Dakota Jones recently left his military career and isn't certain where he's going to hang his hat now. With his older brother, Cal, and younger sister, Sierra, happily settled in Sullivan's Crossing, Colorado, he stops by for a visit and decides to stay a while. Being the handsome newcomer in town, he draws the eyes of the single ladies. While he finds the attention flattering at first, Dakota quickly discovers that the only woman he wants to get to know better is Sidney, the bartender at the local bar and grill.
After being married to a man she supported through medical school, only to have him cheat on her, Sid isn't too keen on getting involved in another relationship. In fact, her brother brought her to town to heal after the ugly divorce left her devastated and severely depressed. Bartending is only a temporary thing she's doing to help out her brother. In reality, Sid is a genius scientist who was working on a high profile computing project before her life went downhill. She misses the challenge and she's contemplating going back to it in the near future. But in the meantime, Dakota proves to be a sweet temptation and a nice diversion.
Due to dysfunctional family dynamics, Dakota has never been particularly close to his three siblings, but as they all gather to celebrate Sierra's wedding, he begins to learn things about himself and realizes he actually likes being around them. Staying in Sullivan's Crossing is beginning to look better all the time, and if he can just get Sid to open up and let him in a little more, life would be perfect. But then one of the local ladies he rejected starts making life miserable for him, threatening his budding relationship with Sid. Then there's Sid's old boss, who wants her to come back to California to work on their project again. Can Dakota and Sid find a way to make it work or is their romance doomed to be nothing but a casual affair?
The Family Gathering is the latest release in Robyn Carr's Sullivan's Crossing series. I waffled mightily on how to rate this one. The first two books of the series were pleasant. For the most part, I enjoyed them and rated each one four stars, but I felt that they still had some weaknesses that left me wanting more. That said, though, with each new book the series has been getting a little better, and after reading this one, I felt like the author might finally be starting to hit her stride with the Sullivan's Crossing stories. There was quite a bit going on in The Family Gathering that held my attention pretty well, probably even better than the first two books, but at the same time, I found some similar weaknesses to the previous two books. However, since this book ended up being my favorite of the series thus far and had some emotional and heartwarming moments, I decided it needed to be rated just a bit higher and finally settled on 4.5 stars.
The hero of this book is Dakota Jones, brother of Cal (What We Find) and Sierra (Any Day Now). After getting into a bit of trouble and being discharged from the military, he's trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life. While he contemplates his options, Dakota decides to visit his brother and sister in Timberlake, check things out, and maybe stay a while until something more interesting comes along. He's always had a bit of wanderlust, but once he's there with his family and getting to know people in town, he finds it to be a nice place to hang his hat for a while. His decision is only solidified by his burgeoning relationship with the bartender at the local bar and grill. Dakota quickly discovers that she's all he could want in a woman, and he isn't averse to the idea of making things more permanent with her. Dakota is similar to a lot of Robyn Carr's ex-military heroes, some of whom have also been doing a bit of soul-searching. He's dedicated to his siblings and would do anything to help them out, which I admired. However, most of his backstory is told rather than shown. In addition to his troubles in the military, he also had a serious girlfriend who was killed in a terrorist attack, but I never felt like either event played into who he is now in the way they probably should have. Upon first coming to Timberlake, he also piques the interest of a couple of female troublemakers from the previous book, one of whom turns stalker, which added a touch of intrigue to the story. Mostly Dakota is just an all-around nice guy who was a good hero. I liked him, but he wasn't necessarily a stand-out to me.
Our heroine is Sidney, known as just Sid to her family and friends. She's a sister to the owner of the bar and grill, who went through a very ugly divorce, after which she fell into a deep depression. Before that she was a brilliant physicist, working on a highly specialized quantum computing device used to develop artificial intelligence. She had worked her butt off not only for her job but also to put her husband through medical school, only to have him reveal that he'd been having an affair for two years. When the break-up affected her so deeply, Sid's widowed brother came to California to get her and take her back home to Timberlake where she could heal. She's been working as his bartender ever since and helping him take care of his two children, while trying to decide whether to go back to her field of expertise. Sid is a no-nonsense girl who is a little reluctant to get involved with Dakota when he first starts flirting with her, which is understandable after what happened to her, but it doesn't take too long before she can no longer resist his charm. Much like Dakota, she's dedicated to her family, stepping up to be a mother-figure to her nephews. I would say that the only issue I had with her is that Robyn Carr has never been very accurate in writing introverted characters. She gives lip-service to introverts, but then those characters in her stories who supposedly are, always end up as extroverts anyway. As an introvert myself who has studied personalities extensively and who's also married to a fellow introvert who's a techno-geek like Sid, I felt like her character, in that respect, just didn't ring true. A small percentage of introverts can project an air of extroversion when they want and/or need to, but it's not possible for us to suddenly get a personality transplant and actually become extroverts in the way I felt was being portrayed in Sid's character. Also her genius IQ is never really shown in any satisfying way. She could have been just any old small-town girl rather than a Mensa-level brainiac. Sid, like Dakota, is a very nice, likable person, but there were simply aspects of her characterization that I felt needed to go deeper.
Much of the strength of the story and what made it interesting to me were the family interactions, particularly for the Joneses. A lot happens for several different characters besides Dakota and Sid, and most of them get their own POV scenes to play out their parts of the story. Sierra and Connie (Any Day Now) take the next step in their relationship by tying the knot and some other unexpected and very emotional things happen to them as well. I really liked their part of the story, because it tugged at my heartstrings. Sedona, the fourth Jones sibling, who we've only heard about up to this point, arrives to attend the wedding, but while she's visiting, her siblings discover that she's been hiding some very big secrets. Again, I enjoyed her part of the story, partly because looking out for her gives the other characters something engaging to do, but also because it has an element of mental illness that I found interesting. Cal and Maggie (What We Find), as well as Maggie's dad, Sully, who became a surrogate father to the Joneses, are mostly in the background, but they help out in a number of different ways. Then there's Tom and Lola, whose romance has been playing out as secondary characters in all three books. These fortyish divorced parents with six kids between them take their own next relationship step while facing the challenge of figuring out how to blend their families together. Sid's brother, Rob, seems like a great guy, who could use a little romance of his own, and for the first time with this series, I'm going to speculate that he might become the hero of the next book. Then there are Alyssa and Neely who are the two women who stirred up a bit of trouble for Sierra and Connie in the previous book. We may not have seen the last of Alyssa yet and she was less of a problem in this book, only pursuing Dakota a couple of times. But Neely causes him no end of difficulties when she turns into a stalker which didn't surprise me in the least. I'm glad Ms. Carr took her character in that direction, because she made an intriguing and kind of creepy villainous character.
As with all the "main" relationships in the Sullivan's Crossing series so far, I felt like Dakota and Sid's romance was a little too easy. Dakota is rearing to go right from the start. Sid puts up a token fuss in the beginning, but she acquiesces in fairy short order with no real fall-out or complications besides her still trying to decide on whether to go back to her old career. I never felt any sense of urgency with them, because they fit together in an easy-going way that left no real doubt in my mind that they would get their HEA. As I've noticed with many of Robyn Carr's books, she has a tendency to skim along the surface of the characterizations and relationship development rather then diving deep. This is only exacerbated by her tendency to tell most of the story in very long passages of dialogue with few breaks for blocking or introspection. When she does engage in introspection, the passages are a little too short for my liking and also tend to stay mostly on the surface as well. However, despite these repeated frustrations, I still like her books, mainly because of the small-town atmospheres and the family dynamics. Reading her books is kind of like watching a Hallmark movie. There may not be a great deal of substance, but I know I can almost always count on feeling warm fuzzies at the end. So, I guess maybe Robyn Carr is one of those comfort authors who I can enjoy reading from time to time to get those heartwarming feelings. I'll look forward to the next book in this series to see if I'm right about Rob being the hero, because IMHO, he'd be a really good one.
Note: I received an ARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
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