Melinda Monroe wanted to escape the stress of her job at a busy and dangerous inner-city hospital in Los Angeles, and more importantly, the pain of loosing her husband nearly a year ago. She responds to a request for a nurse practitioner/midwife for the remote rural town of Virgin River. The pictures she was sent of a quaint little mountain community and a cute cabin that comes with the job have Mel excited about getting a fresh start. Unfortunately, what she discovers upon her arrival is nothing like what was depicted in the photos. The cabin she was promised is filthy and falling down around her ears, and half the buildings in town have been boarded up. To top it all off, the country doctor who supposedly needed help is a stubborn old coot who apparently doesn't want her around. If it weren't for the pouring rain, Mel would have turned around and headed back to L.A. in a heartbeat., but the muddy mountain roads presented a major hazard. Resigned to at least spending the night in Virgin River, she discovers the warmest place in town, both literally and figuratively, is Jack's Bar & Grill.
Jack Sheridan came to Virgin River looking for some good fishing after retiring from the Marine Corps and liked it so much, he ended up staying. Now he runs the town's only eating establishment along with his good friend, Preacher, the best cook around. When Mel comes into his bar looking like a drowned duck, he is immediately taken with her and truly sympathetic about her being duped into coming there to work. Mel had every intention of leaving first thing in the morning, but when a newborn baby is discovered on Doc's porch, the nurse midwife in her simply cannot abandon the infant. Mel insists that she's only staying for a few days until social services can come and take care of the baby. Jack can't help hoping that she will give Virgin River a chance and stay a lot longer, and he's going to do everything in his power to make that happen.
Overall, Virgin River was a pretty good book, but it didn't quite live up to all the hype for me. The actual romance was a little more low-key than I was expecting, and even though the book is categorized as contemporary romance, I thought it bordered on women's fiction. I would estimate that approximately 75%-80% of the story was told from the heroine, Melinda's perspective. There are a few short scenes from the point of view of Ricky, a teenager who is coming of age and learning some important life lessons. The remainder came from the hero, Jack's perspective, but it was such a small percentage of the story overall, that I felt like he got shortchanged. The other thing that makes me say that the book leans toward women's fiction is that the plot is approximately equal parts about Mel overcoming the loss of her husband and all the pain associated with that and learning to move on; Mel's interactions with all the people in Virgin River and the surrounding communities, both as a medical professional and as a friend; and Mel and Jack's friendship that slowly builds into something more. I do enjoy reading stories like this, but I like to know going into it that the romance may not be front and center.
I ended up having very mixed feelings about Melinda as the heroine. There were things about her that I admired, in particular her being a nurse practitioner and midwife who was so completely dedicated to her patients. I loved how delivering babies could put her on a major high, especially in the organic, natural setting of Virgin River without the benefit of high-tech medicine. Her first birthing scene brought back fond memories of my own childbirth experiences, so I could totally relate. Mel was very compassionate and I liked the way she tried to reach out to a group of vagrants who lived in the woods nearby. She was also a gutsy lady to have worked in a tough inner-city hospital in L.A., and then do some of the things she did in Virgin River because of her commitment to her profession. However, there were some other things about Mel that I didn't like so much. While I thoroughly sympathized with her deep grief over the loss of her husband, and her reluctance and confusion about entering into another relationship, I felt that if she was that uncertain, she shouldn't have gotten involved with Jack until she was completely ready. Mel initially refused to even tell him she was a widow, much less talk about how her husband died or what her marriage was like. He had to learn all those things from her sister. Secondary characters revealing important information about a main characters is a plot device I've never really liked, because I feel that it stunts the growth and relationship intimacy in a romance. She also kept some other very significant things from Jack which made her seem rather selfish and immature to me, and she wouldn't even commit to staying in Virgin River even after sleeping with Jack. In my opinion, all of this was very unfair to Jack, because it left him hanging and/or thinking he was always going to play second-best to her first husband far too long. Mel also had a bit of an obsession with designer clothes and expensive hair-dos which initially made her seem a little shallow to me. Also, although I realize that it was a major change to move from the big city to a tiny rural town, I would have thought that after some of the horrendous things Mel had witnessed in L.A., she might not have been quite so shocked by the goings-on in and around Virgin River. Thankfully, all the things that bothered me about her character did work themselves out, but not until the very end of the book, which was rather frustrating for me.
Aside from him simply not getting enough point-of-view scenes, I thought Jack was a great hero, and he was a bit older than they typical romance hero which was a refreshing change of pace. He was a picture-perfect career marine who had spent twenty years in the Corps, survived five wars, and was courageous, loyal and well-respected by the men under his command. When Jack retired, he came to Virgin River looking to get away and find some good fishing and ended up staying. He now runs Jack's Bar & Grill, the only eating/drinking establishment in town. Jack was a very brave man, not only to have served in the military, but because he had no qualms about putting his heart on the line. He was utterly taken with Mel the minute she walked into his bar, and right from the start was optimistically hoping for something to develop between them. Jack was unbelievably patient with Mel, tenderly comforting her when she needed it most, but allowing her space to grieve too. He was even willing to play second-fiddle to a dead guy in hopes that Mel would eventually come around. Jack was more than willing to jump into a relationship with Mel head-first, even though it might mean him loosing his heart in the end. He was also always there for Mel no matter what. I love the way he fixed up the broken down cabin for her and took care of her on the anniversary of her husband's death. In fact, Jack was there for everyone, willingly keeping his bar open or staying up all night if it seemed like someone might need something. He was just an all-around great guy who was always willing to lend a helping hand in any way he could. There were really only two things about Jack's character that bothered me, one being his "arrangement" with another woman at the beginning of the story. I have no problem with heroes having past exploits and he did break it off the minute he decided to pursue Mel, but I'm a rather jealous reader who doesn't usually care for the hero's relationships with other women to be elaborated upon in the story. The other thing I thought could have been better is if Jack's time in the service had been more detailed. Readers get a couple of scenes with Jack and his old Marine buddies who come for a visit, and then the emotional aftermath for him which brought a few tears to my eyes, but not much more than that. I really thought that his character could have had more depth and dimension if his past had been more fully explored.
As for Mel and Jack as a couple, I liked them together and I think I probably could have loved them, if Mel hadn't distanced herself so much. In the beginning, I kind of felt like she was using Jack as a distraction to get over her dead husband, and the bond between them wasn't fully solidified in my mind until the last few pages of the book. I just really prefer when stark honesty, vulnerability, and shared heartache become a natural part of the relationship progression, because I believe it helps to build a more emotional and palpable love connection. In looking back on their conversations, I don't really remember Mel and Jack discussing anything of particular importance, and on the occasions when deeper issues do come up, they have a tendency to sweep it under the rug instead of truly communicating. In my opinion, the dialog could sometimes get a little long-winded, with some particular character, usually Mel, sounding more like she's giving a soliloquy instead of conversing. I thought that the dialog could have been pared down a bit in favor of more descriptive details. There were very few instances where the author used facial expressions, emotional responses or gestures, which was something that I greatly missed. Sometimes it's the little things that can really make a story great or build a strong connection between the characters and the reader.
In Virgin River, Robyn Carr has created a huge palette of secondary characters, some of whom get their own future books in the series. I found myself intrigued by Preacher right from the start, and was pleased to find out that his book, Shelter Mountain, is up next. As I mentioned earlier, Jack's teenage protégé, Ricky gets a few scenes from his own point of view. Normally, I wouldn't be too thrilled about a teenage love affair, and although it did give me pause, I really think the things Ricky experienced helped him to grow up and show the kind of man he's going to become. He may have lost his head in the heat of the moment, but underneath it all, he's a very responsible young man who doesn't take his actions lightly. I'll be interested to read more about him and Liz in Paradise Valley. Doc is quite the crusty old coot, but underneath it all, he has a good heart, and a certain charm in spite of his stubbornness and sharp tongue. Mel always gives back as good as she gets anyway. What little I saw of them, I really liked Jack's Marine buddies too. The two remaining single guys in the group get stories later in the series: Mike Valenzuela, paired with Jack's sister, Brie Sheridan (Whispering Rock) and Paul Haggerty (Second Chance Pass). For readers who aren't aware, the Virgin River series is a spin-off of Grace Valley, and although I haven't read that series, I suspect several of the characters from it made an appearance in Virgin River, particularly the main couple, June Hudson and Jim Post. This doesn't even include all the numerous townspeople from Virgin River and the surrounding countryside and other communities. Sometimes it was hard keeping track of all of them, so I hope Robyn Carr utilizes them in future books instead of creating dozens of new characters each time, or I might get really confused.;-)
Virgin River may not have grabbed me the way I thought it would, but aside from a few slow parts it did keep me fairly well engaged and entertained. I really like stories that take place in small communities, and I think that Robyn Carr did a good job of building that slow pace of life and everybody-knows-everybody-else vibe. It's like everyone in Virgin River is one big family always ready to lend a helping hand, and then Jack's Marine buddies were like yet another different kind of family. It all reminded me of pioneer life on the frontier where everyone pitched in to survive which is something I always enjoy reading about. I liked the medical drama that came with Mel's job, and many of the supporting characters caught my interest. Even though I had several issues with Virgin River, particularly the romance and Mel, it was still a good story that I would recommend. I'm hoping that perhaps it was just suffering from the dreaded first-in-a-series syndrome where a lot of time is spent building the settings and characters, and that the future books will be stronger on the romance and relationship building. The overarching plot drew me in enough to make me look forward to continuing the Virgin River series, and wonder what the future might hold for all the new characters that I had the privilege of meeting in this book. There are currently 11 novels and short stories in the Virgin River series. I just read that there are three more books planned for release in 2011. Readers can visit Robyn Carr's website for the latest news and recommended reading order.
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