>> Monday, January 23, 2012
Shying away from commitment, Jenna Fallon has only one rule in life: to ignore the rules. So when her car breaks down en route to Vancouver and she's forced to hitch a ride with a sexy stranger, she's thrilled to discover they share the same no-holds-barred views...As a globe-trotting marine biologist, Mark Chambers is used to changing locations - and women. Yet as he and Jenna make their way up the Pacific coast, camping, skinny dipping, and having scorching hot sex, Mark's not so sure he wants to say goodbye. But is Jenna brave enough to meet the challenge of a man who may be perfect for her?This series, by Susan Fox/Lyons, has been one of my best discoveries this past year. The link is three sisters travelling home to their youngest sister's wedding and finding love in the process, in planes, trains and automobiles. Fun premise, but the wonderful thing about the books is that Fox takes full advantage of the prolonged proximity inherent in a road romance, and gives us heroes and heroines who actually talk to each other. By the end of each book, I was completely convinced that the couple in question would make it and that they were perfect for each other.
The other brilliant thing about this particular book in the series is that it features a heroine unlike any other I've read in romance novels. Jenna is a true free spirit, and not a ditz. As the book starts, she's just spent a few months on one of the many projects she's been interested in over the years -in this case, volunteering in a project to count peregrine falcons- and is on the way home. But then her beloved ancient car breaks down, and she lacks the money to fix it. Of course, she could phone home and borrow some money, but that would generate yet another 'I-told-you-so' from her family. Fortunately, she just happens to meet a man heading the same way in a camper van, and ends up hitching a ride.
That man is marine biologist Dr. Mark Chambers, and at first sight, he couldn't be more different from Jenna. He grew up with a hippy mother who raised him in a really crappy commune. It wasn't the kind of commune where children are raised by a whole village; it was one where the adults selfishly concentrated on their own pleasure and the children weren't raised at all. Not a very safe or happy environment, so when Mark's mother died and he went back to his very strict, traditional grandparents, he relished the structure in the new life, and has become very much like them, rigid and inflexible. His first impression of Jenna is that she's just like his mother, and he's therefore not particularly well-disposed towards her.
But the great thing about this book is that it's soon quite clear that while Jenna and Mark are superficially opposites, they actually share very similar outlooks and want lives for themselves that aren't at all incompatible. They discover this organically, through long conversations, and each encourages the other to have a good, critical look at their preconceptions. Both change during this book, but in healthy way, which means that they are still in essence the same person at the end, only better.
I especially appreciated that Fox doesn't take sides here. Not one way of being is pushed as being better than the other. With Jenna, for instance, it was clear that Fox wasn't saying that there's any thing wrong with being unconventional. Jenna is not made into a cookie-cutter heroine, even at the end. Her big issue is commitment-phobia, and the more extreme elements of this can be traced to a traumatic relationship in her youth, but this doesn't mean falling in love with Mark means she's "cured" and now wants a white picket fence and a 9-to-5 job. Nope, Jenna is still as much of a free spirit at the end as she was at the beginning, she's just learnt that committing to something doesn't have to mean loss of freedom, as long as you choose a person to commit to who wants the same kind of life that you do. She's still Jenna, and Mark is still Mark, even as he learns to appreciate life more and to accept other people.
In addition to a fantastic romance, His, Unexpectedly also provides excellent family drama. Jenna's relationship with her family is quite a fraught one. There's a great deal of both love and pain, there, showing perfectly well that those you love are the ones that can hurt you the most. This family of overachievers needs to appreciate their daughter, who feels that whatever she does, her judgment is questioned and any mistake (unavoidable, for an adventurous person such as Jenna) is seen as a character flaw. They need to learn that what Jenna does is also valuable, and this is what her relationship with Mark gives to Jenna, that self-knowledge. It was especially satisfying that we've seen over the entire series that Jenna is not the only one to feel that way, and matters come to a real head in this book.
This is a deceptively deep, meaty book, as it's also very fun and sexy at the same time. The big emotions kind of sneak up on you, and it made me choke up much more than supposedly "tragic" books do.
MY GRADE: An A-.
PS - Having just finished my review, I went to have a look at the one at AAR, and the reviewer mentions that the big flaw for her was the structure, with alternating chapters being written in 1st person, from Jenna's POV, and 3rd person, from Mark's. So I probably should mention this, in case anyone has got any hang-ups about it. It's not something that bothered me in the least -actually, I quite liked it, myself!