by Melinda Leigh, contemporary (2011)
Amazon Montlake, $13.95, ISBN 978-1612181516
She Can Run at the surface seems like another standard "abused wife on the run and meets hot protector" story that has been done a million times before. Elizabeth Baker has discovered something so nefarious about her husband Richard - something even more nefarious than his tendency to use her and her two kids as punching bags - and now, she is on the run. As "Beth Markham", she and her two kids arrive at a remote Pennsylvanian town where she is to serve as a caretaker for Danny O'Malley's big Dutch colonial house. It has horses and all, so this is going to be a triple dose of battered housewife, abused kids who try very hard to do that "blink big eyes sadly at you while speaking in that precious manner" thing, and horses combo that just screams Lifetime movie hour.
Unfortunately, Danny died shortly before Beth and her Lovable Abuse Victims brigade pull up in town. Luckily for Beth, Danny's nephew Jack - conveniently an ex-cop who can't go back to being one due to a leg injury - has a sucker for wounded does. He gives them lots of chances to play with the horses, swim at night (it may be a dumb thing for a woman on the run to do, but hey, we need a chance for her to show off the sexy to the hero), et cetera, and it's love. But wait! The husband is not letting her get away so easily! And then there is a serial killer who has her in his sights too!
The romance is very predictable, and the characters in this book are standard clichés with little done to make them stand out from the rest. Beth is a typical damsel in distress - everyone else praises her strength and courage, but Beth is actually quite weak here as she does little other to attract a line of insane villains and constantly need protection. She is understandably wary of men at first, but she hogs her secrets for way too long here to believable, and she also has an annoying tendency to try to be a martyr and bear the burdens of the estate problems alone when she already has so many things to worry about. For someone who claims to be afraid for her children's life, Beth deliberately seeks out more problems to add to the ones she already has, I tell you. As for Jack, he's completely flat. He's written as a protector type with some obligatory baggage, whose role in this story is to protect Beth and give her some sexual healing. A trophy for the punching bag, if you will.
Still, the romance by itself isn't bad, if I can overlook Ms Leigh's embarrassing efforts to attach youthful Buffy-speak to Jack and his sequel baits who are supposed to be in their late thirties. Come on now, guys that age don't speak like that, and they definitely don't call their penises "chubbies". These are supposed to be hardened world-wise people - I personally think it will be more believable if these guys are a little less politically correct, especially when it comes to talking about hot women and sex. I feel that, unlike many authors who try to write about younger people only to fail, Ms Leigh would have fared better if she had written a romantic comedy featuring characters in their late twenties. Anyway, the author's unsuccessful attempts to make her band of brothers hip aside, she manages to create some good chemistry between Jack and Beth.
Unfortunately, the focus of this story isn't romance, especially in the later two-thirds of the book when the author focuses on the suspense. This is to be expected, as She Can Run is a romantic suspense story. However, the suspense is just plain horrible. It is as if the author didn't know how to make her story more interesting or longer, so she throws in a serial killer that adds absolutely nothing of value to the story other than to create a last moment "heroine in danger - help" scene after the evil husband drama is over. This serial killer subplot feels like a last-minute addition because the entire thing is awkwardly inserted into the story, right from the first scene when he shows up out of the blue without any warning. This part of the plot requires the insertion of scenes of random women getting kidnapped, tortured, and killed as well as the killer pretty much gloating and going, "Muahahahahaha!" (Oh, and he uses Buffy speak too, which makes it hard for me to take him seriously.) These scenes serve only to distract me from the romance and the main plot, so I'm not a happy person when I realize in the end that all these scenes are actually padding.
The evil husband is also a vicious disappointment. [spoiler starts] Instead of being a drug dealer or something, he turns out to be just another insane impotent closeted gay man who doesn't want to ruin his Republican political career. [spoiler ends] Never mind that he ends up being another standard cliché, it doesn't make sense why he'd go through such great lengths just to conceal that secret. [spoiler starts] Not to mention, it's annoying how the author goes through such contrived lengths to make the villain impotent and gay so that Beth will never get sullied by the evil right-wing dick of psychopathic gayness or that the children (who were sired by Beth's previous late husband) will not be tainted by the genes of this evil gay Republican psychopath. For a story that supposedly looks down on hypocritical politicians who suck pee-pees while publicly renouncing the gay marriage bill, it sure makes the effort to ensure that the heroine and the children are not tainted by the gay! [spoiler ends]
It also doesn't help that things become more and more farcical as the story progresses. The hero becomes more unbelievably capable only to always let Beth fall into villains' clutches at the last minute in a laughably contrived manner, the heroine is involved in more "accidents" and murder attempts than Saddam Hussein, the children have mutated into bug-eyed paragon martyrs who speak as if they were possessed by an adult spirit from beyond, and don't forget that we have two cartoon insane bad guys running around and cackling like Scooby-doo villains on crack. The denouement is unintentionally hilarious as Beth bounces from one deadly scene to another like a ping-pong ball while the hero keeps getting knocked out at convenient moments as he tries to rescue her. By the last page of the book, this one is swimming in hysterically bad melodrama.
She Can Run could have been another generic tale of abused housewife finding love and healing, but the end result is a complete mess. Most of the time I find myself trying to decide whether I should laugh at the author's unintentionally hilarious bad melodrama or just cringe at the catastrophic awfulness of the whole thing. But perhaps that is a good thing. If this book had been a generic wannabe of a typical bad soap by Catherine Anderson, it would had been a forgettable affair. As it is now, this is a memorable point-and-laugh tragicomedy any clown school would have been proud of.
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