Thursday, May 28, 2015

Book Review: Summer of Promise by Amanda Cabot

     So, as I’m doing the Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge, I notice one of the entries is “a book you picked based on the cover”. This is dangerous. This is dangerous, because I tend to be drawn to covers that have pretty dresses on them. In my experience, that generally leads to terrible, frustrating reading times. But, I sucked it up, because I noticed a Kindle deal, and the book had a pretty red Victorian dress on it. I’m fairly certain half of my love of Doctor Who comes from a shared joy of Victorian fashion. The fact that the BBC has all these period drama costumes lying around helps them with that.

"I think they're onto us."

     Anyways, be that as it may, I decided to read Summer of Promise by Amanda Cabot. And, truly, the book started out with some promise. The main character, Abigail, is an Eastern girl, taking a trip out to Fort Laramie to visit her sister, who seemed out of sorts in her letters. An old widow across from her is talking her ear off and trying to set her up with the handsome soldier nearby. But Abigail will have none of that, because she’s almost mostly kind of engaged to a fellow teacher! Kind of. They haven’t made it official yet. See, here is problem number one: not a good knowledge of social mores. If I recall aright, the only times these “understandings” really took place was between wealthy families who were trying to hammer out the details of what sounds like very complex pre-nups. It’s doubtful this kind of hesitation to commitment would happen between two teachers who really only have themselves to please. (I could be completely wrong, but either way, it's being used as a ridiculous drama device.)

     The book really did sound promising, because a stage coach hold up happens! Quick, someone call Sheriff Dillon! The Lone Ranger! CHUCK NORRIS!

     Our soldier boy helps, and he does so by somehow managing to disarm the crook instead of just shooting him, to our heroine’s relief, and the confusion of the audience who are aware that shooting to maim can go very wrong quite easily if you miss. Abigail, it seems has some past trauma involving guns, but we only get bits of pieces of it even though the book is from her perspective.

     She arrives in Fort Laramie, and discovers that the soldier, Lieutenant Ethan Bowles, is friends with her brother-in-law, also a soldier stationed at the fort. However, what begins as a visit to make sure her pregnant sister is all right becomes complicated as she struggles to understand her sister’s tense marriage and tries to help a local “soiled dove” escape her bad circumstances while Ethan begins to realize that someone at the fort is in on the stage coach robberies.

     And see, that sounds genuinely interesting. Abigail could have been an interesting character, and honestly, Amanda Cabot doesn’t do too bad a job drawing her characters and giving them interesting arcs. Abigail is a middle sister and has moved around her whole life. It makes sense that she ignores her own personality in favor of a steady, quiet future. Ethan has been stuck in an emotionally abusive home most of his life. It makes sense that he wants to escape in any way, including through the army.

     But it goes downhill, because Cabot makes a few gaffes that are very hard to ignore.

     First, let’s talk about her handling of emotionally traumatic issues. This is the biggest problem I have with the book, so I’ll get that out of the way. Abigail is depicted as suffering from PTSD. Okay, no, she is said to not like the sound of guns, and to cringe at fireworks. Which makes sense, except that’s all that happens. Cabot doesn’t depict the real emotional problems that would come of this. It seems like she’s reciting a list of “how to have PTSD”. Abigail’s friend was killed in an accident with a gun when she was a child, and that would clearly affect her. It makes sense that she would be traumatized. But the only time it seems real is when the shooting of a rattlesnake in front of her triggers a flashback. It is then gotten over very quickly, and after talking out her troubles, she is fine and Ethan decides to help her overcome severe emotional trauma by teaching her to shoot a gun. Because that helps PTSD, you guys, totally. (Granted, slow exposure to triggers can help, but this wasn't "slow exposure to trigger". This was "HERE HAVE THIS EXPLODEY THING, IT WILL HELP YOU.")

This also happens to be the greatest comic ever written, in case you were wondering.

     This “quick fix to trauma” is carried over to Ethan. Ethan’s back story is that his parents were estranged from his grandfather, who thought Ethan’s father seduced the old man’s daughter for her money. When they both die, Ethan is left with the angry old man, who shows no love or caring for him. When his grandfather dies in the course of the book, Ethan has no real reaction to it, because his emotions toward the man have been dulled by years of abuse. Abigail insists that he must be feeling “shocked and numb” over the death of a loved one, despite already knowing what Ethan went through. It makes absolute sense that Ethan wouldn’t feel any real grief at the death of someone who treated him ill. Yes, we are supposed to forgive others, but sometimes that can take a while. Abigail’s blithe assurance that he’ll feel the grief soon enough is mirrored by the author’s own treatment of the subject.

     Amanda Cabot fixes it all by having Ethan remember that one time his grandfather did something nice for him. It’s okay! He really loved Ethan deep down! That will fix years of emotional and mental abuse, because the abuser wasn’t really that bad of a guy!

I'll just leave this here...

     ABUSE IS NOT EXCUSED BY SAYING THE PERSON DIDN’T MEAN IT. The pain and trauma from it is still there. And oh, while we’re on that…


     Oh, come on, you knew that was going to happen. It’s a Christian romance, they have to have a surprise come to Jesus moment.

     That is part of what magically gets rid of all Ethan’s troubles. He sits up with a poisoned dog trying to purge it of the poison, and prays, and remembers one time his grandfather sat up with him while he was sick, and suddenly it’s all okay. Look, Christ’s love and grace can help with all the problems of fallen humanity. But it’s not a magic pill. You will still have psychological scars that can only heal with time. Your troubles, your temptations, your pain, do not poof away the moment you “get saved”. The struggle against the fallen nature of the world is part of the Christian journey.

     So those are my big problems with the book. The blithe treatment of trauma and bad, bad theology.

     Some smaller problems: Ethan is shown to love Abigail when he gets irrationally jealous over her. And by “irrationally jealous” I mean “another male talked to her, once, and that made him mad”. While this isn’t carried on and on, can romance novels stop trying to claim that irrational jealousy is a sign of love? Look, jealousy can happen within romantic relationships, but when the character gets angry that their love interest is politely talking to someone of the opposite sex, that is silly. We have enough vapid novels doing this regularly. Stop adding to that.

     Also, the villains. The “secret villain” was so obvious from the beginning it was painful. The main antagonist was so two dimensional I expected her to start stroking a fluffy cat and laughing evilly at any moment. She vaguely complains about “men”, or something, but her motivations beyond “MONEY AND EVIL” are never given.

She really likes evil. LIKE, A LOT.

     I will add a positive note. It’s clear that Amanda Cabot does love the Wyoming landscape and has a deep interest in Fort Laramie. The scenic descriptions really pulled me in.

     But the next person who uses the trite phrase “heart as big as Wyoming” needs to be punched in the face. It was old ten years ago. Stop it.

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