You know how you can really like a book and enjoy it a LOT despite seeing all of the flaws? That's how I am with this book. I could explain the flaws for about an hour and fifty minutes, but I'd still end every sentence with – “…but I liked it.” None of the flaws were OH HELL NO jerk-me-out-of-the-story problems, and while I bet they'd drive some readers bonkers, I was happy to accept they were there and move on.
This was comfort reading for me: no one was going to sneak up with a giant stuffed ostrich of angst and beat me over the head with it until I was weepy and covered with feathers. There were people with problems and people who were problems but I liked reading and visiting with all these people. There was some romance but mostly exploration of the people in the town, sort of a blend of what would be called “Women's fiction” (urgh) with a sidecar of romance.
Here are the things you need to know about this book – and please imagine me saying, “I liked this, really.” I've rewritten this a few times because it sounded too negative and jeez, I really did like it. But I think I need to communicate the things that someone might not like about the book, so here goes.
1. The hero and heroine don't meet or even speak until nearly the halfway point. I was about 40%+ into the story and realized I'd been following the hero around and even though I'd met the heroine, she was ancillary to the story until midway through. To say this romance develops slowly is a bit of an understatement.
2. There isn't a main story. There's a main… four or five stories? There's Cooper and Sarah, whose relationship carries with it a low-level tension: Sarah is hurt from her divorce and wants something temporary and enjoyable. Cooper, who has told everyone twice and six times that he's a drifter, and he isn't planning on staying anywhere for long, is perfect for this. He's a nice guy, he's honorable, he's very good to her and to her brother, and he's mellow and undemanding of her. Cooper, of course, knows that he is supposed to help Sarah keep things light and easily detachable but because this is a romance (sort of) and they are the hero and heroine (sort of), things aren't exactly working to plan (of course), and he's trying harder to keep himself detachable, because he really, really, really digs Sarah.
Sarah's cool. She's a helicopter rescue pilot for the Coast Guard who is getting over a painful divorce. Her parents died when she was younger, and she took custody of her younger brother, Landon, who was for a time placed in an abusive relative's home. She's been raising her brother, though she's not that much older than he is, and doing her best to advance her career in the Coast Guard. Her divorce hurts them both, as her husband had been important in her brother's life as a father figure, but Sarah's determined to do her best for Landon. I wish the reader had seen more of Sara doing pilot rescues. There's two scenes of rescuing, and a mention of a handful of others, but that was a huge part of her life and her ambition, and I wish I could have seen more of it, more of her job and her responsibilities to the Coast Guard – and how the Coast Guard fits into the town.
Landon is a football superstar. There are parts of this story that are very much like Friday Night Lights with the focus on high school football and the fascinating and danger of sports being so important to the whole community – one of the characters compares their lives to the show. Landon is also, at times, the most well-adjusted 16 year old boy you've ever met, but it didn't strike me as false or impossible, because he had to grow up faster than most. He's aware of his sister's determination to give him a good life, and he's aware that he can't take that for granted. The ways in which Sarah and Landon watch out for one another were lovely. In fact, Cooper and Landon meet first – long before Cooper meets Sarah.
Cooper, the sort-of hero, is also a helicopter pilot (SURPRISE!) who has worked in the Army and then for oil companies shuttling men to the drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. He's hung up his piloting for a time, and drives around with a camper trailer attached to his truck, able to live wherever he is.
The impetus for his arrival in Thunder Point is the death of his friend Ben, with whom he'd served in the Army. Ben lived out in a shack/house over the beach in Thunder Point, and, prior to the start of the story, had fallen down some stairs under mysterious circumstances and died. Cooper gets word that Ben's left him something, so he goes out to find out what it is, and to pay his last respects to his friend by being where Ben was. Cooper alternates between accepting Ben's death and being shaken by it – and really, nothing affects these characters too deeply in my estimation. Everything and mostly everyone is very mellow in the drizzly, foggy, soft-focus world of Thunder Point.
When Cooper arrives, he learns Ben left him his estate. As in, the property, the shack, and the beach (which one angry reviewer says is impossible, as beaches in Oregon by state law are all public), all of which amount to some very valuable coastline property that would be of interest to many, many people, including the town real estate agent – who, to my great disappointment, is subject to some casual slut shaming by other characters, as if her being sexually assertive was indication that she was a crappy human being. She might have been a crappy human being but liking sex a lot was not the reason why. That was the source of my one major bummer about this story. The other women of the town look down on Ray Anne for being ambitious and for her promiscuity, though during the course of the book I don't see or hear of her hooking up with anyone. That whole element to the story was a major bummer, though it did give me this bit of hilarity:
“Like Ray Anne, in jeans so tight it was a miracle she could stoop or squat, heels with the jeans, leather vest over red silk blouse, cleavage and mistletoe in her hair. Talk about obvious.”
OMG. She has CLEAVAGE in her HAIR?! Ok, I get it now. She's the worstest of the worst in her tight jeans and hair cleavage.
(Note: that may have been corrected in the final version but that doesn't mean I love that missing comma any less.)
Anyway, despite Ray Anne's occasional efforts to convince Cooper to sell the property (and use her as the agent) Cooper is shocked by his windfall, but the shack is barely inhabitable. After Ben died, the bait shack was left alone, and all the bait within created a hell of a stink and a mess. Plus the structure has problems. And some mold? Either way, it was gross and Cooper lives in his trailer.
Cooper decides to fix it up as best he can (with what money he has) and sell it. I was never sure why he made that decision but it gave him an excuse to stay in town, which he wanted to do anyway and hello, convenient, albeit expensive, reason. Cooper first meets Mac, the town sheriff or cop or something. He's The Law. Cooper meets Gina, who works in the diner and is a young single mom (she got pregnant at 15 and lives with her mom raising her now-teenage daughter). Mac has several kids, some of whom are hardly seen, and his wife left him awhile back, too. Mac also lives with his aunt raising the kids, and so Gina, Mac, Carrie, and Lou (I think I got that right. I should draw up a chart. I need one), often hang out as a group. Gina and Mac are the subject of the late-June book The Newcomer because sequel bait.
So even though there were characters I didn't always keep straight, and everything was soft focus and the emotions sometimes less sharp than I thought, I liked this book every time I picked it up. It is difficult to write a review and explain the things that I know will drive some contemporary romance fans bonkers, because it sounds as if they drove me bonkers, too. But aside from the other characters' treatment of Ray Anne, I didn't mind any of it. I liked the town, I liked all the people, I liked the simplicity and easy welcome of the book when I had to stop and start reading later. I liked visiting each time I read. I think that drew people to the Virgin River series, too, the sense of visiting a lovely place with relatively lovely people.
There's also gentle humor and characters who don't take themselves too seriously (I like that a lot). There was one rather hot sex scene that surprised the hell out of me – and the conversation afterword made me laugh.
The biggest problem some readers might have with this book is that there are about six different plot ropes – like, huge plot ropes, the kind you'd workout with and hate every minute of it – and they all get a lot of attention. There are a lot of words used to carry those plot ropes forward. So the book can feel dense and slow moving and wait, wasn't there supposed to be a romance? One chapter works on developing one rope of story, then put that down because we're going to work on this other rather large story rope and wait, put that down, here's another, and around again we go.
It's sort of like playing The SIMS when you're really good at it. You have about six different families to visit and hang out with, and they're all doing things, so you hop from house to house to see what they're doing, and then go to the next one. Keeping up with all the different stories takes some patience and attention, but it's not difficult because there is a similarity to the characters. They are either new to town or residents, older or younger (there's often two generations living together), content or dissatisfied (sequel bait?), good or bad. There are clear and unmistakably crappy humans who serve as antagonists, but even that menace is softened, like everything is recorded with Vaseline on the lens and the Touched by an Angel backlight. They are real, the problems they all face, but they're not piercing painful. Plus, Carr is very good at developing people and place at the same time, so characters appear in context much of the time – Gina at the diner, Mac doing something Law-Related, Lou at home with the kids, etc. – and as the reader learns the place, the characters that come with it are equally memorable.
There aren't a lot of high emotions and OMGWTFNO moments, though there are a few, and when those few happen, they aren't remarked upon or picked up again for a few chapters. In some novels, if there was a confrontation between two adversaries, for example, every character might talk about it, remark on the significance of it, pass the story along like gossip or intel, signaling to the reader that that was a Major Event in the lives of the characters and in the plot. In this book, it's a big deal to the characters, and they're aware that they need to be wary of their antagonist, but it's not the only thing the other characters talk about or even think about until it's time to address that issue again. I found I liked that, the lack of hammering of the importance of a big moment of antagonism, because it seemed more realistic. It might be problem #2 in the mind of one of the people in that confrontation, but for that person's acquaintance, it's probably #5 or #10 in their list of things to dwell and worry about.
What the book does well is start off what is clearly going to be a nice long meandering mellow series – much like Virgin River. Jane once said in a podcast, “Nothing bad happens in a Robyn Carr book,” and that's sort of true. Bad stuff does happen – there's bullying, cruelty, asshattery, and a mysterious death before the book begins – but it's not unblinking immersion into agony with the characters. There are some sad people, but they're not drowning in angst and sadness – something I appreciated, though when some of the crimes and mysteries are discussed, I was confused why the characters didn't react in a stronger fashion to what should have been painful or shocking news. Maybe Thunder Point has valium in the water?
It is appropriate that this book is called “The Wanderer” because the story does just that. It wanders. It wanders allllll over the place. Slowly. But, like I said, I didn't mind that at all.
This book is essentially a pilot episode of a series wherein there will be a big ol' cast of characters, and you need to be a little bit invested in each one. That means the reader spends a lot of time with the various characters in different places and the primary romance of the story – and the primary plot of the land, and the beach, and the dude who inherits it – often takes a backset.
A way back seat.
The rear-facing backseat in one of these:
When I was growing up, we called the third row rear-facing seat the “way back” or the “back back.” Sometimes the romance is so far in the back-back it's hanging off the bumper and clinging to the license plate. Sometimes it's in the driver's seat. But it's a long station wagon with a lot of people in it, so there are a lot of people to work through before the romance can get back up front.
So this book is like a bomb surf wagon. It carries all the people, plus their boards, and all their sandy backstory and personal issues.
WHAT. That is a PERFECTLY GOOD METAPHOR.
Though I know it won't be for everyone, I enjoyed the mellow, misty friendliness of Thunder Point, and even though the romance was barely secondary to the story, I liked the community and each of the characters enough that reading it made me content, which is just what I wanted.