Is predictability the kiss of death for a novel? Is knowing what is going to happen comforting and familiar or fatally formulaic? With romance novels this can be an especially hard question to answer because we know what is going to happen at the end. For many of us the HEA defines the genre and it would be unacceptable to read a romance without one. But that doesn’t mean that the books are all alike or that it is ever OK for the author to write to a formula. The Wanderer forced me to ask myself some hard questions about just how acceptable it is for an author to deliver exactly the story we expect.
Since getting out of the army, Hank “Coop” Cooper has wandered across the USA, working at whatever job strikes his fancy, parking his fifth wheel wherever he landed. Right now finds him in Thunder Point, OR. He received a phone call telling him an old army buddy had left him something and he is anxious to both find out what happened to Ben and learn what his “inheritance” is. He is quite surprised to find that he has been bequeathed hundreds of acres of expensive beach front property along with a dilapidated bait shop/Laundromat/lunch counter/bar.
Many would cut and run, taking the money available from the sale of the land. But Coop is convinced that this would not be what Ben wanted. After all, Ben had been seriously impoverished for years and yet never sold the land himself. The end result is that Coop finds himself rehabbing the building and turning away the local realtor’s strong overtures to sell. Coop plans to stay, at least until he can figure out how to deal with the property without selling. And as he stays he finds himself working with Ben’s many strays: the handyman/mechanic suffering from PTSD, the teens who party on his beach, and Landon, a high school quarterback slash punching bag for the local bully.
Sarah Dupre is Landon’s older sister and guardian. Coming off a rough divorce she is suspicious of all men, especially a middle-aged man who befriends teenaged boys. But when she confronts Coop she gets way more than she bargained for. He might not be dangerous to her brother but the strong sexual attraction between them makes him dangerous to her. Unable to resist the temptation he represents, she finds herself entering into a no-strings-attached affair. But when it comes time for Coop to pull up stakes and head out, will that have been enough for her?
Sarah and Coop have a very predictable if rather hot affair that of course turns into something more. The something more revolves around how well Coop has put himself into Landon’s life. Sarah’s ex had been a pretty boy who befriended Landon and abandoned him when the marriage went south. Coop both genuinely befriends Landon and shows he will stick with it. He also understands Sarah’s job, something that many men have struggled with. As a helicopter pilot who flies rescues missions, Sarah rarely works regular hours, nor does she have a lot of time to devote to a relationship. Coop is both understanding and supportive, as well as knowledgeable since he is an experienced helo pilot himself. I could see why she fell for him. Naturally, since this is a romance novel the path to true love is not completely easy. We get the expected angst as both Coop and Sarah deal with their respective personal issues regarding taking things to the next level. She was hurt and is commitment-shy. He is not only commitment-shy with people but locations and has to overcome both those obstacles to be with Sarah, who is anchored both by her career and her brother. Perhaps because I have read so many Virgin River novels over the years this couple and their story were exactly what I expected and they didn’t intrigue me.
What did capture my attention were the secondary characters, one of them involved in the secondary romance in the novel. That would be Deputy Roger (Mac) McCain. His romance involves longtime friend Gina James and is the typical friends-to-lovers story. Gina and Mac have been dating for years, but Mac hasn’t had the guts to call it that. And since he can’t call it dating, he sure hasn’t felt free to try for any benefits. This has left Gina feeling very frustrated indeed. When a new doctor comes to town and begins to show an interest in Gina as a woman, Mac realizes that he better make a decision as to just what he wants in life.
I’m not big on stories that turn friends to lovers, but this one intrigued me because as a parent I absolutely understood why Mac hadn’t made his move. It had less to do with him being afraid to mess up his life by being messily in love and everything to do with not wanting to screw up his kids’ lives. His oldest daughter is best friends with Gina’s daughter – a romance between their parents had the potential to have major repercussions in the girls’ lives. And anyone who has ever been a teenage girl knows this best friend thing is a serious, serious business. I thought it spoke well of Mac and Gina to take their time to be really sure of what they were feeling before jumping into a relationship and to take the time to make the families comfortable with each other long before any sexual relationship between them came into play. Single parent romances tend to seem rushed to me but I really liked the pacing on this one.
The other portion of the novel that interested me centered around Landon. Too often romance novels turn schools into these magical places where every teacher is loving and caring, the principle is on top of everything that is going on and any serious trouble kids run into occurs outside the classroom. Anyone who reads the newspaper knows better. This novel covers the age-old topic of the school bully and just how they manage to get away with what they get away with. I was really happy to see that the school was not depicted as a haven of angels here but that some rather keen negligence lead to a student being seriously injured. There was no retribution to the coach who allowed this to happen, or to the teachers who hadn’t caught on to the bully for years but the fact that it was at least acknowledged that this was happening in the school was a step in the right direction for me. Seeing the resolution to this problem was a large part of the reason that I kept turning the pages.
Now I come to the dilemma I spoke of at the beginning of this review. Fans of Ms. Carr will recognize the scenarios set forth in this book right away. The characters not looking for a relationship but stumbling into love are a hallmark of her Virgin River series. The wonderful small town community depicted will also be familiar to her fans. While Thunder Point seems larger than the village of Virgin River, it still has that everyone knows everyone feel. The main love story was completely predictable and Coop had far too many shades of Jack from Virgin River for me to feel as though he was actually a new character. Landon had shades of a familiar character from the series as well. All that said, I felt there was enough new here to merit an above average grade. Not every step of the book was a repeat from her famous series and there were enough variations to the stock characters to make them seem real and likable.
If you haven’t read Ms. Carr before but have been interested to see what the hype is about this might be a good place to start. While not her strongest work it is certainly a solid representation of her popular small town romances. This novel also has the advantage of being the first book in a series so there is no catch-up on old characters to do. If you have read her before and are still a fan, you will find this story a satisfying addition to her body of work.