By Maureen Corrigan
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, July 13, 2009
By Nora Roberts
Putnam. 472 pp. $26.95
It doesn't much matter what I say about this new Nora Roberts novel; most of the adult female population of the planet is going to read it anyway. It's a staggering understatement to say that Roberts is review-proof. There are more than 300 million copies of her books in print, and she's written 160 bestsellers, 39 of which have debuted at No. 1. So let's step away from Roberts and her books for a moment and, instead, consider me.
I'm the fall guy here -- the stooge who's been assigned to review "Black Hills" -- and whatever I say about Roberts is going to affect me a heck of a lot more than it's going to affect her. If I pan the novel, I come off as a snooty-pants literature professor, and I'll be deluged by e-mails from her ticked-off fans. If I gush over it, I'll be suspected of trying too hard to be just a regular gal, a self-conscious populist, like Sen. John Kerry on the campaign trail back in 2004, ordering a better class of cheese on his Philly cheese steak.
So here I am, caught between a rock and a hard place. Roberts's feisty heroines are often stuck in this kind of fix at the climax of her tales just before a deus ex machina in the form of Mother Nature or a hunky guy drops in to rescue them. That's why women read Nora Roberts: to live out vicariously the fantasies that real life doesn't provide. Well, I'm going to live out a personal fantasy for a moment and pretend that it's still the Golden Age of Critics: Mencken, Parker, Woollcott, Wilson -- witty gatekeepers of culture who said what they thought without fear of the backlash of the booboisie or the demagogy of the Internet.
I'm going to say what I think straight out: "Black Hills" is synthetic mind candy. It's not even very satisfying synthetic mind candy, like, for instance, Clive Cussler in his prime or Patricia Wentworth's soothing Maud Silver mysteries. Roberts could probably do better than a novel that, chapter by chapter, feeds her readers the top 100 female fantasies: (1) a rock-'em/sock-'em romantic partner who also takes out the garbage the minute he's asked; (2) a French lover; (3) lustrous hair that keeps its shape even when a serial killer is looking to scalp its owner; (4) a rollicking shopping spree with the girls, followed by a spa day the following week; (5) a fierce wild animal (in this case, a cougar) that, inexplicably, forms a loving bond with the heroine. Need I continue?
In addition to cougars, there are horses, a tiger, hapless hikers and a serial killer on the loose in this latest bodice-ripper. Because that's essentially what Roberts writes: romances with a soft patina of suspense. This latest smooch-and-shoot saga spans three decades and many twists of the heart.
It begins in 1989 when 11-year-old Cooper Sullivan is dispatched from his home in New York City by his rich, divorcing parents to spend the summer in South Dakota with his salt-of-the-earth maternal grandparents. Down on the farm, Cooper is bored by what Karl Marx called "the idiocy of rural life" until he meets a tomboy named Lil Chance who pitches a mean fastball.
Cooper returns every summer until, nine years into this ritual, he and Lil decide it's time to play a more serious game than baseball. Camping together out in the wild, they mate like glorious young bobcats. ("You're like . . . gold dust all over," pants Cooper adoringly when he undresses Lil for the first time.) Their Edenic camp-out ends abruptly when, on a lover's ramble amid the wildflowers, the pair discover a young woman's corpse. It seems that the beginning of their love affair has coincided with the beginning of a serial killer's career.
Shortly thereafter, Cooper inexplicably dumps Lil by telling her he needs to prove his manhood to himself, or some such rot. He becomes a New York cop while she sets out to build the wildlife refuge she's always dreamed of. Years pass, and Cooper returns to South Dakota to care for his ailing grandfather. He and Lil circle round each other for about half a second before they're tussling in the sack again, this time at her cozy cabin in the wildlife refuge. Roberts describes their coupling thusly: "Outside one of the cats called out, a wild thing prowling the dark. He took her there, into the dark, and what was wild in her cried out, released in harsh and primitive pleasure." The big cat, however, isn't the only thing prowling in the dark: That pesky serial killer is still around, and he's had Lil in his sights for a long time.
To give Roberts her due, she keeps this fluff aloft for hundreds of pages (partly by repeating the same sex scene every other chapter or so). "Black Hills" isn't much of a suspense story, and the romance is so silly that it isn't even good fantasy fodder, but none of Roberts's fans will give a hoot. For beyond any of the fantasies her individual novels heat up and serve, it's the tale of Roberts herself -- her transformation from an average mom to a Dickensian lean-and-mean writing machine who maintains her down-to-earth, saucy persona in the face of stupendous success -- that offers the most satisfying fantasy of all. That's a tale that Roberts fans, as well as her critics, can agree to applaud.
Corrigan, book critic for the NPR program "Fresh Air," teaches a course in detective fiction at Georgetown University.