Lisa Kleypas is probably the only romance writer who makes me want to fling a book across the room in frustration. Only because you know she is so, so, so much better than this. And it's probably why Kleypas reviews are the only ones I am compelled to write on Amazon to vent my frustration.
I'd been keeping 'Rainshadow Road' as a litmus test. Having been progressively disappointed with her Hathaway series, I was somewhat relieved when the Travis brothers' series renewed some of her formidable writing skills, but the Friday Harbor series has been nothing short of deadly dull. I wasn't able to figure why it was so with the first book, but I thought, oh well, it may have been an off-book, like an off-moment, every writer is allowed to have some. But no, this entire series is actually an ode to San Juan Island and the beauty of the Washington state in northwestern US, with some minor interesting characters thrown in. There is none of Kleypas' previously marvelous grip over conflict, character and that wonderful compulsion with her lovers.
The summary itself is complicated - Lucy has always had issues with her sister Alice, but when Lucy's boyfriend Kevin breaks up with her, confessing he cheated on her with Alice, the sisters' relationship also fragments almost irreversibly. Lucy then meets Sam Nolan, San Juan vineyard owner and perennial bachelor who it seems is famous for his commitment issues. Sam and Lucy are attracted to each other, but before either of them gets anything more than a kiss, Sam is asked by Kevin to ask Lucy out, as a sort of 'loosen-her-up' deal as a favour to Kevin. For his own convenience, Sam agrees but also tells Lucy he was asked this. Lucy then has an accident that leaves her conveniently helpless and of course, Sam is the only person willing to take care of her and this also makes for a convenient live-in situation to allow them to hook up. You already get a flavor of how contrived the conflict is here.
The problem as I see it with both the Friday Harbor books are the protagonists. There is no spark, no sense of control over themselves or their lives. Lucy is slightly better than Maggie in this, but she's still for some reason strangely passive to what's unfolding in her life. The only passion we really see with Lucy is with her work - she is a glass artist, a talented and sought after one at that. But this is where Kleypas adds in too much spice to confound the plot - Lucy has a strange magical alchemy to creating her glasswork, a sort of mystical control making shards and fragments literally come alive. I mean, literally, as in one scene, black painted shards turn into bat-like creatures to attack Kevin. Not surprisingly, Sam also has some strange magical power of growing his vines. Of course, this should tell us they are perfect for each other, but it doesn't quite convince. And for some reason, Lucy remains passive all the way through to the climax not even making a final stand till Sam has his say.
Sam Nolan, like the other Nolan brothers, is convinced that because of his family background (they had alcoholic, abusive parents), Nolans are not meant to do relationships. Apparently, that's a family inheritance - all of them have been screwed up in exactly the same way by their parents and believe that they just do not have it to sustain a healthy relationship with women. This is already inexplicable to me, weirdly accepting and unresistant and very unappealing in romance heroes. Compare them with any of Kleypas' past heroes - Zachary Bronson or Marcus Westcliff or even Alex Raiford. They all came from disturbed families or bitter previous relationships, yet there is a determination when they meet their women, a compulsion, a craving if you will, to win them over. It doesn't matter how damaged he is, what matters is that Zachary knows he feels about Holly, and he is willing to do whatever it takes to make it work. Alex Raiford risks losing his reputation and his fortune for Lily. And Marcus, Earl of Westcliff, after some of the most vicious and indifferent parenting resolves to be as different from his father as possible. All these historical heroes have agency, a power over their decisions to be better than where they came from.
The Friday Harbor brothers - Mark, Sam and it seems Alex too - completely fail in this regard. I don't care how modern civilised men usually are in real life, in a romance novel, they are an ideal that we wish our men to be - and the Nolan brothers are not it. Not even after they fall in love.
And this brings me to the the crux, the love story. Since Lucy is nursing some very sore feelings, and Sam, for whatever inexplicable reason, is attracted to Lucy, they make a pact to have a no-strings-attached sex. And maybe I'm just being picky, but I used to love Kleypas' love scenes - that scene in 'Devil in Winter' when Sebastian puts the ring back on Evie's finger and every barrier they'd put up inside themselves simply cracks,, it all comes alive with the sex, and Kleypas had executed it magnificently. These scenes are just tepid in comparison. And as the relationship progresses, and clearly the feelings are getting more intense, neither Sam nor Lucy is willing to admit to the other that they're starting to change their mind, that this is different and it's like nothing they've shared with anyone before. Even in 'Smooth Talking Stranger' the first thing Jack tells Ella is, "I've never had better". And yet Lucy and Sam withhold, dance an elaborate way out of the intensity, and each successive scene just drags it out to the point you're just disgusted with both of them.
Apart from the characters, I also think Kleypas' intentions with this series are meddling with her writing. I get the feeling she's trying to veer off to a different readership, with more modern, relatable characters. That's all fine, but part of the charm of romance is the alpha male cloaked under the beta veneer. Good examples of these are the Travis brothers - both Gage and Jack are only superficially 'civilised', underneath they are still dominant and challenging of any threat to their authority, especially to their feelings. But with the Nolan brothers, it seems like Kleypas is trying to show the evolved damaged man - Sam Nolan is no Marcus Westcliff in the forcefulness of his personality. But there is also none of that self-knowledge that allows him to recognize that rare special someone who's walked into his life.
I also think part of my disappointment has to do with the wishy-washy prior relationships that both Sam and Lucy have had, and it's disappointing to think that Lucy who seems to be intelligent and self-aware would ever fall for someone like Kevin. Combine that with the fact that Lucy jumps into a loveless sexathon with Sam mere weeks after Kevin dumps her also makes me think less of her - not for having sex, hurray for good-looking guys and great orgasms - but for taking her world-weary cynicism about charming men but simply using Sam to blunt her emotional intensity regarding Kevin and Alice. Where is the rage? Where is the passion?
Also, Sam is not a good representation of a geek. I don't know of any geeky womanizers, and I hang around a lot of geeks. Most of the time they just don't know how to get women at all.
So yes, overall, I have decided I'm not going to bother with 'Dream Lake' - Alex Nolan's story that I KNOW is going to be a letdown, simply because he's the most damaged (and more significantly, very recently damaged) of the Nolans and has already headed towards the alcoholic way of dealing with things. But even more so, I'm convinced Lisa's characters are no longer the men and women I want to read about (there's a point where Alex asks Sam if he can stay at his place longer as his ex-wife is putting him through hell, and Sam GRUDGINGLY agrees - I'm sorry, but if my brother were in living hell, there is no room for grudging support and that made me detest Sam intensely, especially with his, "We're Nolans, this is what we do" crap). And these characters' happy endings leave me very un-hopeful about the state of modern romance, real or fictional.
Give me Derek Craven and Sara Fielding any day.