Sunday, July 31, 2011

Vision in White by Nora Roberts

Vision in White by Nora Roberts, 2009

Then she laid her pocket-warmed hands on his cheeks, brushed her lips to his in a light, friendly, close to sisterly kiss.

He blanked. He moved before he thought, acted before he checked. He took her shoulders, pulled her in--pressed her back to the door as he took the simple brush of lips into the long and the dark.

What he'd imagined at seventeen plunged into reality at thirty. The taste of her, the
feel. That moment of lips and tongue, and the heat rising in her blood. In the quiet of snowfall, that elemental hush, the sound of her breath sighing out broke in his mind like thunder.

A storm gathering.
--- (page 53)

I think I've mentioned on this blog my general lack of interest in the romance genre. It's just always seemed like a bit of a waste of time to me. Boy meets girl (or pirate meets duchess, or cowboy meets heiress), boy and girl go through small relationship crisis, boy and girl make babies into the sunset. Snooze. There aren't a lot of romance writers who have a reputation for sparkling prose or great characters, either. As a whole, I've always looked at romance novels as a cut above your average picture book in terms of quality and maturity.

But since I'm nothing if not curious, I figured a book by Nora Roberts would be worth a shot (being stuck at a weekend at the beach with literally no other choices may have contributed, too). Roberts is one of the few romance writers that has a reputation for being a little more than a one-dimensional bodice-ripper. Her "In Death" series is quite highly acclaimed by crime fans and even her conventional romances have not been poorly received by critics. So I went in to Vision in White with a slightly open mind, but still fully ready to scoff, eye-roll and snort.

I was actually surprised. Even though it's still very much a "romance," Vision is also disarmingly sweet, surprisingly sexy and even, dare I say it, a little bit smart. The air of maudlin, fantasy-wish-fulfillment that I expected is mostly--okay, somewhat--missing; there's a level of maturity and nuance present that I definitely didn't expect.

Mackensie "Mac" Elliot grew up with an absent father and a self-absorbed mother, giving her a deathly fear of romantic commitment. Despite her own personal struggles with love, she is a photographer in the wedding planning firm she runs with her friends (they all live together on a Connecticut estate, in a piece of ridiculous but mildly enchanting fantasy). When she bumps into soft-spoken English teacher Carter Maguire, Mac falls head over heels, even though her first instinct is to head for the hills. And yep, you can probably guess what happens next.

There's no real plot, per se. This is a story about basically good people who love and support each other and want each other to be happy (with one notable exception). There is almost no real conflict or major drama. It is the story of a smooth and successful courtship, and it makes no apologies for itself. If you want plot, find something else.

What makes something this fundamentally silly work is Roberts' writing, which is surprisingly good: lean, funny, fast, with strong dialogue. The dialogue is seriously quite good, sharp, natural and even witty. The characters all have their own distinctive patterns; no mush-mouthed automatons here, which is honestly what I was waiting for.

Characterization is the key to making a novel like Vision succeed, and Roberts gives us two appealing, well-rounded protagonists in Mac and Carter. Their interactions are a skillful blend of lifelike and impossibly romantic. Realistic enough to be believable and relatable, overblown enough to be an exciting escape. Even though there are the requisite passionate kisses, smoldering looks and steamy sex scenes, I was impressed at the actual amount of content in Mac and Carter's relationship. Roberts works hard to establish a real, mature connection between the pair that extends beyond dewy glances and sexual tension.

The book is without a doubt an engine that drives the two of them together, and by definition it's contrived. I'm not letting Roberts off the hook for some notably overdone passages of drama (the "butterfly picture" motif is a recurring annoyance). The supporting characters don't exactly jump off the page-- and Carter's coworker Bob doesn't speak or act like any human being I've ever encountered. And there's not much going on under the surface of the story, either.

But Vision in White works. Roberts does what she does well; she's somehow convincing. She's not trying to write a novel with something important or unusual to say, she's not trying to create enduring characters. She's trying to bewitch her readers into believing--if only for an instant--in fate, true love, happily ever after, and all that good stuff. She's an accomplished enough writer to pull it off, too.

NEXT UP: John le Carré's classic spy novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

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