Recently author Inez Kelley was tweeting about lumberjacks and men who work in forestry and the way these men blend extreme physical strength with life-and-death dangerous jobs. Think military heroes except instead of enemies, the danger comes from trees falling on you, or on parts of you. I was intrigued by what she'd said and luckily remembered that I already had a copy of this book. I read it in one long marathon and really enjoyed it. I didn't lift out of the story every few minutes to do something else, which is usually a sign that a book isn't grabbing my whole brain with awesomeness. I was totally into this book until the ending, which let me down.
Take Me Home blended the intensity of working in tree removal and harvesting, the small community of a very small town in West Virginia, and an emotional hook that I thought was very interesting and, for me, effective. The problem is, one character keeping a secret is a difficult balance in a romance novel. The more I thought about it, the more the hero's behavior didn't make sense, and once I got to the end, the heroine's behavior didn't match my expectations, either.
Oops – almost forgot the summary. Matt Shaw works in forestry (I think I'm using the terms right) for a firm that harvests timber. When he's sent to examine the trees on a large parcel of land, he realizes that it's the land his family owned until his parents lost it, forcing Matt and his sister into a period of homelessness when he was a boy. He'd tried to buy it from the bank, but someone had outbid him – and that someone was asking for a quote from his firm for tree removal. Kayla Edwards runs an organic spice and baking mix company from the house she had built on the property, and has no knowledge of Matt's history with the land. She is very interested in Matt, however, and he's just as interested in her. But he doesn't want to tell her the real reason he knows so much about her property.
First, here is what the story did so well: I had so much empathy for the hero. His inner conflict was partly based on the shame and long term humiliation he felt because of his family's poverty. He was angry that his family was evicted from the land they'd owned for generations due to foreclosure. He was angry that his life was harmed in so many ways and he had no power or control to stop it. He was a boy who was old enough to understand what was going on, but not quite old enough to stop it or help fix it. Once his circumstances improved, due to his dropping every activity besides school and working to help pay rent and keep food on the table, he was not willing to forget what he went through, and wasn't willing to talk about it either.
Initially, I found it hard to believe that no one in that entire town knew Matt Shaw's family history enough to speak of it, but I was willing to accept his explanation that most people who knew had moved away, and those that did know weren't going to speak of it because it was unkind to do so. Thus Matt's secret could remain a secret until it was time for The Big Reveal which, for me, sent the book waaay down on the grading scale.
I had the emo tingles, I had the burning eyes – I was totally on Matt's side. And really, he was an impressive hero. He had a substantial knowledge of trees and forestry, and understood both the economic and environmental impact of what his company did. He had all the hot physicality of a lumberjack (though he kept telling Kayla that he wasn't actually a lumberjack, which didn't stop her from calling him that) with the muscles and the corded forearms. But Matt had sizeable brains behind it (which…really, that's my favorite type of hero because smart guys are so hot). Muscles are nice but, for me, brain cells are muuuuuch better.
Matt's determination to rebuild his life has been successful. He was one of the more senior men in the firm, he had responsibility of and supervision over teams of other people in the firm, and he took his job seriously. The other characters who worked with him demonstrated respect for him that he'd clearly earned, and his story was fascinating, really. Like I said, I had a lot of empathy for his desire to keep his family's history and his childhood poverty a secret. No one knew, aside from his sister. The experience affected him and shaped his character in ways that were a permanent element to his personality, most notably the shame he felt. He didn't want to share that with anyone.
The problem is, the longer a secret is kept in a story, the more important and potentially damaging it has to be to sustain the tension. If the secret that will come between the characters isn't large enough to sustain tension, the one keeping the secret looks like an idiot for doing so. If the secret is too big, it jeopardizes the future of the pair, because it compromises the stability of their relationship in some way and makes their permanent happy ever after less likely.
Initially, Matt's secret was big because he thought it was, not because it actually was. In his mind it was an all-consuming shame, and he thought if Kayla knew it, she'd treat him differently. First he kept quiet because she was a client, then because she was important to him and he didn't want her to know he'd been lying by omission, and he didn't want her to look at him differently.
I swear, you'd think that if romance heroes had a kryptonite, it would be “pity in her eyes.” No! Not that! Anything but that!!!
The thing is, I believed that in Matt's perspective, his secret was too big to share. I understood his reasons for not wanting anyone, including Kayla, to know about it. But the longer he kept his family's history with her land from her, the more it became about preserving a lie and less about preserving the way she looks at him. The longer he kept his secret about his history with her property, the more that secret became about deceiving Kayla, and not about his pride.
Unfortunately, once the secret came out, Kayla reacted in a really trite and contrived manner. (It's hard to discuss the ending and why it didn't work for me without spoiling it, so I'm whiting it out here.) Conveniently, she had a history of people using their connection to her to get what they wanted – and conveniently the stories of Kayla's experience with being used come to the surface in time for Matt to suppress his desire to tell her about her land. But once Kayle understands that Matt's family owned the land, and that Matt had grown up on that property, she immediately jumps to conclusions that he was using her, too. He must have been using her to get it back.
Except she doesn't know that he bid on it when she was buying it, and he hasn't really articulated a desire to own the land. He hasn't told her what she should do, or acted as if the place was his and not hers. He's consistently respectful of her ownership, and sees the land more with regret and nostalgia, not entitlement. For her to assign all these motivations of greed and deceit to Matt was jarring because none of his actions toward her or about her supported any of her conclusions. I can understand her being mad that he lied and kept that secret to himself, but I also don't get why all of a sudden, this one secret made him the worst man ever in her mind. There was no other instance of him using her to get to something or someone, and in Kayla's history, everyone who had used her had been aiming for her military connections through her father. It didn't make sense to me, no matter how much she protested about her feelings.
Kayla as a character was fascinating. She had some of the quirky stereotypical heroine qualities. For example, she's running her own business out off her kitchen, only instead of cupcakes or cookies it's organic spice blends and baking mixes. She wants a home and a sense of place and permanence because she was a military child who was from all over the world but not one single place more than any other. But despite that desire for a home, she didn't easily make friends, and I respected that development of her character. I do think it was too convenient that she presumed every person who befriended her was going to use her for something (surely she had other relationships in her life that weren't about her connections) but I liked that it wasn't easy and instant for her to have super tight and entirely perfect bff's all over the place. I appreciated the consistency.
I also liked that Kayla was frank about her sexuality and her desire for Matt. She made it very clear she was interested in him, and there was no reason for her not to be. She wasn't sure if the desire was reciprocated, but she communicates clearly that she's into Matt, and as their relationship progresses, she's equally communicative about her sexual desires, too. I liked that about her a great deal.
But as I said, once Matt's secret was revealed, the consistency and tightness of the story and the characters unraveled for me. I didn't like that the heroine immediately presumed that Matt was using her without any specific evidence to support that conclusion. There was also a period of time at the end that's jumped over in a way that made it difficult for me to tell how much time had passed between OH SHIT and I'M SORRY.
I wish the ending had been better and I wish the resolution to the conflict had been more honest and accurate in the characters' behavior. It was so terrific right up until the big reveal of Matt's secret – and that makes this book difficult to grade. I liked so much about it – except the resolution. A large part of this story introduced new and unique elements from the setting (rural West Virginia! Aw yeah!!!) to the inner conflict (his history with poverty) (no exclamantion points for that, obviously) to the Matt's profession (logging, forestry, harvesting and overall land stewardship for thousands of acres of forest) that even though the ending was predictable and disappointing, I'm looking forward to the next book in this community. So this gets a C+ for me, though I am already setting calendar reminders to go find the next book in Kelley's Country Roads West Virginia series, because there's a great number of elements that I like already, and I want to read the rest.