Dear Ms. Watson,
Your novels first landed on my radar when Jayne reviewed one of your SuperRomances last summer. When I saw that you had come out with a book about a rock star post-stardom, and for a change the rock star was the heroine rather than the hero, I was sold. But the book sat in my TBR for the last couple of months until I went looking for TBR Challenge books. February’s challenge category is “ugly ducklings,” which covers a range of imperfections, and I decided that a recovering alcoholic fit the bill.
When she was known as Chantal, Delaney Spencer was the drummer and composer for a rock band which fell apart when her lover and fellow band member Diesel died of an overdose. Delaney went into rehab, disappeared into the small town of Otter Tail in northern Wisconsin when she came out, and remade her life as a furniture maker. Her only connection to music now is performing weekly as the drummer for a cover band in a pub run by her friends Quinn and Maddie (who were the hero and heroine of one of your previous books). She has managed to regain a measure of control and stability over her life when Sam McCabe, Diesel’s brother, tracks her down and demands that she release some demo CDs she made with Diesel just before his death. Sam has been forced to take temporary custody of Diesel’s two young children because their mother, Heather, has just entered rehab herself, and he wants to ensure their financial stability and independence from their mother.
Delaney is horrified at Sam’s proposition. She has no desire to let the world know where she is or to test her still fragile sobriety with the scrutiny and pressure that rock-star fame brings, and Sam’s plan to protect Leo and Rennie by sending them to an expensive boarding school reminds her of how neglected she was by her own affluent parents. Sam, who writes thrillers, threatens to write a story for Rolling Stone about Delaney if she doesn’t agree, and he takes a vacation rental in Otter Tail while he waits for her to agree to his ultimatum. Soon, Delaney’s whereabouts are leaked to press by Heather, who hates Chantal/Delaney because Diesel left her to be with Chantal.
I was predisposed to like this book based on the setup and the context. In addition, the children were sensitively depicted. You portray Leo’s anger and his and Rennie’s insecurity and suspicion toward Sam convincingly. Sam’s complete ignorance about small children seemed a bit overdone, but there are probably men and women like that, and I believed in both his frustration at his failings and his desire to do the right thing by them. I didn’t really buy that Delaney turned into a master cabinetmaker in two years, but I found the conflict between her love of music and performing and her fear of falling back into old ways very compelling.
My biggest problems with the book had to do with the characterization of the hero and the way the romance unfolded. I never felt that I understood Sam as a person, much less as a romantic hero. He was angry and frustrated for much of the first half of the book, and he seemed quite underdeveloped. We are told early on that Sam is a writer, and we see him working on his thriller while he’s taking care of the kids, but his profession isn’t really important except that it provides him with a way to spend time in Wisconsin, since he can work anywhere. Crucially, Sam’s reluctance to take care of the children is motivated by his anguish at his failure to save Dylan. But I never really got a sense of what that relationship was like. This was the most informative passage about them:
"I was never around. You said Diesel barely mentioned me."
"I was being snarky when I said that. He missed you. He told me about his big brother who'd practically raised him. Who always protected him."
Didn't she realize he hadn't protected Diesel when it counted the most?
She smiled. "There was a time at school where one of the older kids tried to bully him. He said you kicked the kid's ass around the playground twice."
"He remembered that?" Diesel had been a scrawny kid with bright red hair and a swagger, trying to act as tough as his big brother.
"He remembered a lot of things, Sam."
The ticking of the kitchen clock counted out the seconds as memories spilled through his head.
"Is that why you stayed away from him?" she finally asked. "Because you couldn't handle the reporters and paparazzi?"
"I stayed away because I couldn't bear watching him destroy himself. I tried to get him clean and dried out, but he wouldn't let me help him. It was easier not to be around."
It sounds as if Sam was around for Diesel in their youth and then couldn’t deal with him when Diesel started his downward spiral. But I don’t know if they were close, or why, if Sam cared about Diesel, he didn’t spend time with his children, especially given how inadequate both parents were. The relationship never came to life for me. And so when Sam did his turnaround from reluctant and incompetent uncle to fully committed parental figure, I had difficulty seeing it.
Sam’s incompleteness made his romance with Delaney problematic for me as well. They are both so angry and suspicious of each for a lot of the book. It takes some mighty powerful physically attraction to overcome that, and as a reader I wasn’t quite convinced. And then, even if I could believe that Delaney fell in love with Sam (which was easier because Delaney’s character was more fully and convincingly depicted), Sam’s repeated refusal to believe he could love anyone was followed so quickly by his avowal of love for Delaney that it just didn’t work for me.
On a more positive note, I really appreciated the way you resolved the storyline with Heather and her relationship with her children. Although she had the official relationship with Diesel, she was very much the “other woman” in this story, and the easy way out would have been to demonize her or kill her off. Instead you resolved the conflict in a way that gave her character dignity and understanding, and you handled the custodial issues in a similarly thoughtful way. I closed the book feeling more confident about Leo’s and Rennie’s futures than about Sam and Delaney’s romance, but I can live with that.