Once again, this is not a review. I’m not going to give a summary, or even the back cover blurb, for any of the novels in this long (oh my good lord, looooooooooong!) series¹. This is basically a bunch of incoherent musings inspired by this and this conversations over at Dear Author, and the fact that I found myself re reading the first few of the Virgin River books.
My feelings about these books are rather mixed. There are many things that bother me about them–some of them fairly subtle, some of them quite in your face–but then there are others that resonate with me in a very positive way. In the end, I can’t recommend any of them wholeheartedly, but neither can I condemn them as wallbangers/DNF.
Since it is not a review, please do keep in mind that there are plenty of spoilers for the series within–and a lot of pointed criticism.
To begin with, there’s the fact that these books are, at their core, a long running soap opera (which is rather funny, since a couple of the minor characters are two middle age friends who have watched the same soap opera, together, every week day for over fifteen years).
However, and contrary to most soaps (or what little I know of them, as I’ve never watched more than a couple of episodes of any, in any of the places I’ve lived), this one is a “feel good” soap. People who are together stay together, and all obstacles are overcome. Infertile women become pregnant by the right man–after years of fertility treatment with the wrong partner, of course. And this happens so often in the region that we meet three other women on the same position in book 1². Victims of abuse and/or rape regain their confidence and are protected and secure in the love of…yeah, that would be the right man. Again.
But the series is totally a soap opera, because a couple of novels down the road, that same infertile woman with the magic pregnancy then has to have an emergency hysterectomy and becomes obsessed with adopting a baby–while having a biological toddler and infant.
We are told over and over, at least twice each book, how Virgin River is such a beautiful and peaceful place. Jack, the hero of the first novel (aptly titled Virgin River), even tells Melinda the heroine, that he moved there because it had “good family values”³–which he knows right off because…
Because it’s a small town, so of course it has good family values?
And yet, in this oh so peaceful and idyllic place where people don’t lock their doors, we find pot growers, serial rapists, hard drug pushers, domestic violence, raging alcoholism, teen pregnancy, and assorted other ills of society–some of them every other book–all of them overcome–repeatedly–by the current and previous heroes and heroines. This is so ridiculous as to be addressed by several characters at different point in the series, unconvincingly as far as I’m concerned. My feeling is that Ms Carr felt the need to keep throwing obstacles/baggage/shit at the characters in an attempt to make their stories more interesting and/or provide external conflict, since there is little realistic internal conflict after each pair gets their HEA.4
The novels are written with multiple stories running concurrently, and occasionally tangentially, to each other. The four protagonists of book 7 are introduced in book 1, as relatively minor characters throughout the series whose own issues have varying degrees of impact on those stories. In the case of Paul and Vanessa, protagonists of book 5, their story (or rather, the set up for it) takes up a good chunk of the last third of book 3–much more than plain sequel baiting, it does feel as each book is an episode in the general saga. However, contrary to series such as Nalini Singh’s Psy/Changeling, where there is an overarching story thread that leads you somewhere, these episodes have no greater purpose. It’s just a never ending line up of disasters, near disasters, violence, pregnancies and marriages.
Yeah, no man is an island and in this little community5 everyone’s life touches everyone else’s life, whatever, the whole thing feels more than a bit contrived and, well, soap operaish. Mind you, you still want to know what happens next–like any good soap opera, correct?
Ms Carr’s heroes are perfect fantasy fodder, but so utterly and absolutely perfect I grow a bit annoyed with them. And, considering that most of them are either former military or law enforcement, ridiculously delicate in their language. I mean, we have adult couples using phrases such as, “doing it” instead of “having sex” (let alone fucking). In fact, I don’t believe any of the characters even think the word sex as it relates to their own relationships6 until sometime late in book 3. The good guys are thoroughly good. Even when she tries her hand at some ambiguity with Dan–former pot grower and convict–and at redemption with Cheryl–former town lush–the fact is that any reader who has stuck with the series long enough to reach their story (Paradise Valley, book 7) already knows they are good people at heart, their flaws and peccadilloes forgivable and forgettable.
So the utopia aspect of the setting is there, but then there are all sorts of subtle patriarchal thinking sneaking into the novels. The men are men–it’s all about hunting, fishing and reading (non-fiction, of course). They are all adoring of the women they love, lusting after their very pregnant (or just delivered wives) in a most unrealistic way, all hell-bent on protecting the little ladies. There’s a lot of lip service to how strong the women are, how smart and what have you, but underneath it all, it’s about the men protecting the womenfolk.
For example, in Shelter Mountain–second novel, battered wife–when Paige is kidnapped by her husband, who is intent on committing a very neat murder-suicide (right after getting rid off the hero, of course), we are told how much stronger she’s become since arriving to Virgin River, how brave she is. So, what does she do?
She doesn’t fight, doesn’t try to escape, doesn’t do shit but know her man will come for her. Okay, she doesn’t lose it and throws a hysterics fit, but neither does she act–even her thoughts are passive. And then she is rescued by about six strong, big, armed men, and all we see of her strength is that she doesn’t cry out when the tape that’s over her mouth is ripped off.
(Can you tell this drove me up the wall with rage?)
Then, in book 3, we have the hero of Mexican descent, who of course plays the Spanish guitar–not the fucking acoustic guitar, mind you, and
speaks lies to the heroine in Spanish–not knowing that she’s also fluent in the language. Which, oh for the love of all that’s irksome and infuriating, brings me to a topic I’ve brought up at least a couple of times before: it’s not that fucking difficult to find a person who is truly fluent in the language you want. Because, let me tell you, what Miguel/Mike and Brie say to each other? Looks like one of those online translator jobs further massacred by an eager copy editor.7
(Yes, this is yet another hot button with me, how did you ever guess?)
Okay, so this is already a rather insanely long post and nothing but hate for the series so far. So let’s go into the things that I’ve enjoyed, shall we?
In the first book, we have two teenagers, both virgins, having sex with each other for the first time and, predictably, fucking the pooch by by-passing the condom. Pregnancy is the obvious and most dramatic result. And when, in book 2, Rick finally learns that yes, Liz is pregnant with his baby, we have this passage:
(summary of background: when she tells him she’s not pregnant, he suggest they cool it off–she’s 14 and he 16, after all. She thinks he’s gotten what he wanted and is no longer interested, then she realized she is pregnant and has to tell him. Rick’s thoughts are in italics, the emphasis as is in the book)
“Stop. You didn’t do anything wrong,” he said, ashamed of how he’d made her feel. … he told her they should cool it, not see each other anymore. He told her he cared about her, but holy God–they obviously couldn’t control themselves. And they were both too young to get caught with a baby. Except no, they weren’t.
He pulled her into his arms. “Oh, Liz, baby,” he said, “I broke it off to keep you safe.” To keep me safe! “I didn’t want to lose control again and get you in trouble.” Get me in trouble! “You are so young! Too young!” I’m too young!
This one character, in this one moment, reacts like an actual human being. He’s trying to support the girl, but he’s also thinking about himself–he’s flawed, he’s young, he’s confused, he’s scared. And we truly feel all of this going on with him.
There are enough moments like this one, enough passages like this, to make me care about the characters even when I lose patience with the series when the next piano falls on their heads.
Being privy to the heroes’ internal dialogue we see that they are insecure about their own worth–in the eyes of the heroine. They know who they are and, within their usual circle, they are confident in their skills and proud of their accomplishments. But when it comes to winning the love of the woman they love, they are insecure. They examine their past choices with different, less self-satisfied eyes, and often find themselves wanting. They want to be–and to have been–better, for her. Because in their eyes she could do so much better, they just don’t deserve her. Let alone her love.
And this is a lovely bit of fantasy, isn’t it? To have that one person who sees you at your worst moments, who knows all your flaws and all your regrets, and still–still!–feels privileged to love you? (how cool would it be if this feeling were truly mutual, huh?) And we continue to see the heroes, after winning fair maiden, willing to accommodate her quirks and go to great lengths to make her happy–because making her truly happy makes them happy.
Part of this fantasy is the high regard in which all the heroes hold women–not just their heroines, sisters, mothers, friends, but all women. For example, in Virgin River, Jack breaks off a friends with benefits relationship shortly after meeting Mel, not because he thinks he has a chance with Mel but because it’s not fair to Charmaine for Jack to have sex with her while wanting someone else.
In Whispering Rock a young girl confesses to her boyfriend that she’s not a virgin, and his first reaction is extremely positive. Talking about victims of rape, this same young man is firmly on the “she’s innocent, the violence was done to her, she didn’t do any single solitary thing to bring that ugliness into her life” camp. (Would that more people of both genders actually felt that way.)
In Second Chance Pass, the hero and his friend with benefits get pregnant8 and he doesn’t for one moment blame her for having sex with him–or indeed, with other people. He considers her a nice person and a perfectly respectable woman, period. Even Cheryl, town lush and much later one of the heroines in Paradise Valley, is never looked at with contempt or disdain but more with a sort of baffled pity and frustration at their inability to help her.
All the heroes in the series put their heroines’ wishes and well being before their own, but more than that, they respect the heroines’ choices. They may at times feel, strongly, that it’s not the right choice, but they will respect that choice and support the heroine.
When the teenage girl in book 2 wants to keep the baby, the hero and his role models (Jack and Preacher) go against conventional wisdom (it’s better for mother, father and baby if the latter is given up for adoption), because the mother is so obviously coming apart at the seams at the thought of not keeping the baby. When Brie decides to quit her work as prosecutor after her rape (by a rapist she had prosecuted without securing conviction), not one of the males in the novels criticizes her decision or suggest less-stressful (lesser?) careers for her. They give her time to heal first and to face her own future, in her own terms.
This to the core respect, even when mixed with a bit of “women need protection” mentality, is important and refreshing–there is a reason so many male protagonists in romance genre novels are referred to as alpholes, after all 9.
Then there’s the sex.
Yes, oh yes there is.
The sex scenes are plenty passionate even though Ms Carr manages to maintain PG13 language throughout. The scene doesn’t fade to black, the door doesn’t close, graphic language never makes an appearance and yet, I can totally buy that these two characters are thoroughly in lust with each other.
So, there you have it, a mixed bag. Enough good that I’ve read most of the series, enough issues to irk me as I read.
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¹Readers familiar with J. D. Robb / Nora Roberts will notice that Virgin River is barely half the length of In Death–yet it honestly seems much longer. My take? It’s because Ms Carr does not let any Jack and Melanie just freaking be–there has to be something terrible, momentous, significant, what have you, rocking their world in every single book. Seriously, give it a rest already, please.
² Keep in mind that this series is tied/a spin off from a previous trilogy by Ms Carr, set in Grace Valley–just a short distance from Virgin River.
³ Never mind that he’s a confirmed bachelor, just out after 20+ years in the Marines, whose ideal retirement consists of hunting and fishing, while owning a bar. So…why exactly would he give a fig about the values held by his neighbors?
4 Please do keep in mind that I do not claim to know whether Ms Carr thought/felt this or not–I’m just stating my impression as I read.
5 Though, how funny, only about three protagonists throughout the series are actually native to the town. Everyone else has a reason–escaping an abusive relationship, recovering from being shot, dealing with grief (lather, rinse, repeat…)–to come to this peaceful and idyllic hotbed of sin and crime.
6 Mel, first heroine and main character throughout the series, does use the word when thinking/talking about her vocation as midwife
7 For those who give a damn (all the passages below are taken from page 226 in Whispering Rock, book 3–I didn’t feel like combing the book from the beginning; my head was already about to explode with this page alone) The pseudo-Spanish passages are in italics and followed by an English translation, also in italics.
Para amarte durante la noche is translated to “to love me through the night.” You see those two little letters in bold, though? those mean that the action is directed at the other person, not the speaker. So what Brie says there is, “to love YOU throughout the night”
Nada is translated as “not one” (secret) *cue sound of frustration* Isn’t this one of those Spanish words most people have at least a passing acquaintance with? Nada means nothing, and the correct word for “not one” is ninguno/ninguna (in this case, the masculine, since they are talking about secretos).
Tu debes sentir esas manos amorosas así a tí is translated as “you should feel the touch of loving hands.” Okay, this one kills me. First, the sentence does make no fucking sense in Spanish. Even if someone argues that the correct phrasing has a phonetic resemblance to the above bullshit, it still doesn’t mean what the translation says it means. You want to say, “you should feel the touch of loving hands” then you say, Deberías semtir el toque de manos amantes/amorosas. And even then, gramatically correct as it is, it does not convey the same feeling. For that, you say, Sólo manos amantes deberían tocar tu piel.
Deje a que sean sus manos is translated as “please let it be your hands” *brief shriek* First off, no fluent Spanish speaker would construct such a phrase, let alone drop an extra, one letter word in the middle of it (a). Second, both verb and article (sus) mean that Brie is using the formal address with her lover–in bed, during sex. Way to go, kids.
8 Though I confess that this particular plot point sticks in my throat–yet another miracle, one strike, one hole pregnancy. Seriously, people, we know it only takes one sperm, but not every time a couple are careless the result is pregnancy. Enough already, please.
9 Make that, many reasons.