Scary Places on the Way to Happy Endings: The Romance Safety Net

I recently read two books that got me thinking about why I read romance. Both of these books were about “long shot” relationships — pairings of people who have so many challenges that in real life, you know the odds would be stacked against them. I probably wouldn’t pick up either of these books in any other genre, but in romance, by authors whom I trust, I can read (heart in my throat much of the time) knowing that it HAS to work out, and it will.

hardtime_134 Hard Time, by Cara McKenna, features a librarian main character, one of my favorite romance devices. But the other main character is a prison inmate, doing time for violent crime, and that is WAY out of my comfort zone.
Here’s the blurb:

Annie Goodhouse doesn’t need to be warned about bad boys; good sense and an abusive ex have given her plenty of reasons to play it safe. But when she steps into her new role as outreach librarian for Cousins Correctional Facility, no amount of good sense can keep her mind—or eyes—off inmate Eric Collier.

Eric doesn’t claim to be innocent of the crime that landed him in prison. In fact, he’d do it again if that’s what it took to keep his family safe. Loyalty and force are what he knows. But meeting Annie makes him want to know more.

When Eric begins courting Annie through letters, they embark on a reckless, secret romance—a forbidden fantasy that neither imagines could ever be real…until early parole for Eric changes everything, and forces them both to face a past they can’t forget, and a desire they can’t deny.

The first third or so of this book was hot and sexy, with an edge of the forbidden. I’m a sucker for epistolary devices, too, and the letters between Annie and Eric really worked for me as erotica. Annie’s sexuality really opens up under Eric’s attention, and of course her letters and their brief, chaste physical encounters add a much-needed positive dimension to Eric’s life in prison.

Eric’s release was handled pretty well; Annie doesn’t just rush to continue their relationship, and all the right questions get asked. Eric is patient, not really expecting her to want to be with him, and yet hoping that they can keep their connection and see where things go. The relationship doesn’t develop smoothly, as there are obvious bumps in the road, and yet the couple’s good times are easy to enjoy, even amidst the uncertainty. I really liked the back-and-forth of this part of the book; it felt believable, as Annie negotiated between the powerful emotional pull of Eric and the powerful rational pull of common sense.

The big problem is that Eric isn’t sorry for the assault that put him behind bars; in his world, you have to be willing to fight on behalf of your loved ones, and he’d do it again if he had to. This is a huge challenge for Annie, the daughter of a law enforcement officer who has always gone along with the social model that says that only “bad guys” break the law, especially in violent ways.

Eventually, Annie goes with Eric to visit his family in the rural Michigan trailer park where he grew up, and in that context she has to confront the ways in which his background has shaped him. This was the point in the book where I nearly gave up, because I don’t deal well with graphic violence, and it seemed to me that the potential for that was quite high. But I had a powerful emotional investment in Annie and Eric by that point, so I read on, trusting because this is a romance, it had to work out. And it did — better than I expected, and without the violent confrontation I feared. Annie and Eric’s connection actually got deeper as she realized that this place and these people shaped him into the man she loved — and that some of the qualities she found most attractive in him were part of that, not in spite of that.

beyondrepair_msrBeyond Repair, by Charlotte Stein, wasn’t as scary for me on the surface. But once I started reading the book, it felt very risky.
The blurb didn’t really capture that:

When Alice Evans finds a bona fide movie star on the floor of her living room, she has no idea what to do. Ordinary men are frightening enough, never mind someone as famous and frankly gorgeous as Holden Stark.

However, once she realizes that Holden is suffering behind that famous facade, she knows she has to help. He needs someone like her to give him a taste of sweetness and desire and love. He needs normality. The only problem is—Alice is hiding a secret that is far from normal. In fact, her name isn’t even Alice at all.

And once Holden finds out, the intense connection they are just beginning to build may well be torn apart.

Alice is weird, there’s no question about that. She makes odd mental connections, has strange fantasies, and is a big bundle of fears and phobias. That’s clear from very early in the book, although the extent of her fears and the reason for them are only gradually revealed. Holden (or Bernie, as Alice calls him) is less complicated — although the story begins with his suicide attempt, he has a pretty straightforward story arc towards health and healing, thanks to his connection with Alice. She brings joy, fun and love into his life for the first time, since she’s really the first person not to see him as a meal ticket or celebrity connection.

As their relationship develops, they engage sexually in ways that accommodate Alice’s many fears. Their exploration of sexual boundaries parallels their discovery of other things they have in common — movies, a quirky sense of humor, and a powerful emotional connection. But Alice’s problems make her want to hide away from the world, while Holden is a celebrity, and that seems to be an obstacle that love and compatibility may not be able to overcome. Alice’s reasons are good ones, so (like Holden) the reader wants her to get better without blaming her if she can’t. It makes for an involving story, which is very internal — there’s literally nothing keeping them apart towards the end except Alice’s very real, very crippling fears. In hindsight, the steps on their road make sense, but as I was reading it, it was messy and unpredictable, as seen through Alice’s eyes. I agonized for her, and was glad that I could trust that it would come out all right.

Usually when I talk about romance as comfort reading, I don’t mean books like these — these both had elements that were definitely outside my comfort zone. But the genre meant that I could go ahead and hope for these couples to find their path to happiness together, and that safety net was what I needed.

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TBR Challenge: Contemporary Romances in Petal, Georgia

LostInYou Lost in You was in my TBR because it is one of my favorite romance tropes: big brother’s friend (or friend’s little sister, from the hero’s POV). I don’t have a big brother, but I like the way family, friend and romance relationship demands and loyalties play against each other in books with this device. As it turned out, that dimension wasn’t the only, or even the most important, way that dynamic operated in this novel.

Joe Harris is back in Petal, Georgia, to help out with his father, who has been having episodes that frighten Joe’s mother and suggest some sort of psychological problem (confusion, wandering, unexplained outbursts). Joe’s reputation in town is as a bad boy, but he’s served in Iraq since those days. Mostly this serves as a reason for his friends to be wary of him dating their sister, and as the reason guilt plays a role in his determination to put his father’s welfare ahead of anything else in his life. The people in town don’t seem to have any problem accepting that his years in the army and away from Petal have matured him, so the reformed bad boy isn’t really the basis of this plot.

Beth Murphy finds Joe attractive, and she doesn’t take her brothers’ objections seriously. But Joe does, at first, which means that Beth ends up pursuing Joe until she can change his mind. I liked that aspect of the book a lot — Beth wants to date Joe, and his reluctance is because of her brothers, so she goes after him. It’s sweet, believable, and normal — no crazy romantic comedy stunts, just a woman showing a man that she’s interested and not waiting around for him to make the moves.

The real conflict here isn’t about Beth’s family at all, although there’s a lot of the book devoted to her family history as backstory. The problem is Joe’s; he is both protective of his father and ashamed of his family’s problem, so he doesn’t tell Beth what’s going on. He views his relationship with Beth as something that takes him away from his parents and their problems, and he sees his family trouble as something that would unfairly burden Beth if she knew about it. Beth feels shut out when he won’t share what’s bothering him, and she is hurt when she finds out and he still won’t accept help and support from her. Ultimately the book is about learning that love means sharing burdens as well as joys, and that a romantic partner can be a help with family rather than either competition or mere distraction.

While this book was enjoyable to read on its own, it was pretty obvious that it was part of a series — not just the second book, as I thought, but actually the sixth. I didn’t realize that Dane’s four Chase Brothers books were also set in Petal, and Lost in You is heavily populated with characters, particularly couples, from earlier books. I didn’t feel lost, as there was plenty of explanation, but I suspect that a reader who had read the earlier books would appreciate that aspect more than I was able to do.

I enjoyed this book enough that I purchased and read the book just before it, since the next book hasn’t been released yet.

OnceandAgain_rev300-220x330 Once and Again has some of the same themes — in this book, it’s the heroine who has come back to town to deal with family issues. Lily’s concern is her teenage brother, Chris, who is failing at school and getting into trouble since their parents’ divorce. Their father isn’t around much, being caught up in a new relationship with a younger woman, and their mother is abusing alcohol and prescription drugs, unable to cope with losing her husband.

I loved Lily’s take charge attitude and willingness to do whatever it takes to turn her brother’s life around. She knows that Chris needs boundaries, but also that he needs a sense of security and the knowledge that someone loves him too much to allow him to fail. I thought their relationship was depicted really well.

Nathan is Chris’s English teacher; he is also Lily’s ex-boyfriend. Those two factors make him off-limits as far as she’s concerned, but as one of Chris’s teachers, she can’t just ignore him while she’s working to create an academic plan that will keep Chris from failing. Nathan pretty quickly realizes that he wants Lily back, but he has to prove to her that he’s trustworthy and really interested in a commitment. Lily is busy with her family issues, not to mention trying to find enough freelance work to replace the job she quit to move back to her hometown, so it’s as a helper rather than a lover than Nathan manages to show her that he has changed.

These books are realistic about mental illness and addiction — someone has to accept help and admit they have a problem, and even then, it’s not a straight or easy road to recovery. Family support makes a big difference, and the role reversal that happens when we have to guide our parents’ decisions is unsettling for everyone.

I also enjoyed that these characters are middle-class folks, some with lower-class backgrounds. They deal with practical issues that are recognizable from the lives of people I know personally. Petal isn’t as idealized as some romance small towns, although sometimes the wonderful Chase family got to be a bit much for me. Again, YMMV, especially if you’ve read the earlier series.

I’ll definitely be reading the next book in this series, which comes out in June. I’m not so sure about going back to the Chase brothers books, although I might for Beth’s sister (Chase wife number four), because the bits of her story that appear in these books are intriguing.