Redwood Bend (Review I)
“. . . real life is not fiction. The failure to explore the process of making an important decision such as a woman faces with an unexpected pregnancy—or indeed any indication that she can make any choice but the one she does in the book—makes relating to Katie difficult and diminishes the connection to the reader Ms. Carr creates in the first half of the novel.”
Robyn Carr’s Virgin River series is intensely popular for its blend of small town and military romance, and this latest installment does not veer from its well-set course.
Family is deeply important to Katie Malone, so she packs up her twin boys and makes the move from the East Coast to join her brother and his new fiancée in Virgin River. She hopes a new start in a new community will finally allow her to put down some permanent roots and give her boys a true home.
On the drive up the mountain to Virgin River, Katie encounters adversity in the form of a flat tire, a violent rainstorm, and very narrow roads. Assistance comes in the form of a biker gang—and one leather-clad ex-child-child-star-with-his-own-issues in particular.
Dylan Childress had an unconventional childhood, and it nearly destroyed him. Only the intervention by his grandmother and a wind-swept farm in Montana saved him. Now he works hard to leave his Hollywood past behind and move his flying business forward. But his past has left scars—not least of which is the belief that he has no ability to lead a healthy, normal family life.
Ms. Carr may often revisit familiar romance themes, but one cannot deny the strength and ease of her writing. Though Dylan—the commitment phobic man who believes he doesn’t know how to love—and Katie—the Earth mother with healing powers—are so familiar among readers as to defy the need for description, Ms. Carr tugs out the unique aspects of their characters to create a story that feels both fresh and familiar, and wonderfully comfortable. It’s a mark of her skill that Redwood Bend works as well as it does while traveling along such well-trodden paths.
The characters aren’t the only aspect readers will find familiar—Ms. Carr’s setting is peopled with happy couples from previous installments of the series, and the landmarks haven’t changed much either.
For example, Katie and her boys settle into the same cottage that Melinda Monroe moves into in the very first Virgin River novel (Mel has long since moved out and is now living happily with Jack, her bartender husband). What was once an isolated community is becoming a bustling metropolis—though it must be added that Ms. Carr is planning for this eventuality: Katie and Dylan, having reached their happy ending, do not choose to live on the mountain.
There is one final familiar element to this story that raises a number of questions about romance fiction: what it purports to be versus what it actually is. Halfway through the novel (and therefore, not a spoiler concern), Katie discovers she is pregnant. At this point, Dylan has left the mountain permanently and Katie has no expectation of his return. She is widowed and alone with twin five-year-old boys and no job. She lives near her brother, but is new to the community. She has no other family or support networks.
Romance represents itself as a truly feminist literature: written for women by women, often edited and published by women, focused on women’s lives, and representing women as they are now: with family or without, in a career or not, tall, short, curvy, slender, big city, small town, shy, brave, outgoing, quiet. It is subversive and political, with the underlining motive of valuing emotions and connections in ways that other literature does not.
But it often (and this is a generalization) falls down in one very important respect: a woman’s options when facing an unexpected pregnancy.
Babies themselves occupy a familiar but uneasy space—the physical embodiment of love and commitment, they are used as a shortcut that can leave readers who have chosen to remain childfree out in the cold. Pregnancy is often a catalyst for emotional declaration or the kick a character needs to move from selfish youth to responsible maturity. Much goes on underneath the surface of a romance novel pregnancy.
But what goes on on the surface?
In this case, Katie doesn’t consider any option besides having the baby and keeping it, regardless of personal hardship, the toll on her family, the inability to get (or keep) gainful employment, or her lack of support network.
Which, given a woman’s right to choose, is her choice; however, what also doesn’t happen is any thought process that leads to this choice being Katie’s. Nowhere are her options considered, nowhere is her situation examined. It only comes up once, in a conversation later in the book between characters when Katie just says, “No.”
While the politics on this subject are rife with pitfalls and landmines, a genre that has shown itself to be courageous in so many other ways should not shy away from something so fundamental to feminism as a woman’s right to choose what she does with her body. Even if the character chooses to go ahead with the pregnancy, and with keeping the child after the birth, it should be depicted as a choice, not as a foregone conclusion.
Intelligent, educated, practical, strong women know they have a choice with their bodies and the right to make the choice that fits best for them within their situation, their faith, their family, and their own beliefs. And romance novels are full of intelligent, educated, practical strong women. They should be equally full of explorations of these women’s rights.
In Redwood Bend, the choice fits with the character: Katie is very maternal and loves children. It is in her character to dismiss the hardships for the joy of a new baby in her life. Further, the reader knows that Dylan will return, and that Katie will not have to bear the burden alone.
But real life is not fiction. The failure to explore the process of making an important decision such as a woman faces with an unexpected pregnancy—or indeed any indication that she can make any choice but the one she does in the book—makes relating to Katie difficult and diminishes the connection to the reader Ms. Carr creates in the first half of the novel.