Never Walk Alone
by Paula Detmer Riggs, contemporary (2003)
Onyx, $6.99, ISBN 0-451-41083-1

Paula Detmer Riggs' previous 1999 book Taming The Night is one of the finest contemporary romances I've read. Naturally, not enough people buy the book, the author goes back to writting a few hundred more series romances, and now, four years since her full-length debut, she's back with a follow-up. While I'm happy to see Ms Riggs back in business, and while I try really hard not to compare this book to Taming, that fact that this book has no conflict, has bewildering relationship dynamics, and too many one-dimensional secondary characters taking up too much space make me a little bit disappointed. Okay, very disappointed. Color me blue and imagine how I want to cry especially when Brody, the handsome and oh-so-tormented hero from Taming shows up here as a Carebear.

The story is simple: prodigal black sheep kid Rhys is back in town to develop some properties he has acquired. Osuma, the town, has suffered from some bad floods, so they could use this rich guy coming to town and shaking things up. But Rhys is an ex-con whose car accident killed our heroine Brina's brother. He lodges at her B&B, so sparks fly. But can the town forgive? Can Brina forgive?

The hero is called by several different names. I'm laying them all out here so that nobody will get confused like me, scratching my head as I struggle to read this book while jostling with smelly, sweaty people in a crowded subway train. The hero's real name is Michael Rhys Sullivan. The townspeople of Osuma Valley, Washington (not to be confused with some Taliban ghetto in Afghanistan) remember him as Michael, the teenager who drove his car into a bus, killed two children and the bus driver, spent a few years in jail, and never come back. He and his estranged family sometimes refer to him as "Mick". His name is Rhys in sentences outside dialogues in this book. The heroine Brina Sullivan calls him Mr Hazard because he now goes by the name Michael Rhys Hazard. So when the name Mick, Michael, Rhys, and Hazard all come up, just remember that they all refer to the hero. Address your queries as to why the hero can't stick with one simple name to the author, not to me.

Also, I'm not really sure what this guy does. First, I understand that he runs Second Chances, sort of like a job agency that matchmake ex-cons with their ideal jobs. Then he's buying some properties in Osuma from his estranged father TJ Sullivan - whom I didn't even know is his father until a little later in the book - and developing them. Then he seems to be involved in investment and land development. I don't know. All I know is that he's rich. (You can always argue that this "rich" thing is all that matters.)

I don't know why Rhys thinks the whole town hates him. When he comes home and boards at heroine's B&B, there are actually very little conflict shown from the townspeople. In fact, the general mood seems to be that they are grateful to him. The author seems terrified of introducing conflict in this book - everyone here is a happy cheerleader, from TJ to Lucy, the woman who loves TJ, to Deb, Rhys' unofficial little sister, to, well, everybody the author pegs as "the good people". It is only in a romance novel where happy cheerleaders will immediately assure Brina and Rhys that they are perfect for each other ten seconds after the two lead characters meet. Because hey, what's a little third-degree - or is it second or first? - murder among happy people in a smalltown, eh? The author doesn't make Rhys redeem himself. He's already portrayed as a misunderstood Poor Boo Hoo everybody must love the moment he is introduced into the story. There's no need for redemption, the author seems to be saying, just acceptance. Some of the "good people" in this book, like Lucy, have blind faith that Rhys Is Just Misunderstood - in this cause, blind faith is passed off as the "right" thing.

Brina offers some resistance, but her resistance is ridiculous when I consider that she married Rhys' brother John. John is the stereotypical philandering jerk sort. Her reactions to both John and Rhys are often inconsistent and change according to mood and whimsy, making her an even more oblique character than Rhys. The romance is dragged on and on, padded with scenes of Rhys or Brina being cheered by the carebear secondary characters (or vice versa) that go nowhere, unless you have a thing for reading sweet but pointless scenes of people telling each other how wonderful the other person is.

I want conflict. There's none here. Immediately the lines are drawn from page one: Rhys will be forgiven by everybody, Brina has to love him, because every secondary character here - except for John and a few other minor nuisances - tells her and me that pretty much every other two pages. Everybody loves Rhys, so Rhys' continuous guilt comes off like a case of a self-absorbed spoiled brat too fond of his melodrama. Hello, Rhys, nobody cares, they all love you, so get over it, thanks.

There's a secondary romance between TJ and the woman he dumped to marry Rhys' momma, Lucy. Like the main romance, the lines are drawn clearly: Lucy must love TJ even if he has treated her wrong and he embarks on a courtship of her best described as "geriatric sexual harrassment", because Everybody and Ms Riggs Says So.

This book is a case of Carebear Secondary Characters telling me that These People Are Good, They Love Each Other. Instead of developing these characters' relationships and/or personalities to show me why they care (and why I should care), Ms Riggs have the Carebears popping up every other page to smack me with the Frying Pan Of Plot. Smack! Listen to Deb tell Brina - Rhys' a good man! Thwack! Listen as Lucy tells Rhys what a good woman Brina is! Thunk! They love each other! Three friends and relatives telling me every other page can't be wrong! Plonk! Listen, damn you! Thud! Now tell Ms Riggs, "I now believe" or the Frying Pan will hurt you. Say it! Smack! SAY IT!

And don't get me started about the oversweet botched-up attempt at the Redemption of John.

Firstly, Never Walk Alone feels like a Harlequin Presents thing padded up with pointless scenery chewing by one-dimensional characters that all share the same thought bubble and cheerleader outfit. Secondly, Brina and Rhys, as characters, as messy and never come together as coherent personalities. Thirdly, there is too much telling but not enough showing - anyone expecting a hero like darling, noble, rough, but ultimately heroic Brody Hollister will be disappointed with Rhys, the one-note millionaire dude whose sad blues soon run tedious because it becomes apparent that Rhys is the only guy that cares about the guilt thing. Fourthly, well, there's no fourthly. Just ultimately - ultimately, Never Walk Alone is a lightweight, fluffy read that lacks emotional resonance.

For an author who came out with an amazing book the last time around, this flat follow-up is like ten steps backwards down the evolutionary ladder. It's just not worthy of the author, no matter how I look at it. I've seen vocal complaints from some readers that Taming is "too dark" for their reading - is that why Never Walk Alone is so flat, sweet in an artificial flavoring way, and unsatisfying? Let's just hope she gets back the zing in her future books.

Rating: 56

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