I edit two sections of reviews: SF/fantasy/horror and romance/erotica. Both cover a lot of ground, and while my tastes are pretty broad and I deliberately read widely, I have particular favorite subgenres. One of the big challenges for me, when Best Books time comes around, is finding a selection of books that represent both my own tastes and the best of what those very large and diverse categories have to offer in a given year.
I admit I especially struggle with this when it comes to contemporary romance. Without fantasy worldbuilding or pretty historical clothes to distract me, the flaws in characters are often glaring. A lot of contemporary romance is set in small towns; I love big cities. A lot of contemporary romance doesn’t question or actively embraces elements of modern life that I have real problems with, such as heteronormativity, entrenched gender roles, and veneration of the military, while neglecting elements of modern life that I appreciate and enjoy, such as diversity of various kinds. Given this, every year I’m a bit trepidatious when I approach the contemporary romances that my reviewers have singled out as worthy of extra attention.
At a glance, Marilyn Pappano’s A Hero to Come Home To is the opposite of anything I’d ever read voluntarily. It’s a contemporary het romance set in a small Oklahoma town, and it’s got a strong military focus. But a closer look reveals some elements that caught my interest. The main characters are an army sergeant’s widow and a paratrooper who’s had a leg amputated; that suggests the author is taking a genuinely nuanced approach to the realities of military life, despite the blithe use of “hero” in the title. Also, I’ve both grieved the death of a partner and spent ten years coping with an intermittent physical disability. If Pappano could handle those issues well, I thought, this might be a book I’d find worth reading. I sat down and gave it a try.
By the end of it I was choked up with emotion. It’s extremely rare for a book to make me cry–I don’t remember the last one that did–but this came close.
Carly’s widowhood is handled really well. Her grief for her deceased husband, Jeff, is real, and so is her newfound passion for Dane. While contrasts are inevitably drawn between the two men, Pappano does a brilliant job of making them both worthy of Carly’s love. Dane is the one who feels like he doesn’t measure up to “perfect” Jeff, while Carly is happy to see Dane as “perfect” in his own way. I’ve read far too many romances where a past or deceased partner had to be tarnished in some way so that the hero could be The One; it gets tiresome, and isn’t true to life. Pappano doesn’t make that mistake. Carly has The Two, and that’s presented as entirely right and appropriate.
Dane’s efforts to adapt to one-legged life are likewise described in ways that rang true to me. He oscillates between trying to pretend he can still do everything he used to do and grudgingly admitting that he can’t. A lot of Dane’s self-image and self-esteem are wrapped up in physical ability, as were all his plans for work after leaving the military. He’s having to rebuild his life and psyche from the ground up. And since a prosthesis lets him walk around and otherwise hide the extent of his injury, he struggles with how and whether to reveal the truth to Carly–a revelation that carries an enormous weight of possible rejection, like any other coming-out. But whenever Dane risks becoming too obsessed with his own struggles, his growing affection for Carly helps him remember that there’s more to life than injury and recovery.
Pappano develops a full cast, laying the groundwork for future books while bringing the town of Tallgrass to life. It’s not at all a stereotypical small town, either. The bustling downtown area feels like a place where even this city kid would be happy to spend a few days. There’s plenty of racial diversity. Carly spends Tuesday evenings hanging out with other military widows, each of whom will presumably get her own second chance at love; a military widower, whose wife died after sustaining combat injuries, hangs around the outskirts of the group and wonders whether the ladies would welcome him. There are grieving widows and angry widows and secretly relieved widows, childless widows and a pregnant widow (a Russian woman who enjoys being fussed over by her Mexican husband’s family) and a widow raising her husband’s children from his first marriage, people living with children or parents or siblings or alone. There are well-off characters and poor characters, townies and ranchers, churchgoers and agnostics, alcoholics and non-drinkers, good-natured people and prickly people.
I was glad to see frank discussion of the toll that military service takes on servicemembers and their families, but would have liked mention of the toll that the American military takes on the inhabitants of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some openly gay characters would be terrific too. But while Pappano is clearly willing to push the boundaries of contemporary romance, she also has to take the mores of her readers into consideration. Much as this isn’t a typical book for me, I’m pretty sure that a queer New York City liberal who skipped high school classes to march in anti-war protests is not a typical reader for this book. And for writing this good–for emotions so vivid and real that they really do bring tears to my eyes–I’m willing to meet her halfway.
When I closed the book I found myself eager to spend more time with Carly’s crowd, even though I have very little in common with them. They’re all so lovable. Perhaps that’s because, in Pappano’s world, everyone is worthy of love. And isn’t that what romance novels are all about?
A review copy of the sequel, A Man to Hold on To, arrived at my office yesterday. I immediately grabbed it and took it home and devoured it. Not only has Pappano written a contemporary small-town military romance that I like, but she’s done it so well that the entire series is now on my must-read-right-away list. There’s no question that A Hero to Come Home To is one of 2013′s best books.