I first met Laura Drake when I spoke at the Orange County Chapter of the RWA in California. She was one of a few authors who took me to lunch when I arrived, and she told me at lunch, not at all unkindly, that I scared her – meaning the possibility of a review scared her. I don't think I was wielding a mallet or a knife at the time or anything. She also drove me to the airport the morning I left, and I learned a bit about her on the trip – she's traveled all over the US with her husband on her motorcycle, and when she said she wrote a SuperRomance with a biker heroine, I was totally curious. I didn't tell her this, but I made a note about the book so when she wrote me about a review, I already had it. All this is to say: I've met Laura Drake, she drove me to the airport, and she asked for a review.
Her Road Home is sort of like Doc Hollywood meets SuperRomance – the heroine, Sam, ends up in Widow's Grove, California, when she's in a motorcycle accident on a dark, rainy night, and her bike is towed to a body shop. Sam has a broken collarbone and some big bruises, but she doesn't go to the hospital (which made me so confused initially). She spends the night in a local “motel” which is really a set of rundown cabins near the small town, and in the morning goes to the garage of the mechanic who towed her bike to find out about getting it repaired. The mechanic, Nick, has lived in Widow's Grove most of his life, and is very interested in Sam. Though her bike is a hot mess and needs considerable repair, he offers her the use of his mother's old car, which is a loud and unmistakably garish classic car he lovingly restored. Sam, who is in a good bit of pain and can't walk all over town waiting for her bike to be fixed (and Nick will have to search for parts online from various vendors as her bike is somewhat special) , accepts the offer.
While driving Nick's car, she meets some of the people in Widow's Grove, including Jesse (more on her in a moment), and then stumbles upon a run down half-collapsed Victorian house on a plot of land while driving aimlessly. Sam loves to be on the road, loves to travel – and has ridden her bike from Ohio to California. When she finds this house and falls into insta-love with the property and its potential, she decides to stay as long as it will take her to flip the house and wait for her bike to be fixed. At this point, the reader learns that Sam's late father was in construction, and she's been flipping houses since he died. She sees the Victorian as her next project, and decides that she'll bunk in the house as she restores each part of it, and when the house is done and sold and her bike is fixed, she'll move on.
I liked Sam. I liked that she was tough and vulnerable, and that she had a history that brought her to the present moment of the story that informed many of her decisions. She was a character with depth and layers and I felt more empathy as I learned more about her. The first couple of chapters hint at the abuse she suffered as a child, and the story is very much a journey for Sam while she's for once not traveling anywhere. She stays in Widow's Grove but makes a journey of personal growth and healing that's many years overdue.
The problem is, so much of the story focused on Sam that Nick, the hero, wasn't as fully present and developed as Sam. I wanted more of him, or at least enough that I felt like I knew him a well as I knew her, and I didn't.
An even bigger problem: one word screwed up this whole book for me, and I'm struggling with the idea that one word can compromise my impression of a book, and yet it did.
When I sat down to write this review, I started making a list that outlined the parts of the story I thought about while reading the book, and they work as part of the review, because I'm still not sure how I feel about some of them.
So here are The Things I Thought About During This Book.
Sam keeps referring to herself as a biker chick, except she's not on her bike but for two scenes. It's a shorthand that isn't ultimately meaningful within the context of the story. I didn't fully know what that meant, but everyone in the story did. It seemed to mean she was tough, she was frequently on the road, and she didn't put down roots anywhere. But it seemed like a shorthand term or adjective to describe her more than a part of her character in the body of the story, and ultimately any time she mentioned it, I didn't quite understand why that was an identity she was trying to reinforce at that moment, especially when she didn't worry about it at any other point in her day.
Sam doesn't have a case of Insta-Love, which I am grateful about, but she does have a friendship that develops way too quickly with a woman named Jesse. There's no reason for them to be friends, no shared experience, except that Jesse is the Other Prominent Female in the story initially, and ergo, she must be Sam's Friend. Their relationship jumped from “Sam had a meal or two at the diner that Jesse and her husband own and operate” to “You need to tell me Your Business because We Are Friends, Sam.” I wished I'd seen more scenes developing their friendship in the initial stages, because there seemed to me to be a huge contrast between Sam's reticence to have a relationship with Nick, and Sam's ease at being friends with Jesse. All of Sam's story, especially when it's all revealed by the middle of the book, would point to Sam not easily making friends, but Jesse jumped into BFF mode with Sam way too quickly for me.
Yes, there is totally a makeover. In a mall, of course. With an unwilling Sam who doesn't want a makeover. Biker Girl Gets Makeover – you had to see that coming, right? What I liked a LOT about the makeover scene was that there was a very good and painful reason why Sam didn't want to be pretty or be seen as attractive. She wanted as few people to notice her appearance as possible. So initially I was snarling at the book because I am weary muchly of “She Doesn't Know She's Beautiful” as a heroine cliche. Now, Sam did exhibit some hallmarks of the “She Doesn't Know She's Beautiful” cliche, but then it turned out there were reasons why she didn't cultivate attention or emphasize her looks – many good reasons. So I cut her some slack.
The conflict was a layered lot of layers. A LOT OF LAYERS. There were character issues and past struggles and layers of conflict to work through, including:
- Sam's abuse
- Nick's alcoholism and prison time (which are glossed over, though I can't recall reading an ex-con in a romance in a long while)
- Sam's issues with her abuse
- Sam's grief at her dad's death
- Sam's issues with her dad
- Nick's issues with his past
- Nick's grief over his family's circumstances
- Nick's father's prison sentence.
Only some of these issues are resolved. Almost like there'd be a sequel. But I found I liked that some of the issues were left open so that you didn't know for sure what would happen (I can't spoil the specifics as it happens late in the story). It seemed more real – and by leaving some ending nebulous, the story asked me to to believe that Sam and Nick could handle whatever would happen, and for the most part, I think they'd handle everything ok.
That said, one person torments her (I don't want to spoil who) and it seemed a bit much that this person would attempt to assault her, and she wouldn't ultimately press charges or complain officially at some point later in the story. I wanted that bad person to burn – so my desire for Sam to get help for that person's harassment may have been my own desire for consequences. His actions were so over the top I was surprised that more wasn't made of his actions, or any reactions.
There are also a bundle of teenagers in this story, and I was dreading the introduction of the teens as plot devices. But once the kids show up, I was all in for this story. I was curious and couldn't stop reading. But thing is, even though I liked the story of Sam rehabbing the house, and I liked the stories about the teenagers and the way Sam teaches them, and I liked the way Sam and Nick had similar methods of dealing with unwanted emotion, the romance in this book is secondary to the other parts story. Nick is one of the lesser-developed characters, and there's a lot of autofill backstory and info dump to account for his character. Instead of revealing or developing, he's installed fully-formed. Much less satisfying for me as a reader – especially as Sam is gradually revealed.
And then there was the moment where I nearly lost my shit. And I am honestly not sure what to think of this moment. I have been thinking about this for weeks since I finished this book.
For me, the very worst part was the heroine's casual use of the word “retarded” to describe herself and her frustration with her inability to do something.
In this scene, Sam is berating herself for inviting Nick to dinner, and at herself for not being better able to handle social situations. I'm including as much context here as I can because maybe your impression of this scene will be different than mine.
She turned the corner at the landing and continued up. God knows, she was trying. But trying only made things worse. Every time she failed [spoiler redacted], she put more pressure on herself, with expectations about the next time. Her nerves were starting to feel like overdone bacon.
And she'd invited Nick for dinner tomorrow. She felt like an athlete who trains for the games for years, then, in the most important competition, chokes. Nick may say that he was okay with it, but she wasn't. It was frustrating. She'd get right up to the edge of …something, yet another part of herself was always watching. Always judging.
She felt retarded, failing at something everyone else took for granted. Her last dirty secret.
As if that weren't enough, the thought of leaving Nick was getting harder to imagine. And that frightened her. Well, okay, so it frightened the old Sam. But the today Sam still felt the fear.
The literal definition, according to The Internet:
“Less advanced in mental, physical, or social development than is usual for one's age.”
In this case, that's accurate – Sam is emotionally less developed than is usual of a woman her age. But because of the negativity, stigma and cruelty associated with using the word “retarded” to mean stupid or idiotic, and how painful that word is for people, I was completely shocked by the use of the word “retarded” in this book.
It made me put both my hands in my hair and say “NOOOOOOO” out loud. That word is not ok with me. Not remotely. And because of that scene, I'm having a very hard time deciding how to grade the book as a whole. One word hurt my estimation of the heroine a lot.
I really liked the heroine until the use of the word “retarded” – and I fully understand and empathize with a reader who would find that a complete deal breaker with this book. That's a scene that I'm still struggling with after I finished the book. It tarnished the whole thing for me.
Apart from that one scene, I loved how Sam was confronted with the habits and way of life she thought she needed and was forced to examine whether it was time to change and grow. I appreciated that change and growth were really difficult and painful for her because of the abuse she suffered as a child. (SPOILER and trigger warning: Sam was sexually abused in her childhood by an adult not her father, and manipulated into keeping silent about it).
The story so closely follows Sam that the romance seemed so secondary and the hero so underdeveloped in comparison, it might sound like this isn't a romance, but it is. The possibilities of her relationship with Nick are in part what cause her to confront her painful past and the habits she's created to cope with her memories. Nick doesn't save the day – Sam kicks her own ass and kicks ass on her own, which is one of the reasons I loved reading about her. I still wanted more of Nick, though.
So including the scene that stopped me cold, I give this book a C. Without it, and with more of the hero, it would have been a higher grade, but I can't get past that one scene, plus the lack of development of the hero. I know it seems harsh to grade a book lower based on one scene, but wow, did that one scene leave an impression on me.