Dear Ms. Cook:
I have been curious about Harlequin’s NASCAR-themed Romances since they were first released, so when you offered Force of Nature to Dear Author for review, I jumped at the chance to read it. And while I don’t know a great deal about the line (I do know, for example, that the books are PG-13), I can see after reading Force of Nature that there are many potential stories related to the sport of stock car racing to tell. And while this one did not work for me as well as I had hoped, it had a number of very interesting elements I’d like to see more of in the genre as a whole.
Shelly Green is an up and coming NASCAR star driver, and she is currently the only woman driving in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Unwilling to allow her gender to upstage her driving, whenever she’s asked about her success, she insists that "my skills speak for themselves… Besides, the car doesn’t really care what chromosomes the driver’s got.” And she hopes that also applies to the owners of Pebble Valley Winery, who are looking for a driver to sponsor. Shelly, who has worked hard to get where she is today (her father is supposedly a driver, but her mother would never tell her who he was), is determined to win the sponsorship, so determined, in fact, that she flies out to Napa unannounced to talk owner Steve Clayton into choosing her. Clayton, a fellow-driver, co-owns the winery with Damon Tieri, a former Wall Street investment guru who doesn’t know a lot about NASCAR, however much he may know about ensuring the success of a winery. So with emerging stars – Shelly Green and Pebbly Valley Winery – what could go wrong?
Let’s start with the fact that it’s not Steve Clayton who ends up meeting Shelly, but Damon, who seems poised to let some unflattering stereotypes guide his first impression of Shelly. Despite that immediate attraction that signals "romance novel,’ he tells her that the winery is looking for someone "sophisticated … articulate and cultured," right after she has described her youth in Alabama, raised by a single mother, not educated beyond high school, and unable to discern the difference between a choice of "still or mineral" water (she chose "plain"). Damon, with his Princeton education, Fifth Avenue New York address, dark good looks, and designer jeans quickly dismisses Shelly, letting her know she’s wasted her time, until, that is, she stuns him with her own dressing down:
“They don’t just hand you a NASCAR career on a silver platter, you know. You have to earn it. It takes years of dedication. Everyone on your team’s got to believe in you, trust in you one hundred percent. Racing isn’t about being sophisticated or cultured or-or articulate,” she sputtered. “It’s about winning. About respect. About skill. And that’s what I’m all about, Mr. Tieri. I’m the best there is. And if you’re not smart enough to realize that, then maybe you should go back to Wall Street where you belong.”
In many ways, what happens from here is extremely predicable: Damon realizes that Shelly may be more than an attractively petite blue-eyes blonde who seems to know little about anything but driving. He can’t help his growing attraction to her, despite the well-bred girlfriend he has at home – the one being increasingly displaced in his thoughts by Shelly. And, surprise!, the Wall Street investment wonk is really a human being! With feelings! While the girl driver is really a human being! With intelligence and depth! This aspect of the book, which encompassed much of the traditional Romance elements, was my least favorite. Damon’s lusting feels forced, orchestrated, and initially inappropriate, while the class stereotypes felt awkward, overdrawn, and borderline insulting to both characters (and, by extension, the reader). Shelly’s mother is a brash alcoholic who picks the absolute worst time to embarrass Shelly, for example, which touches on numerous cringeworthy stereotypes. And Damon has a ne-er do well brother whose "mistakes" have made Damon the focus of his parents’ expectations. All this and more seemed to pitch awfully low to my own expectations as a reader.
But then there were a number of elements to Force of Nature that were surprising, inspired, and nuanced. For example, Shelly is not a shoe-in for the sponsorship, and the awkwardness of that is dealt with very realistically. Because Damon continues to follow the NASCAR drivers from race to race, checking out prospective drivers and getting to know the sport better. Which means that he and Shelly have time to grow a friendship, one that remains relatively chaste while the sponsorship decision remains unresolved. I appreciated this, because so often Romance protagonists throw aside obvious, substantial risks and jump straight into bed. Perhaps the PG-13 nature of the NASCAR series has helped foreclose that option here, but regardless, I felt that the emotional aspects of Damon and Shelly’s relationship were well-handled:
“Thank you for flying me out here,” she said suddenly, turning to face him. “Even if I don’t get the sponsorship, I appreciate the confidence you’ve shown in me. Steve says-well, he says you’ve spoken very highly of me. I realize you don’t think my background is right for Pebble Valley, but you’ve really put yourself out there for me, and I appreciate that.”
He couldn’t help himself; he reached for her hand, taking it in his. It was cold, he realized, rubbing it between his palms. “Don’t thank me, Shelly. You’re here because you’ve earned it. There’re still other things to consider, other drivers to consider,” he amended. “But you’re here entirely on your own merit.” He took a deep breath, hoping to slow the burn that was spreading through his veins.
“I’m trying to do this right, Shelly. Keep it all business. I have to do it that way, can’t let my personal feelings get in the way here. I hope you understand that.”
One of the reasons I so appreciated this maturity is because the clichéd set up of country girl and city boy felt so predictable at the beginning of the book, and it was refreshing to see that Shelly and Damon were functional adults. I especially liked that Shelly was a woman who had true confidence in her driving and a real passion for the sport, because otherwise it would have been very difficult for me to accept and understand her success. Further, it keeps her from depending on Damon for his Wall Street/Fifth Avenue approval. While it is true that she appreciates the respect he shows her (and for a while is surprised by it, considering the first impression he made on her), she neither looks to Damon to feel better about herself nor becomes wrapped up in trying to show him up. Once we get past some of the stereotypes, Damon and Shelly become two grown-ups struggling with a realistic obstacle (the sponsorship decision) to their growing affection.
In the end, I’m not sure I totally bought into the relationship, not because I felt the relationship was badly developed, but rather because I really could never feel the passion between them. Much of Damon’s mental lusting seemed more programmed than naturally developing. As for Shelly, I could see her attraction to Damon, but she seemed to move awfully quickly from admiration and friendship to romantic love, and I had to imagine many of those steps happening for both characters off page. For the most part, their bond felt more to me like a very strong friendship than "can’t live without you’ love.
Ultimately, I’m glad that I read Force of Nature, because I have always been curious about the Harlequin NASCAR books, and I’d be interested in trying others. I wish the book had relied on fewer stereotypes, even as I admired the way a number of them were surpassed during the course of the story. And I wish more Romance novels would deal with class issues, because they are far from incidental, especially in the way they shape first impressions. And I’m glad my first impressions of the novel were at least partly overturned. C
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