I first thought this was just some sort of farm term – Urban Dictionary informed me that “pile drive” is, in addition, a sexual position.). Her solution to all this is to take herself to the family ranch, which is floundering under the weight of the financial stress and unresolved familial problems that have followed the death of her cheating, gambling father. There’s also Rafe. The son of the ranch boss, he’s got plans to get out of town, but in the meantime, he offers to help Hallie get her act together in one small way: he’ll teach her to run. Yes, it’s absurd, and Hallie’s brother points that out to her. But give “a lovesick cowboy” a break. He can’t be picky about how he steals time with the girl he loves (we learn he loves Hallie in chapter two), so he’s signed himself up.
I was worried at first. In chapter one, Hallie is in a hungover state, at a loss unless using reality TV or food or booze to cope, and angry at her fiancé and bridesmaid. It was all so stereotypical, and I feared the book’s humor might be in laughing at Hallie rather than with her. Luckily, that’s not the case. Yes, she does turn her bridal Instagram into an account called “the Deconstruction of a High-Society Wedding” in which she systematically blows up, breaks, or burns various paraphernalia from her wedding. But her main story arc, aside from falling in love (of course), is how she comes to find meaning in her life and identify her priorities, and she also displays a maturity, especially in how she finally deals with her ex, that I found refreshing.
Rafe Fontana is an unusual breed. I don’t know why this book is called The Devil in the Saddle because there’s nothing devilish about the man; he’s strong like an alpha, but with a beta’s quiet gentleness. He’s grown up in a family with a cancer-survivor mother, and an alcoholic brother, and he’s an enabler and caretaker at home and at work; a former Army ranger, he’s now trying to finish college in Texas (social work) and open a gym in Chicago to help underprivileged children. Rafe is “quietly, privately, and desperately in love with” Hallie, and I really liked that this was a romance where one of the people in the couple was emotionally invested from the start. When I think of other romances I’ve read where this is the case, a lot of them have the woman as being the one crazy for the guy, so it’s nice that in The Devil in the Saddle, it’s Rafe. I was always eager for the chapters told from his perspective.
The writing is smooth and rife with lots of Texas details. As someone who went to school in Texas and has family there, I appreciated that Ms. London clearly knows the state and didn’t just pick it as a setting BECAUSE COWBOYS. She doesn’t get caught up in any wealth fantasies or employer/employee fantasies either. There’s no whitewashing here about the relationship between the Princes and the people they employ; when Rafe’s mother tells Hallie that “We’re family”, Rafe thinks “Well, that was a stretch, and judging by the look on his father’s face, he thought so, too.”
Overall, I had a good enough reading experience that I looked up the other books in the series about Hallie’s (male) siblings – The Charmer in Chaps and The Billionaire in Boots (to be released soon). If you’re looking for a romance read that is no frills in the best possible way – no attempts to be avant-garde – then The Devil in the Saddle is a safe bet.