[We have a new column wherein our newest contributor Trisha reviews romance novels to see whether they have any broader cultural, feminist, or sexual import. Enjoy! -ed]
You know how sometimes two teenagers fall in love and make plans to get married and have a bunch of kids? And then one of them goes to college, but they stay together because they love each other so much? And then they spend 12 years apart because of a terrible misunderstanding about a horrific assault? Yeah, me neither. But this book by Maya Banks is about just that.
Type: Dark contemporary romance with elements of mental/paranormal phenomenon, third in the Slow Burn trilogy.
The couple: Zack Covington, a former football player turned badass security professional, whose constant brooding comes as a result of the fact that he’s haunted by the disappearance 12 years ago of the love of his life; and Anna-Grace/Gracie, said love of Zack’s life. Gracie is an artist with serious PTSD whose understanding of the events that separated her and Zack is VERY different from Zack’s. And not in a “hilarity ensures” way.
Tropes: Serious family issues, serious alpha-maleness, and serious victimization of ladies, leading to damsels in serious distress.
The story: Boy meets orphan girl. Boy falls in love with orphan girl (and vice versa). Boy goes off to college and visits girl on weekends until one day she disappears. For 12 years, boy searches for girl and pines for girl and is devastated by loss of girl (and when he has some extra time after searching, pining, and being devastated, plays in the NFL for a couple of years and then joins a badass Houston security firm). A coincidental convergence of factors bring the boy and girl (now a man and woman) back together, but the girl is terrified of the boy and wants nothing to do with him. Lots of introspective internal monologues ensue (like, really, a stupid amount of introspective internal monologues are in this book). And then in the last 50 pages or so, there’s a big deal violent action sequence between good guys and bad guys. And everyone lives happily ever after. Well, not the bad guys. Duh. This book is bizarre, but it’s still a romance novel.
How’s the sex? It’s weird, you guys. Not like, kinky weird – Maya Banks has written that kind of weird (which was actually more fun), but that’s not what’s going on here. It’s “let’s wait until we’re married even though we’re 30 years old” weird. It’s “there’s so much pressure because this is the first time even though we’ve known each other for a decade and a half” weird. There’s emotional crying and a long white nightgown. Perhaps you’ll find the romance. I found it weird.
Is this book for you? I actually spent a lot of the time I was reading this book trying to figure out who this book is for. I like an alpha male as much as the next lady, and I completely get the damsel in distress – sometimes serious distress – trope can be an appealing part of this genre. And I’m certainly not going to pretend, in a romance novel review column, that I’m judging anyone for using fiction as a safe space to tap into whatever sorts of experiences s/he likes.
But I gotta believe you can do all that with a book that’s better than this one. In fact, I think you can do it with a Maya Banks book. Every one in this series. In His Keeping, the second book in this trilogy, isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely better.
Throughout Safe At Last, the “men know best” nature of the storyline gets tiresome. From ignoring the wishes of a female assault victim to the men issuing directives on what the women in the story can and can’t do, the rules and standards throughout the book were significantly different for men and women. Banks seems to know it and attempts to kind of address it by including an impressive female security operative and by throwing in a Girl Power scene near the climax of the book. But it’s not enough to counterbalance the unsettling victimization of (only) women and the paternalism masquerading as protectiveness. When the women in the story finally do what they want, it’s not because the men saw reason or – God forbid – trust in the strength of their female partners. It’s because the men quite literally couldn’t stop them.
But even if that tone doesn’t bother you, the pacing of this book is very uneven. Banks starts fast, establishing her key points within just a few pages: 1) Zack is still shattered by the disappearance of Gracie over a decade before; and 2) parents more than just don’t understand, they are the literal fucking worst. Over the course of the next 100 pages or so, you’re so wrapped up in figuring out who did what to whom that the action and mystery carry you along at a fairly quick clip. But eventually you realize the mysteries are solved and only the misunderstandings remain, and the book starts to drag as it gets stuck in a swamp of internal monologues.
Banks kind of makes up for the slow, repetitive middle with an action sequence at the end, but I think readers who haven’t read the other books will find that the fight scene comes out of nowhere and will be confused. Those readers should feel free to take some consolation in the fact that I have read the other books and I was also pretty confused by the last quarter of the story. Like, how did Wade get Ramie and Ari to the safe house without anyone on the supposedly top-notch security team figuring it out? But I digress.
Conclusion: Even if this book didn’t un-ironically include the line “All I had that was precious to me was my virginity,” the flawed pacing and never-ending self-examination had me walking away from it on multiple occasions. You could do better both in this subgenre and from this author.