Bitchin' Blog Posts
Title: A Hero in the Making
Author: Kay Stockham
Publication Info: Harlequin Jan 2012
Genre: Contemporary Romance
This book made me mad. Really mad. Mad to the point where I'd mark passages that pissed me off and yell at the book instead of making a note. The hero is awful until about 75% of the way through the book, and the heroine lets everyone push her around and permits varying levels of cruelty. Her family is made up of some horrible people. Her conflict is real enough, but her decision-making ability as an adult is constantly questioned and undermined to the point where she makes the decision that everyone else wants, mostly because she abandons her perfectly valid arguments.
And that last bit is what pissed me off the most. In this book, the subtext is that family is more important than anything else, and the people who are your family deserve your undiverted loyalty, no matter how shitful, cruel, and hypocritical they are. Love and family are more important than anything else, even when that love and that family are the opposite of beneficial to the heroine.
That subtext wove through the book repeatedly, because that was the only reason I could find why the heroine stayed around to put up with the number of horrible people she was staying with on her vacation.
Let me back up and give a plot summary- which is something of a tricky notion because the bits of the backstory are revealed in pieces and in a strange order, and I had to draw out the timeline on paper to make sure all the clues fit.
Marcus Whitefeather - hold up a minute, let me start with the cover.
First, where is that kid's helmet?
This book caught my eye because of the prominence of the racing wheelchair and the possibility of a paraplegic hero, and the plot summary - Montana! reconciliation! angst! - made me very curious. I bought it during this past Sunday's 50% off sale.
So, plot summary:
Marcus Whitefeather, and yes, characters remark on his Native American looks many times in the book, is a former Heisman-winning, Dallas Cowboys starting quarterback who, after a bad tackle on the field, found himself paralyzed from the knees down.
I had to Google that one - I'd not heard of paralysis from the knees down, but hey, Google knows all. Paralysis from the knees down can result from different injuries, but according to the Merck Manuals website, spinal injuries from T-12 to L1 locations on the spine can result in paralysis above and below the knee.
Marcus' former girlfriend, Skylar Mathews, is back in Montana at her family's ranch for vacation with her 7 year old son, Cody. Skylar is a widow; her husband, Tom, died recently of a hereditary blood disorder. Cody is having a great deal of trouble processing his grief. And by "a great deal of trouble," I mean that he is convinced that his father has become a vampire, lives up in the mountains somewhere, and is going to come and suck his blood and turn him into a vampire, too, so they can be strong and fast and together forever. So Skylar thinks that a vacation in Montana on her family's ranch, which serves as an activity center for disabled people, is a good idea. She'll definitely be able to avoid seeing Marcus, who she knows uses a wheelchair
wheelchair-bound, on a ranch that specializes in serving the local disabled community.
Skylar is dealing with a lot of grief herself. Not only is her husband's death present in her and Cody's minds and conversations, but Skylar is a counselor at a private school in Manhattan, and one of the students there committed suicide just before Skylar left on vacation. Her co-counselor and friend (who is strangely barely present in the story aside from text messages that everything back in New York is fine) says she can handle the grief counseling at the school, and Skylar decides to head west.
So the conflict (one of about 19) is this: Marcus is Cody's father. Marcus knows this, and Skylar knows, and her late husband knew, but no one else is aware.
Here's where I'm really unsure as to whether something is a spoiler, but I'm giving away a lot of the backstory that is revealed in pieces, so Be Ye Warned, this review, and the reasons this book pissed me off, is very spoiler-y.
Sometime before his accident, Marcus had asked Skylar to drop out of school and travel with him and the team and be with him all the time. Skylar was conflicted about that and asked for time to think about it, saying that she needed a break from him and their relationship as it was too intense for her. When she went back to Marcus' house to talk about it, she found him in bed with some woman he'd picked up at a bar.
Several times in the text, Marcus implies or states outright that his desire to pick up some chick at a bar to ease his pain was Skylar's fault. Oh, and the accident that led to his paralysis was Skylar's fault, too, because she wasn't in the stands where she should have been and so his head wasn't in the game.
But I get ahead of myself. After the "I found you in bed with some chick" evening, Marcus and Skylar are broken up, and Marcus gets tackled, resulting in permanent injury. He's in the hospital, and Skylar comes to see him because she's discovered that she's pregnant. Marcus freaks out, screams at her that he wants nothing to do with her or the baby, and that he never wants to see her again. Skylar gets the hell out of there, and a week or so later marries her late husband.
The late husband had known he was going to die young, and knew that he couldn't father children because he'd pass along this genetic blood disorder, and so he and Skylar work out a plan that he'll marry her, they'll be a family for as long as he had left, and somewhere along the way Skylar fell in a very warm and abiding love with him. Not the set-your-pants-on-fire love she'd had with Marcus, but a real relationship with real feelings (and real grief when he's gone).
So here's Marcus talking to Skylar shortly after she returns to Montana with Cody:
"I need to check on Cody. But your secret is safe. I kept my promise, Marcus. I didn't tell. No one knows. I left you alone, and I raised my son -"
"With help from Daddy Warbucks." His voice was full of scorn.
It took everything inside her to control her fury yet she refused to rise to the taunt.
I'd have risen to it. I'd have risen up out of my chair and walked away and made sure never to talk to that assmunch again. But anyway. Skylar thinks to herself:
Yes, Tom had been well-off. He'd been a partner in a very successful business. But more important he had been a good man and a wonderful father. And trust worthy when I needed him most.
But she doesn't say that. She says
"You have no right to judge me or any decision I've made."
I'm sorry to report that Marcus does just that for about 50-odd more pages.
Later, he tells Skylar that Cody has to be told that Marcus is his father, not Tom, and that Skylar also has to come clean to her family as well. I'm not sure what put the bug up Marcus' ass after 7 years of silence and no bothersome paternity, but he's adamant about it. Skylar, in a moment of clarity, says oh HELL no:
"Telling Cody now will only confuse him and hurt him when he's already upset over Tom's death. Telling him wouldn't be looking out for *his* best interest, only yours…. I won't let you hurt him when you've already proved yourself untrustworthy multiple times."
The words were hateful but they had to be said.
Yeah, no shit, they had to be said. It's because they're true.
Finally she made it to the threshold, but Marcus called out to her one last time.
"I regret what I said to you that day. But you and I both know it will be easy to find an attorney to take my case and argue that you took advantage of my accident and emotional state to keep Cody for yourself."
"You would DO that?" What happened to him wanting her? Caring for her?
"Only if I have to. You either tell your family, or I will. That's a promise."
You know what's the best strategy when talking to the mother of your child, your former girlfriend and someone you profess to care about, trying to convince her that you should be allowed to be part of their lives, even though 7 years ago you threw her pregnant ass out of your life?
Threats and emotional blackmail. Scare the ever living shit out of her that the golden former NFL quarterback is going to take custody from her, or force visitation, or worse. Good Lord. What a fucking dickbag.
So Skylar comes clean to her mom and her assorted siblings/siblings in law, and they're all wonderfully supportive of her decision to marry Tom and give her son a father and a wonderful, though sadly brief, time with a loving set of parents who both wanted him and loved him without limit.
HA. No. Sorry. First they accuse Skylar of keeping Cody's parentage a secret from Marcus, but Skylar, bless her occasionally-appearing spine, corrects them.
"You have to tell him. He has a right to know. Cody's his son and he's missed everything. Cody as a baby. His first words - first steps."
How like her family to lay fault with her rather than someone else….
"Marcus knows." Skylar was more than a bit bitter that her own family immediately assumed the worst about her. "He's always known."
So they go back and forth, with Skylar doing a fine job of defending Tom, their marriage, and her decisions - none of which she really ought to have to defend so stridently - until Skylar's mom, Rissa, and the other assorted nitwits in the room decide that if Skylar tells Cody that Marcus is his father, Cody will stop fantasizing that vampire Tom is coming down from the mountain, and will also stop getting into fights with kids who mock his assertions that vampire dad is a true story.
Surprise! Your dad is this asshole over here in the speedy wheelchair. Hope that fixes your very scary break with reality, kid.
And Marcus, let me tell you, folks, he is just all heart and soul and plaid and fishing lines and tackle boxes and golf shirts and all those other dad things you see in the Hallmark store on Father's Day when he thinks about his reasons for informing Cody of his parentage:
Skylar might claim his reasoning was selfish - maybe it was - but now that he had his life in order, he couldn't help but think he had more to offer Cody than a make-believe vampire. Couldn't she see that?
Skylar herself was difficult for me to sympathize with. Sometime in the past, Skylar dressed in a "Goth" fashion - it's repeated several times that she was "Goth" without any description of what that meant. She's blonde, but I think her hair was dark then, and she wore a lot of makeup, which Skylar says at one point served to hide her pain behind paint or something. I have no idea or concept what they meant by "Goth" except that it was a facade that concealed her misery behind an appearance that she says was outwardly miserable. That, and Skylar comments on her past a lot.
I am not sure if this reveal is a spoiler but I'm hiding it anyway:
Skylar was miserable as a teen because when she was 14, an older man had begun an affair with her, and Skylar's dad found out. He dragged Skylar into the car and drove irresponsibly in a thunderstorm, heading to the older man's house. They wrecked before they got there, and Skylar watched as her father bled to death in the car.
This also: Skylar's fault. Never mind the whole statutory rape thing, child predator thing, or the part where her dad elected to drive too fast and out of control of himself in a storm.
The Goth part of Skylar's backstory really bothered me, as several characters including Skylar herself make sweeping statements about how dressing in a "Goth" fashion is somehow immature, playacting or false pretense. I found that so judgmental and diminishing, particularly of Skylar as a character because she works with teens:
She'd worked hard to put the past behind her, but seeing Marcus dredged it all up again, and she hated how it made her feel. Panicky and sick and dark inside. Angry. In an instant, she was transported to the Goth teen she'd been, the one who had hidden behind a mask of makeup and clothes because she couldn't handle the problems in her life. Even if she'd created those problems herself.
Skylar also makes a few broad statements against recommendations from child therapists that Cody ought to be receiving medication to help his fixation on his dead father, saying "before she began feeding her child chemicals, she had to try removing him from everything and focus on him one-on-one." Again, judgmental - and dismissive. Especially because on the next page, after Skylar rejects the idea of feeding Cody chemicals, Cody starts exclaiming that the mountains in Montana are perfect because his father the vampire will be able to live in the mountains and find Cody and Skylar at the ranch so easily. Terrifically creepy, that Cody, until later, when he turns into a level 4 Plot Moppet™.
Skylar carries a lot of guilt with her, and her mother and Marcus are both determined through much of the first half of the book to pile on more. Marcus decides that Cody should be informed that Marcus is Skylar's father, not that bothersome dead man who Cody loved a great deal and is mourning in a terribly frightening fashion. Marcus also decides that he should determine the time table for telling Cody the truth, despite Skylar's insistence that Cody is fragile right now (no shit - he plays vampire with Batman and Robin action figures and tells other children without hesitation that his dad is a vampire and he will be too someday) and despite the fact that Marcus has not paid one cent of child support or shown any inclination to learn one thing about Cody's life in the past 7 years. He's the dad and father knows best (Yes, knows best how to alienate me as a reader and behave consistently like a spoiled, self-centered asshole, apparently).
Marcus is also gifted with heroic superlativeness. He's a Heisman-winning NFL quarterback. Then he's paralyzed but no worries - he's an award winning metal sculptor whose latest work is a commission from the state. AND he's one of the fastest wheelchair racers ever, with a local police officer once clocking him by radar at over 45mph. And he slices and dices the heroine's confidence in herself without a thought! What a man.
I thought about stopping in the middle but I wanted to see if Marcus could get back to at least some level of normal human behavior before the end of the story, or if he'd expect Skylar to give up everything about her life back home and stay in Montana with him. Or maybe if Skylar would get on a plane with Cody and leave all these jerkwards behind. Especially her mom, Rissa, who waits until nearly the end of the book to address the way Skylar feels about her father's death and the way Rissa has been looking at her all those years. Rissa also thinks it is totally a good idea to pass judgment on her daughter's marriage to Tom:
"Skylar, what you and Tom had wasn't a marriage, it was a business arrangement."
"It was what we wanted. You don't have to understand anything more than that. Accept it. Tom was wonderful. He was a good man and a better father and he deserved the life he dreamed of but couldn't have for fear of a biological child developing his disease."
"I understand that but, even if Marcus didn't want to be in Cody's life, did you ever stop to think about Ben? He's my friend, and how am I supposed to look him in the face knowing you've kept his great-grandson from him all these years? Robbed him of Cody?"
It wasn't Skylar who did that. It was Marcus. But Marcus can for whatever odd reason Do No Wrong.
"I know." That was one of the things that had always made her feel guilty.
WHY? BLAME MARCUS. It is his fault! HE made the decision to reject her. But no, better that Rissa be reassured than forced to confront her own prejudice again.
"You have no reason to feel guilty. If Marcus had wanted to tell Ben the truth, he could have at any time."
"How could he? Anything he said would destroy the life you'd created. You think Marcus would have done that to you?"
"You act as though Marcus is totally innocent in this…."
"No, Skylar. I know Marcus has his flaws but I also know, deep down, he loved you like nothing I've ever seen before. You tied his hands because the only way he could have his son was by revealing your deceit with Tom."
If Marcus had beat the shit out of Skylar, would they be having this conversation? Probably.
"And that brings us right back to how he cheated on me."
Thank God Skylar remembers. Everyone else, including Marcus, seems to forget. Marcus is totally hung up on the fact that Skylar married someone else, but conveniently forgets that he stuck his dick in someone he'd just met hours after Skylar broke up with him, AND that he'd had other relationships since Skylar moved to New York.
"Was that Marcus showing his love for me? Oh, but wait, you're on the 'we'd broken up' side of the debate. You supported him then, too."
"Oh, Skylar. I'm not taking sides. But if I was? I'm on Cody's. That little boy needs help to cope with what's happened to him."
"You mean, to deal with what happened because I married Tom…."
"You knew he was dying. How am I supposed to overlook that? You had to know losing the only father he'd known would be devastating."
"Yes. I did I married a man who loved and supported us when Cody's biological father wouldn't even acknowledge us. I don't regret it. Cody is hurting now because he had seven wonderful years with a man who was a great father, who loved him unconditionally, which is more than Marcus had ever offered. You're blaming me, and even Tom, but what about Marcus? He knew, Mom, and he chose to do nothing."
"If you had only waited, given Marcus time -"
"What are you saying? You would rather I had waited around in the hope that he might change his mind? What about my self-respect? Dignity? Mom, are you serious?"
At this point, I wanted the next scene to be of Skylar packing their things and going home. Then Rissa lets this exit her mouth:
"I'm saying, had you not been so hasty, maybe Cody wouldn't have the problems he has.
Excuse me while I go 0_o.
So if you're keeping score: Skylar's relationship with her family: her fault. Marcus being paralyzed: her fault. Her current misery and grief: her own fault. Aaaaaand Cody's fixation that a vampire version of his late father is going to come be with him? Totally Skylar's fault. It's the Carquest Super8 Guacamole Guilt-o-Rama Reinforcement-of-Emotionally-Manipulative-Gender-Roles Bowl game: Skylar: 4, Marcus: 0.
I remain totally confused how I was supposed to sympathize with Marcus, or Skylar's mother. Maybe I was meant to see them as villains, or figures who were prominent parts of Skylar's past, a past she needs to overcome while also finding ways to have happy relationships with both? I don't see how that would be possible with her mother, especially after her mother tells Skylar that Cody's problems are all her fault (despite Skylar otherwise being a pretty strong, compassionate, and understanding mom) AND after Skylar learns that the story of her teenage years is now used by her mother and other women as a cautionary tale to the teenagers who live on the ranch.
I have no idea how I was supposed to sympathize or understand any of them. I just hated them, and never got to the point where I thought there was anything or anyone there worth Skylar's giving up her life in New York and staying in Montana.
But there is one scene I really liked. Skylar's mom, Rissa, remarried to a very firm man named Jonas. Skylar has a relatively good relationship with Jonas, and Cody admires Jonas greatly. Jonas is a sheriff, and something of a quiet badass. When he finds out from Rissa that Marcus knew Skylar was pregnant, but rejected her and refused to man up to his responsibilities to her or to Cody, he gets really, really pissed. AND IT IS AWESOME.
…there was only one reason for Jonas Taggert to visit.
He tried to brace himself, knowing this conversation would go nearly as smoothly as the one with his grandfather. Marcus positioned himself by the design desk and waited for Jonas to enter….
Jonas's gaze was cold as he stalked toward Marcus. A man on a mission. When he stopped in front of Marcus and grabbed hold of his shirt, it wasn't hard to guess what was coming.
"Yes, sir. She told me. And I sent her away."
Jonas drew his arm back. Marcus made no attempt to block the blow, even though Jonas gave him plenty of time to do so. The punch to the jaw lobbed Marcus' head hard to the right and his wheelchair rocked up on one wheel. He saw stars for a second, then blinked his eyes to clear them.
If this was on video, I'd have a LiveJournal icon of that scene on endless loop. I'd Photoshop Skylar taking a swing at Marcus, too. A few of them. He was such a cowardly, whiny, gutless, unflinchingly cruel asshole. Especially when he talks to Skylar later and she sees the bruise on his face:
He watched as she continued to stare at the bruise with an expression of remorse, and wondered if there had ever been a time when he didn't want her.
When you had the bar chick in your bed, maybe? Marcus says he told Jonas everything that happened. Skylar says:
"Did you blame me?"
How sad is it that she even asks that?
"No. I cowboyed up and admitted I made a mistake."
ABOUT GODDAM TIME. But then he forgets to stop talking:
"I hope when the time comes, you'll do the same."
WHAT MISTAKE? Marrying someone else? What is with these people who think she was she supposed to sit at home, pregnant and alone, hoping Marcus would cowboy up sooner than seven years after the fact?
I wanted her to make another "mistake" and get herself and Cody into the car and get the hell away from all these assholes. This was one of the few times I read a romance and didn't want the protagonists to have a happy ending. Marcus didn't deserve much of anything, and Skylar was pressured from all sides to give up her life, career and responsibilities in New York to stay with Marcus now that he'd suddenly yanked his head out of his ass and decided to ask her to stay with him. Marcus expects her support when Cody rejects the idea of Marcus being his father and wants nothing to do with him. He lectures Skylar about what she ought to do to help him.
Heh. Yeah. As soon as she gets a check for seven years of child support, sure. She'll get right on that support.
(Sorry, that was my fantasy. That's not what happened.)
Marcus never finds a way to be a better person at key moments. When he learns about the student at Skylar's school who killed himself, his reaction is tepid, and he uses Cody for more emotional blackmail, while wondering why on earth Skylar would put her life, job, students and friends in New York above him, and above her family in Montana. He refuses to see the parallel between himself 8 years prior asking her to skip classes and travel with him to games, and himself in the present telling her to drop her life and move back to Montana because that's what he wanted and thought was best. When he decides that she can fly to Montana every vacation so Marcus can see Cody, she gets angry, and he whines to himself that there's no making that woman happy. Oh, and: "Her work was important, he got that, but there were kids in need everywhere."
What a guy.
What made me the most irate was the subtext. Of course it was acceptable for Marcus to treat her like that, to threaten and scare and coerce and manipulate Skylar. Pick your reason: He's the hero. He's in a wheelchair*. He's the local golden boy many times over. He's a good person who was deceived by some former-Goth strumpet. So much negative past piles up against Skylar's character, and there is not nearly enough redress, aside from Jonas punching Marcus (BEST SCENE EVER) (I totally laughed and read it twice) for anything that Marcus does in the present. The wrongs of the heroine in the past are more important than the shitful behavior of the hero in the present, and I couldn't figure out why.
*The fact that Marcus is in a wheelchair is handled in an interesting balance. There are comments about how much of the ranch and Marcus' home are equipped with handicapped-accessible ramps and access points, and there's a scene where he's driving his van, which has a hydraulic lift to get him in and out. He jokes about how he stares at people's backsides most of the day. But there were also moments where I was confused. The most that is said about Marcus' ability to get himself in and out of the chair is that he "transfers" from one place to another. There's clearly no problem with the scrumpin' and at one point Marcus holds himself on his arms and knees - which made me wonder which muscles in his legs were under his control. There's a scene where he's wearing braces and riding a horse, using the braces to move his ankle to tap the horse's flank. His existence in the wheelchair just … is. It doesn't define him. His chair causes problems and causes other moments of success and potential, and Marcus makes the best of the fact that he's paralyzed. He doesn't whine about it nearly as much as he does about Skylar's marriage.
But as for Marcus himself, he's a dick, and most of the surrounding family members are assholes. Everyone rolls right over Skylar's protests (no pun intended) that she should not abandon her life in New York.
I struggled to answer the question, "Why?"
WHY should she stay, be with Marcus, have a relationship with him and be his wife? He surely didn't earn it. He didn't earn anything except a few more cracks to the jaw.
WHY should she stay and repair her relationship with her mother, a woman who seems determined to remind Skylar of everything she's done wrong, and how morally weak and shameful she is as a person?
WHY is Skylar obligated to take this shit from anyone, biologically related or not?
Because he's the hero and she's the heroine? And this is a romance and his needs and wants are more important than hers? Because the city is bad and the country is good? Because forgiveness is better than holding a grudge, even though holding that grudge might protect you from more emotional abuse in the future? Because doing what's best for your pregnant self is unacceptable when someone "deep down" loves you but can't figure out how to extract his cranium from his own colon and act like he cares?
"Marcus was the father of her child, and right or wrong or screwed up or not, she wouldn't turn him away."
Lines like this, which is during a love scene I might add, underscore Skylar's obligation based on circumstance rather than conduct, and that subtext made me scream at the book. Because of the import of biological family, Skylar is obligated to tolerate, accept, and ultimately embrace people who I found completely awful.
She says at the end of the book, "I'm not a kid anymore. I don't expect the world to revolve around me."
The reinforcement of the idea that it's ok for someone who professes to love you to treat you cruelly is unacceptable, in romance, or anywhere else. Nor is it acceptable to dismiss poor treatment on the part of other people as one's own fault, and a signal of the victim's immaturity. This was not romance, or a happy ending, I could believe in. Unfortunately, the title in this book got it way wrong. Marcus was not a hero, and if he was making anything, he was making an almighty mess.