Book Review

Her Road Home by Laura Drake

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Title: Her Road Home
Author: Laura Drake
Publication Info: Harlequin 2013
ISBN: 9780373718702
Genre: Contemporary Romance

 Book Her Road HomeI 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.


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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Alex says:

    Oh wow. That word is not ok. I’m not surprised you had such a problem with it.

    Presumably the author of this book and the editing team didn’t have an issue with it, or is it more acceptable in certain places to use it? I only ask because I was beta reading for a US author and there were a couple of words she used that made my UK sensibilities sit up and go “You CANNOT say that.”

  2. 2
    Diana says:

    I have no problem with that word, in fact I am surprised at the vehemence you reacted with.

    But perhaps that’s because I’m not a native English speaker, and where I live, it’s not perceived as a slur. It’s rather a mental disease, or used as the definition you posted. Or like a funny-ha-ha thing about oneself, “I’m so retarded, I messed up my interview!”

    I will remember this though, under the “Americans’ Politically Correct Stuff” label in my brain, so that I’ll never use the word in casual conversations :)

  3. 3
    Cate Hulk says:

    I so get your shock at that. Even if the author meant it in the dictionary sense of the word, you cant separate that from how we heard and said it as kids. Ugh. Words. I read a book recently in which the heroine refers to another character as a slut, and had such a hard time getting past it even though the rest of the book was flipping great!

  4. 4
    Anne says:

    Count me in the anti-R-word club. I’m surprised it made it through the editing process.

    All my life I had only used this word as an insult, and that’s mainly how I heard it used.  Now I have a son who is intellectually disabled (Ok, I’ll admit it’s taking me a while to get used to that new term.  When he was younger he was “develpmentally delayed”  Using ID instead is hard to get used to, both because it sounds made up and it’s admitting this is a permanent state for him.) 

    ANYWAY.  Not too many years ago “Mentally Retarded” was still the term being used, and I’ll tell you, the first time I saw it on a piece of paper with my sons name on it, it was like a stab.  I mean, I knew that was the proper term, but the meaning…  I mean, every other time I’d used it, it had been about a moment of temporary stupidity.  Here is was applied to my sweet little boy who was trying his hardest every darn day.  It wasn’t a bad choice for him, it was something he had to work with every single day. That was a wake up call for me, and it was when I stopped using it as slang.

  5. 5

    It’s not an okay word for me but taking the devil’s advocate position—did it fit with the character for her to say it? If it did then okay for me it’s fine for me to read it and be disgusted that the character isn’t more evolved as a human so that she knows better. If it were author exposition then I think it would bother me more.

  6. 6
    Mary says:

    Using that word as an insult-like you don’t understand something, you must be retarded, I find deeply troubling. For me, it’s on the same level as using “gay” as an insult. It’s not political correctness-it’s just deeply offensive.
    There are people who are actually intellectually disabled and years ago, retarded was an acceptable clinical term. And in that context it was perfectly non-offensive. But then people started using it as a casual insult-which insults people who genuinely have conditions they can’t help more than it insults whatever temporary moment of stupidity you are having. So I do not find that word acceptable at all. Just like I don’t find calling something “so gay” to be acceptable.

  7. 7
    Jen G. says:

    I’m always surprised at the people (native English speakers) who think that word is okay to use as an insult.  I was interested in reading this book up to the point when you said it was casually used.

  8. 8
    Elyse says:

    That word is a big trigger for me, partially because I used to work with developmentally disabled adults, and partially because my hubby, who is dyslexic, was tormented with that word as a child (this was before LD, DD and ED were separated in schools). Even years later after graduating from college and going on to a successful career, that word raises his hackles.

    I get why people use it interchangeablely with “dumb” and don’t mean any harm, but it has such a stigma to it.

    I remember our DD consumers being called that when they’d go for pizza or bowling (“look at that group of retards” “f’ing retard is holding up the line” etc). It hurt them and angered me.

    I’m assuming its ignorance on the author’s part but i’m shocked it wasn’t caught in editing.

  9. 9
    Kelly S says:

    I’m a little reluctant to admit that I didn’t have any issue with the use of the word retarded and I’m a bit surprised by the strong reaction expressed here.  I am with Diana on this except I grew up in the U.S. and am a native English speaker.  I am way more bothered by Sam being sexually abused as a child and forced to keep quiet about it.  It strikes me with that in her past, she is more suffering from self-abuse than being politically incorrect or intentionally mean or derogatory.

  10. 10
    Rei says:

    NO NO NO that word is not okay, and I am angry at the editor that let it slide, although possibly not as shocked as I would be in an ideal world. I am a native English speaker (British, for what it’s worth) and have had a number of arguments with people who are determined to hang on to their ableist slur to the very. bitter. end.

    In a perfect world, that would be an appropriate use of the r-word, just like you can describe a plant as retarded in its growth. But we don’t live in a perfect world, we live in a world where non-neurotypical people have been stereotyped and mistreated for generations, and users of the English language need to remember that.

    Okay. Sorry. Rant over.

  11. 11
    Faellie says:

    I spent a decade or two in the public service, and lost count of the hours of equalities/awareness training that I got.  There are many people who have had none, not because they are bad people but because that is the way their lives have gone.  It behoves me to recognise that difference.

    In this case you have an abused, socially isolated, construction working and motorbike riding young woman, of unknown educational background, who has probably internalised the abuse she has received and who refers to herself in a derogatory and politically incorrect way.  Not a big surprise, frankly, and from my privileged position I might want to say to her “that’s not on, even when referring to yourself – and why would you think that of yourself?”, but I wouldn’t say “I condemn you and want nothing more to do with you”.

    It could have been a tin-eared author who didn’t know what she was doing, but on the evidence presented in Sarah’s review, I don’t feel able to make that judgement.

  12. 12
    Emily A. says:

    You would think as someone with disabilities I would be more offended and yet somehow I am not. I am struggling with my reaction here. I kind of want to read this book, because I disagree with you.

    She was referring to herself. I think it would be offensive for me if she was using to hurt someone else or belittle them, etc.

    One problem I have in life is a tendency to belittle myself. I know the feeling that the author was going for. I think for me I know a lot of women who when something goes wrong start picking on themselves. I see this as less of politic incorrect funniness and more of self-abuse. I think when people abuse themselves they often use language that is not nice. If she were having self-esteem issues to the number of guys she slept and she called her self a slut or whore. Those are also offensive terms, and I would not want her to describe herself that way, and I feel like it’s to show she is so hard and abusive towards herself.

    I would offended by the word in almost in any other context would offend me, but not in this one. The nastiness associated with the word adds to the way the author characterizes her horrible issues with self-abuse. It shows how deeply she believes she is flawed and it’s a very painful situation.

    I am not sure I would want to read this, because it seems like a book that deals with a lot of pain.  It reminds of Unclaimed for example, where I felt the heroine had such self-hatred issues, and they just seemed to get worse.  I didn’t enjoy that book (as for other reasons) and I am not sure I would enjoy this one.

  13. 13
    Meggrs says:

    I completely agree that using “retarded” as a slur is entirely unacceptable. But the author was using the word, it seems to me, in the very literal dictionary context. Sam felt “less advanced in her development compared to others.” I totally get that it’s a trigger word. I absolutely do, and everyone has a right to feel that its use is unacceptable.

    But in this case, and not knowing the discussions that may have taken place between the author and her editors and publishers, I feel like using an un-PC word in its literal—and correct—context, without its ugly connotations, is a very interesting choice. Interesting, because it’s likely SOMEONE connected with the book put the brakes on at some stage of development, and because discussion likely ensued of the possibilities of offending readers.

    This is not to say that SBSarah’s visceral reaction is wrong, by the way, or that she should revise her opinion of the book. I would love to hear from the author or someone else in the know what kind of discussion did or didn’t go into this usage.

  14. 14
    TrishB says:

    Can we get rid of the whole concept of “politically correct?” Not sure, but I think Neil Gaiman is an author who suggested we use the term “courteous,” and see how that might work instead. Since I generally enjoy NOT pissing off other folks, that description works quite well for me.

  15. 15
    E says:

    I don’t have a problem with her use of the word. I know I didn’t notice it when I read the story. To me, the word used was its correct meaning. She was using it to describe herself in her own mind and how she felt about herself. And even in her thoughts she wasn’t really using it in a derogatory sense, but rather thinking that she lags behind in her social and emotional development which was very true for this character.

    There are so many things that will set people off and I understand that it can bother some, but I absolutely despise the idea that one should censor their characters and their thoughts so as not to offend others. If nothing else because using it in its correct context can help move it from the lexicon from a slur back to its original more neutral use.

  16. 16

    There is a big time lag between when the author wrote this book and when it reached readers. Years, probably. And in that time, the public perception about what words were acceptable in what contexts changed, of course.

    Personally, I had a scene in the book I recently sold to Carina that when I reread during edits made me cringe over how the world—and my own perceptions of what was acceptable and what was hurtful—had changed in the three years since I first wrote it. It was a scene where the hero deliberately pretended to be homosexual to be “undercover”. Ack. When I reread it after attending celebrations for Washington’s equal marriage laws, and reading all the gay and lesbian wedding announcements in the New York Times, it was like a lightbulb went off: This is not funny. It’s hurtful. Maybe it was funny in 2009 (maybe not) but by 2013 it was so not in tune with my personal understanding of the world, that I just ripped that whole aspect out. (Shocked that I had personal growth in my 40s, but it can still happen.)

    It’s possible that Laura Drake wrote this scene a few years ago before the majority of people became widely aware that even if you weren’t using the word “retard” as an insult to others, but just to refer to yourself, that was likewise legitimately hurtful and unacceptable to many listeners/readers. Then, that one word could slip through edits – it happens. I suspect that if the author wrote it today, in late 2013, after President Obama apologized for his comment about his bowling, etc, then she probably wouldn’t write it. But she didn’t actually write this book today – she wrote it in the past. Probably two or three years ago.

    So, I ‘m not saying it’s okay. And I think Sarah’s reaction is totally valid – that’s the point of this blog as a whole, at its heart, to validate individual reactions to books for everyone’s personal reasons, diverse as they may be. And valid reader offended reactions are why I ripped a gay-face scene out my book, after all. But I’ll grant Laura Drake the benefit of the doubt b/c public perceptions sometimes swing too quickly for print publishing to keep up with, and she wasn’t using the word as an intentional put-down/insult, but as self-flagellation, whichever meaning she intended. I don’t think her manner of use became recognized as hurtful by most people at the same time as use of the word as an insult did. 

    What would Sarah give the book if it hadn’t had the jarring use of “retarded?” A B+? 

    Captcha ‘myself51’ – yep, 51 ways I can beat up on myself too.

  17. 17
    SB Sarah says:

    @Anna Richland:

    I was bothered by the lack of development of the hero’s character in contrast with the slow and excellent revelations about the heroine, and the way the romance often played a distant secondary role to the story of the book, so probably a B-. But I think Drake is a very strong writer with an excellent sense of how to reveal a character’s backstory and personal baggage slowly so there isn’t this big Dump of Backstory Drama in chapters 1 or 2.

    And I agree- likely the scene was written awhile back, and I don’t hold any one person responsible for the fact that the word was there and more importantly that I reacted to it. But I did, and it affected my evaluation of the book, and I hope my review made that clear.

    @E:

    You wrote:

    I absolutely despise the idea that one should censor their characters and their thoughts so as not to offend others. If nothing else because using it in its correct context can help move it from the lexicon from a slur back to its original more neutral use.

    I completely understand what you’re saying, though I disagree. I don’t expect people to censor their writing so as not to offend me personally, but I do expect the people involved in a book to know when a word carries multiple or offensive meanings, such as the word “retarded.”

    I don’t think words can easily move back into neutral use through regular employment, either—not once they’ve been used to really hurt people. I think words that were previously offensive become less so after they become antiquated, fall out of the vernacular altogether, or are reclaimed by the group of people originally targeted by the slur.

     

  18. 18
    Kim says:

    It also sounds like it isn’t in keeping with her character—I’m just going off the review here, but she sounds like a street-smart, thoughtful, and intelligent person. And even if Drake wasn’t intentionally using the word in its insulting context, I can totally commiserate with having one word or scene turn me off to a book.

    I have to say I really disagree with the idea that it’s okay because she’s not insulting anyone but herself. It IS insulting other people. It’s dehumanizing—it’s using a derogatory term to imply that being like a group of people (the DD) is different, negative, and undesirable.

    I’ve thought it’s been widely known that that was an uncool term to use for at least ten or fifteen years—it was certainly an insult or mocking word rather than a neutral description back when I was in high school, in the early 2000s. (“PC” often seems to me like another way to say historically aware.)

  19. 19

    One thing is interesting in the world of ebooks – I imagine that with a bit of push, the author could probably have the word changed/removed from the ebook file. It’s not impossible.

    Also, I too don’t like the insulting aspects – I was sort of on the devil’s advocate position, b/c I have struggled with things along those lines in my own writing. For instance, I have a character in a novella who thinks/interacts w/a minority character from a bit of a stereotypical viewpoint, I think. The character grows and changes – but I do sort of wonder. I haven’t reread that novella in a while, so I think I need to give it another look. But I suppose there’s a difference b/c in my case the racial differences are part of the plot and lead to growth, whereas in this it seems like the word ‘retarded’ isn’t necessary or could be replaced with ‘stunted’ or ‘teenage’ or something.

    Upshot: I think I’ll read this book, after all this discussion!

  20. 20
    Charon says:

    Interesting… I wouldn’t have noticed this word as anything special. “Retarded” and “retard” were in very common use when I was a kid (I’m in my early 30s, grew up on the US West Coast), and I always figured I didn’t hear that used much anymore because, you know, we grew up and stopped using childish insults.

    I probably use the word every now and then to describe myself when frustrated. I do believe in listening to the experiences of other people, for whom some words have radically different connotations than they do for me, but at the end of the day, you will insult someone no matter what you do.

    I mean, “idiot”, “imbecile”, and “moron” were once used as medical classifications in the not terribly distant past. Are all those words anathema from Satan’s loins the way “retarded” is to you?

    P.S. On the plus side, I’m totally delighted to discover the phrase “euphemism treadmill” while researching this :)

  21. 21
    KRGrille says:

    I completely get that some words are considered offensive or act as trigger words for some people. However, sometimes you (the general you, not you specifically) need to take a step back and take a clinical view. In this context she is using the word accurately to describe how she feels regarding her development compared to others. It is a perfectly acceptable use of the word in that context.

    If she had used the word as an insult to another person, THAT would be offensive. I don’t agree that that is the case here.

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