[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]
Welcome to Virgin River, where the cell phones don’t work, the dress code is almost entirely denim, and the exercise regime consists of chopping wood every morning – after you’ve made your woman a cup of coffee.
Type: Contemporary adult romance.
The couple: Jack Sheridan, a retired Marine and bar owner, whose perfection almost defies even romance novel bounds; and Melinda “Mel” Monroe, a midwife and nurse practitioner, whose tremendous self-sacrifice includes going weeks – weeks! – without getting her hair highlighted.
Tropes: Remote small town, woman running from her past, military hero, damsel in distress.
The story: Mel moves from LA after answering an ad to work in a clinic in Virgin River, CA because, after probably reading lots of romance novels, she has determined it’s the best way to handle her grief following the murder of her perfect doctor husband. Upon arriving in Virgin River, she realizes she’s made a terrible mistake – it’s dark (at night), it’s raining (in northern California) and there are birds living in the oven of the cabin she was promised for lodging (which admittedly is gross). She’s determined to turn right around and head back to LA (becoming the first person in history to ever think things will be better in LA). But just as she’s about to leave, she finds an abandoned newborn baby who needs her care. And also… there’s Jack. Jack, the retired-after-20-years Marine who built, owns, and runs the local bar/serves as caretaker of the town. Jack, the charming man’s man who is an expert in both shooting guns and holding babies (but not at the same time). Jack, who struggles with post-traumatic stress but still washes his clothes with fabric softener. Oh, and he can fish. There’s kind of a lot of fishing.
How’s the sex? Worshipful. No, really. Mel is still grieving and Jack is impossibly patient (perfect, remember?), so by the time they consummate the relationship (they seem like the kinds of people who would use the word “consummate”), they’re in love and full of tender emotion. Also, as a fun bonus, since this is a romance novel, Jack in no way performs like a guy who’s been waiting months to have sex.
Is this book for you? Well, it’s for lots of people. Robyn Carr has sold millions of books. Virgin River, originally published in 2007, could be considered modern day romance cannon. Carr is a good writer, and she respects her audience – she never makes the mistake that some others do in assuming that just because her readers like romance, they don’t know when the writing is shitty.
The book walks a very tricky line in embracing both very traditional gender roles and also smart, skilled, self-sufficient women. The gender roles can be a little jarring, including in an honest-to-god scene where the men are all gathered around a Hummer and the women are elsewhere talking about babies. The men also refer to their significant others as their “women.” As in “(your friend) tried to kill a woman last night…You have twenty-four hours to move out. That woman was my woman. I’m going to look for you and if I can find you, you haven’t moved far enough.”
At the same time, Jack is unceasingly respectful and supportive of Mel. There’s never any question that he loves her, and that he likes her. The fantasy that connects with women in this book may not be the multiple-orgasm sex scene, but rather how Jack happily accepts all of the baggage of Mel’s past, actively supports her in a career that’s important to her, and adores her all the more when she asserts her independence and completely disregards his guidance to steer clear of legitimately dangerous situations.
One note of caution: if you have pregnancy stress dreams, don’t read this book. Characters in the book joke that there’s something in the water in Virgin River, but the number of unexpected pregnancies in this town is no fucking joke (pun intended). Everyone Virgin River gets pregnant, usually the first time they have sex in Virgin River. The only people who like pregnant ladies more than Robyn Carr are the fictional men of Virgin River who’ve accidentally knocked them up.
Conclusion: Virgin River reads like a late 90s country ballad: it’s cheesy, there are lots of trucks and back roads, and a magical love somehow conquers all. But it’s also well written, charming and sweet, and it lets you live for awhile in a quiet, simple fantasyland that can be hard to find outside of George Straight songs and small town romance novels. For those of us who like our flannel worn non-ironically, Virgin River is an excellent place for a little escapism.