REVIEW: Backwoods by Jill Sorenson
Dear Ms. Sorenson,
Several of your books can be characterized as adventure/survival-driven romantic suspense, with outdoor California settings playing a large role in the narrative. I think this has been a good direction for you, but while I enjoyed parts of Backwoods, I don’t feel it’s one of your better books.
Heroine Abby and her daughter Brooke are headed for a wilderness retreat with Abby’s ex-husband Ray, his current wife Lydia, and Lydia’s son Leo. Instead of Ray and Lydia, it’s Leo’s father, Nathan, who joins them, and the four head out for a multiday trek. Abby and Nathan are attracted to each other, as are Brooke and Leo, but the family dynamics and history make it difficult for any of them to act on the attraction. In addition, there are strange things going on in the woods – a young couple disappeared some time ago and the man was later found dead of an arrow shot, a pair of hunters turn up and their intentions do not appear to be friendly, and at one point a woman’s screams can be heard in the distance, but further investigation reveals only a newly killed deer. As they continue farther away from civilization, things become more dangerous, but it’s too late to turn back.
As in some of your previous novels, the setting really contributes to the atmosphere and the story. Another thing I’ve enjoyed in your books is that you write characters that don’t fall into the usual age range for contemporaries; here, the main couple are in their mid to late thirties and the secondary characters are teenaged college students who act their age. I actually felt that Abby and Nathan could have been written even a bit older, and Abby’s first marriage being at such a young age seemed out of character for both her and her ex-husband.
Abby is the sort of character who at first glance seems quite conventional, but in fact there’s a lot about her that is unusual for the genre: she was a teen parent, but is very well-adjusted and a wonderful mother to Brooke. She got breast implants after her divorce and is happy with her decision – not something I’ve come across much when it comes to romance heroines. She’s had some casual relationships in the last few years, rather than moping about her cheating husband and broken marriage; and she’s not particularly interested in having more kids, or in any form of hiking that does not end with a shower and a bed (I can certainly identify with the latter). In other words: Abby reads like a real person and not a romance ideal.
Nathan is a former major league baseball player whose career ended due to injuries and alcohol abuse. There were some errors with the baseball details, but this isn’t a sports romance so I wasn’t too bothered by it. Nathan’s been clean, sober, and celibate for a while (not wanting any more drunken hookups) but the damage done to his relationship with Leo during his years as a ballplayer and alcoholic is considerable, and he has no idea how to fix it or communicate with his son. For him, Abby is a role model as a parent, and he’s open to advice and criticism. I’ll admit that the development of his relationship with Leo interested me more than his relationship with Abby for much of the book.
I thought I would be uncomfortable with Leo and Brooke’s relationship because they are step-siblings, but they already in their teens when their parents married so I was willing to go along with it. Brooke could have been boringly perfect – she’s pretty, smart and talented – but she can also be immature, has a hard time reading other people’s signals, and has doubts about herself and her relationships. Leo, meanwhile, has a difficult relationship with his father and feels aimless and lacking in direction, especially compared to the driven and successful Brooke. Their future is not neatly wrapped up at the end, and considering their age, issues and personalities, I think that’s for the best.
The characters mostly worked for me, but the story didn’t quite hold up. It read to me like several separate stories that were slapped together: there’s the rather creepy initial experiences that Abby, Brooke, Nathan and Leo go through while in the woods; then, as they become less concerned, there’s much mental lusting and Brooke tries to do some matchmaking for Abby and Nathan, which mostly reminded me of an updated version of The Parent Trap; then, the action part, which was much shorter than I expected and kind of fizzled – but it did feature Abby putting her obsession with survival stories to good use, so that was a plus. Finally, there is a fairly long wrapup in which various relationships are sorted out (or not). It didn’t feel like a coherent story and the pacing and structure didn’t really work for me. I’d characterize Backwoods as more of a contemporary with a suspense interlude, and the romance and suspense were not as well-integrated as I would have liked.
I also had some difficulty with the writing style, specifically the short sentences that you use quite a lot. I don’t have a problem with a more spare writing style, but at times it just seemed too staccato and felt distancing – as though everything was kept rather brief and at a shallow level, and it didn’t always feel like each character had a distinctive voice.
Overall, Backwoods mostly worked for me as an adventure story and I appreciate that you continue to write characters that diverge from genre conventions in obvious and more subtle ways. But the plotting was simply too uneven to justify a higher grade. C+/B-.