I’m unapologetic about Nora Roberts being my favorite living author. (Yeah, okay, if I was going to be stranded on a deserted island and could only take one work of fiction, it would be The Lord of the Rings, but I’d be pretty put out over it.)
That doesn’t mean I like all of her books. Some of them simply don’t engage me and a few of them I’ve never been able to get into at all. But on the whole, I trust her. I know there’s a good chance I’m going to like the characters, and be interested enough in their problems to want to come along for the ride. I only buy books I’m reasonably sure I’ll re-read, and I buy all of hers.
My trust in her as a writer comes down to four things:
1. I almost always like her characters, and sometimes I simply fall in love with them. They’re imperfect, but decent and good-hearted. And often funny, even in the midst of murder and mayhem.
2. I said a couple of weeks ago that when a plot doesn’t work for me, it’s usually because the conflict driving the plot feels false, confusing or contrived, and that’s seldom the case with Roberts’ books. Whatever is keeping the hero and heroine apart isn’t going to be something stupid (a secret, a misunderstanding, something that could be solved if they’d only talk to each other) or something that flat-out doesn’t make sense if you look at it too closely.
3. I’m all about relationships, and not just between the two main characters. Roberts’ books tend to have other people in them – best friends, complicated families, friends that have become family – and I wallow in those stories as much as I do the romance.
4. Because her characters are often funny, the books tend toward the lighter in tone, without being silly. Humor is hard, because while I love to laugh, outright comedies seldom amuse me. But witty dialog gets me every time.
All of these things are true to greater and lesser degrees with her books. Dark Witch, the first book in her paranormal trilogy that came out last fall, disappointed me on both the character and conflict fronts, but did have the other relationships. (It’s just unfortunate that the relationship I was most interested in was a platonic one between the heroine and the like-a-brother friend to her, not because I wanted it to be romance, but because it so clearly wasn’t.)
But the new standalone, The Collector, hit every note for me, not just working on all those levels, but doing so superbly. It’s just shot toward the top of my list of Roberts’ books, and may even have unseated Jewels of the Sun as my favorite.
The setup for the story is that Lila, a professional housesitter/YA novelist who amuses herself by spying on people, sees a murder. (à la Rear Window.) The murder was more complicated than it appeared, and one of the people trying to understand it is the hero of the story, Ash.
It’s really more Lila’s story than Ash’s, as she changes the most, but her journey is a believable one. I like her, and why she does the things she does, from the spying, to the nomadic life she leads, to a foolish choice she makes midway through the story, all make sense to me.
But I’m in love with Ash. I’m a flat-out sucker for the loyal older brother who can always be counted on, and Ash, a successful painter, has a lot of siblings – and others – counting on him. Both of his parents have done the marriage/divorce dance a number of times, resulting in such a big family of halves, steps, and related-by-marriage, he keeps track of them on a spreadsheet.
My family’s so complicated I once drew a family tree – on a very big piece of paper – for a roommate, so there’s automatic appeal there for me. (A spreadsheet works much better, I’m thinking, and the paper wouldn’t have to be so large.) But that the factions of Ash’s family aren’t all at war fascinates me further, because so often that’s the knee-jerk story with this kind of setup, and it’s not, here. Not only does Roberts’ story tension not often fail me, it’s seldom found where I expect it to be.
In addition to the family, there are also friends – close friends, of the ‘always count on them to come through’ variety – for both Lila and Ash. There’s a twist there that I won’t spoil, but it left me grinning in delight when I read it.
And the humor? You wouldn’t think a book involving multiple murders, grief, and even a brief torture scene to be light in tone, but this is, at least in places. (Then again, you wouldn’t expect that of a forensic procedural TV show, either, would you?) It’s not laugh out loud slapstick funny – which I wouldn’t enjoy, anyway – so much as dialogue which amuses me, in part because I know that it’s possible to survive stress and tragedy with the ridiculous.
If there’s a weakness to the story, it’s that the villain tends toward the “I’ve been so successful I’m now arrogant to the point of the stupidity” variety, but there’s so much here I love, I can overlook that.
There’s also New York in the summer and a side trip to Florence, both described in Roberts’ rich style; history, Fabergè eggs, a cat named Thomas and a dog named Earl Grey. Plus? One of the characters references the “I love you”/”I know” scene from Return of the Jedi at a critical point – how could my geeky, nerdy self not love that?
“Fictional people are people, too, otherwise why would we care what happens to them?” (Lila)
“When you write, you have to figure out what makes sense.”
“High school werewolves make sense?”
“It doesn’t have to be possible so much as plausible within the world you create.” (Lila and Ash)
“How long have you been married?” Lila wondered.
“And it’s still a song.”
“Every day. Some days, the music is not in tune, but it’s always a song worth singing.”
“That’s the best description of a good marriage I’ve ever heard.” (Lila and Bastone)