by Beverly Jenkins, historical (2005)
Avon, $5.99, ISBN 0-06-057532-8
Beverly Jenkins' characters are always on the goody-goody side with very little to no shades of moral ambiguity about them. Normally, this works very well when it comes to a romance novel featuring good people finding love while busting on some bad guy's case. Something Like Love, however, has a hero, Neil July, who is a train robber while the heroine Olivia Sterling is a strong-minded woman of firm convictions about right and wrong. I find it very unlikely that Olivia and the people of Henry Adams, Kansas, will take so well to the idea of its mayor (Olivia) consorting with a train robber who is wanted by the law. Not without some reservations, at least.
Olivia is thirty when she puts her foot down at her father forcing her to marry some man who plans to sell off Olivia's successful tailoring business so she and her mother conspire for Olivia to pack her bags and take a train to Kansas where she will find a new life for her own. During that ride, she encounters Neil when he and his "twin brother" Two Shafts (don't snigger, people, it's not nice) rob the train. She manages to hide her fear and even sass him a little and he is of course attracted to her. But it is not until events later on that will throw Olivia and Neil closer together. By then, she is the mayor of Henry Adams trying to keep the antics of the unpleasant "every town has one" villainous rich fellow Armstead Malloy while he is still a train robber wanted by the law even if he's contemplating retirement.
As I've said, I find it hard to believe that a woman of strong moral convictions like Olivia will overlook Neil's occupation. Olivia mentions once or twice that she wishes that he'd find a more honest way to make a living but overall her attitude towards Neil is surprisingly carefree when it comes to his job. I know this is fiction, but Olivia deciding to put her reservations about Neil to rest just because she senses that he is something more than a train robber when he uses big words is too much of a stretch for me. Now, if Olivia is a more flexible person when it comes to her principles, I may understand Neil's allure to her. As it is, the main reason Olivia doesn't go past second base to Neil at first is because of her moral principles regarding how a woman should behave if she doesn't want to be perceived as a "loose woman". That's fine with me, but I find myself thinking that perhaps a train robber won't care so much about whether a woman is, er, loose or not, surely.
Neil is probably too much of a good guy to be convincing even as some kind of Gentleman Robber fellow. Ms Jenkins gives him a sad past tied up to the subjugation, mistreatment, and oppression of the Black Seminoles by the government and many of the white folks of that time, but while I can understand why Neil will take up a life of crime out of desperation, I find Ms Jenkins' use of Neil's past to justify Neil's antics too much of a romanticization of the gentleman robber figure. A little more ambiguity about Neil's character and a little less whitewashing of Neil's career would have made Neil a more realistic character. Am I supposed to believe that as a train robber, Neil has never done anything that will make him even a little angsty? I'm not talking about only guilt, of course. If there's no guilt, how about then some darker aspects of his personality? Does he like to kill people? I am always partial to bloodthirsty crazy heroes myself, by the way. But in Something Like Love, Neil behaves more like a honest and reliable sheriff rather than a man at the other side of the law. I can't help thinking that Neil would have been a more realistic character if Ms Jenkins has made him a lawman from the start.
Even without the credibility issue, this book still bears the marks of a rushed work. There are many instances where a trivial scene is repeated several times from several perspectives and rehashed again in conversations. There are also unnecessary gushing about our main characters' physical beauty several times over. If that's not fun enough, Ms Jenkins ends up using a few words over and over again constantly over a few pages to the point that this book gives me this impression that it is written under duress or other unfavorite circumstances to the ide. Add in a cartoonish and very obvious villain and Something Like Love ends up being a confusing and unrealistic as well as shoddily written book.
Ms Jenkins always creates appealing moral characters, but everything about the plot and premise of this book seems to work against Ms Jenkins' strengths. This story would have benefited from having a hero who is less of a Prince Valiant in order to make his being a train robber with a past more realistic, just as a heroine who is more conflicted about her principles and the man she loves despite her best judgments would have added more poignancy to the relationship between Neil and Olivia. But there is no such ambiguity or shades of gray here - everything is black and white; everyone is a Good Guy except for the one very obvious cartoon villain and his goons. If anything, Something Like Love only suggests that Ms Jenkins flies high when she's writing about the good guys and stumbles badly when the plot calls for a less obvious set of main characters. Oh well, there's always the next book, I suppose.
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