The Love of a Stranger
The Love of a Stranger is one of those books with a small town setting that baffled me; I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to believe small towns are good places to live, and yet the author portrays Callister, Idaho, as hell on earth. All the locals are mean, corrupt, or too weak to stand up to the mean and corrupt people. The scenery seems pretty enough, but after a while I had a hard time understanding why the hero and heroine wanted to live there.
Doug Hawkins came to Callister after being discharged from the LAPD in a scandal that robbed him of his career and his reputation. His old high school buddy Ted lives in the area, and Doug is looking for a fresh start. What he finds his first night in town is a horny waitress who wants to jump his bones. Despite his best instincts, he follows her up to an isolated cabin, only to have their tryst interrupted by an irate blonde.
Alex McGregor lives alone on Wolf Mountain outside of Callister. She doesn’t tolerate trespassers, especially Cindy Evans, the small town tramp who used to sleep with Alex’s husband in an isolated cabin up the mountain. When she spots Cindy taking another man up to the cabin, she tears after them to throw the lovebirds off her land.
Alex and Doug’s first meeting isn’t auspicious, but Doug is immediately intrigued by the raging woman who dents the fender of his truck with a jack. He quickly learns more about her. She’s a real estate agent, also from Los Angeles who lives alone after divorcing her husband. She’s also the woman with whom his buddy Ted is in love. It doesn’t take him long to get drawn into her life, especially her battles with a local logger who wants to drive his trucks across her land to get to his trees. It’s a lot harder getting close to the woman herself, who doesn’t want anything to do with him or any man.
This isn’t a book for anyone who wants nice, sweet, likable – or even relatable – characters. Alex and Doug are the type of people who wouldn’t care who likes them. That doesn’t mean they’re particularly unlikable, they’re just rough, damaged people with a lot of baggage. This is especially true of Alex, a prickly woman who constantly seems to have her claws out. They’re complicated characters, which makes them more interesting to read about, as the author slowly reveals the layers of their personalities. The whole book has a little more complexity than many recent contemporaries, both in the characters and their relationships with others, which was nice.
My problem with the book wasn’t the characters, but how slowly it unfolds. There isn’t much story, and what there is moves at a very leisurely pace. The romance takes its time developing. Alex is so damaged that it takes her a very long time to let down her guard. Many of the interactions involve Doug trying to cozy up to her and Alex baring her teeth and hissing at him. This may be realistic considering her past, but after a while it feels like the story is going nowhere slowly, especially since not much is happening in the subplot. Alex’s efforts to keep the logger off her land and to fight him in court are not at all interesting. True, there are some tense moments when the logger tries to come after her, but mostly the story plods along. She goes to see her lawyer. She helps an old couple sell their orchard. She does whole lot of nothing.
There’s really not much to the book. It’s very slow, low on action and high on character. After a while the story began to feel endless and I couldn’t remember what I’d just spent all those pages reading about. Had anything really happened? Maybe, but there’s a lot of down time in between the big moments.
It also would have been nice if the author had shown more decent people in Callister. Other than Ted, nearly all of the townspeople are nasty to Alex or talk about her behind her back. The slutty waitress sneers insults, the logger threatens her, the sheriff is in his pocket, and most of the other characters are cowed by the logger and leave Alex to fend for herself. Her lawyer is helpful, so naturally he’s from out of town. Alex doesn’t seem like the type of person to let people’s opinions bother her (although she is stung when someone describes her as “mean”), but it was hard to understand why she’d want to make her home in a place where people seemed to hate her. She even gives money anonymously to the poor. Ted tells Doug, “Callister’s a good place. There’s a few rotten apples everywhere. You just happened to run into ours.” I would have liked to see some of those nice folk to balance out the mean ones, to show why Alex and Doug didn’t hightail it out of there. But then, both Alex and Doug seem to have nothing but disdain for Los Angeles, which is filled with the usual stereotypes writers employ when it comes to L.A. Perhaps this was done to give them a convenient excuse for not wanting to return to the big city.
A well-written but ultimately even more boring novel, The Love of a Stranger may appeal to readers who enjoy slow, character-driven stories, but the author’s lack of an even hand in creating believable characters is a tremendous problem in and of itself. As a result I was ready to leave town long before the story reached its end.