Um, well. I almost didn't make it through the first six chapters of Dream A Little Dream. Why? Because of a little boy, Edward, whose first reaction to adversity is to ask his mom "Are we gonna die?" Because of his mother, Rachel, as pared down emotionally and spiritually as she is physically. A woman who has no room for anything but ensuring Edward's survival, who is without the luxury of worrying over dignity, self-esteem, or vanity. A woman more than willing to stand toe-to-toe with the devil himself (or at least a minor demon) for her son. And then the emotional death rattle of a once gentle man, haunted by personal loss, drowning in grief, who, finding no succor in pills, booze, or self-imposed isolation, has sunk so far as to attempt to break the one person who threatens to shake him out of his despondency in the most elemental destructive way.
"Do you give up?" He ground out the words, and only after they were spoken did he realize he'd made it sound as if this were some child's game they were playing.
He felt the faint tremor that passed through her body. "I'm not going to fight you. I don't care that much."
He still hadn't broken her. Instead, it was as if he'd done nothing more than give her another job. Pick up the trash. Clean out the johns. Spread your legs so I can fuck you. Her acceptance made him furious, and he shoved her dress up to her waist.
"Damn it! Are you so stupid you don't know what I'm going to do to you?"
Her eyes bore into his without flinching. "Are you so stupid you haven't figured out yet that it doesn't matter?" (54-55)
I made it through those chapters only because I knew Susan Elizabeth Phillips would not leave these three characters there in that dark place. And I might also have indulged in an adult beverage or two to help, some rocking in a corner, and breathing into a paper bag. Seriously, I did have to stop reading for an hour or so before I could pick Dream A Little Dream up and continue. But on the other side of the bad place is a book I absolutely love.
Rachel Stone is a truly unforgettable character. A woman of both complexity and simplicity. A woman of faith who married a charlatan tele-evangelist with a madonna/whore complex. A woman who was poor, then wealthy, then something much less than poor again but with a fragile child to rear. A woman who believes no sacrifice is too great if it means the health and well-being of her son, Edward. She is fierce and practical and refuses to give up no matter what obstacles are thrown her way. And that's the difference between Rachel and Gabe Bonner.
Because Gabe has all but given up; the biggest evidence of this is the gun he keeps in his bedside table, and it's not for self-defense against burglars or would-be murderers. The death of his wife and son sent him spiraling down into a depression so dark and entrenched he feels he has nothing to live for. The scene I quoted above comes early in Dream A Little Dream but it is the big turning point for Gabe. He is forced to confront the man he has become, to decide whether he has any shred of humanity left in him. To this point, Gabe Bonner wasn't much of a hero, but he redeems himself very nicely, and Rachel is the reason he comes out of that dark place.
Edward is a great kid, and I'm not usually a fan of children in romance. They either veer into plot moppet territory, completely without purpose except to provide a bit of precociousness, or are an afterthought, or a way for the hero or heroine to shine in each other's eyes or thousands of other essentially useless reasons. Not Edward. Edward begins as a timid little boy whose lack of roots and security have him expecting life as he knows it to end at any moment, no matter how inconsequential the circumstance. He's very introverted, socially awkward, and terrified of Gabe with reason. Because Gabe does not like Edward at all. If Rachel is the first reason Gabe steps out into life again, Edward is the second. Gabe and Edward take a while to warm up to each other, but Edward, or Chip (yes, Chip Stone!) as he wants to be called, is the brave and honest one who lays all the cards on the table, while Gabe is still hiding behind deception.
He began tugging up clumps of grass. "You could pretend."
"Pretend? I don't know what you mean."
More grass came up. "You could pretend you like me. Then my mommy would marry you, and we wouldn't have to go away."
"I - I don't think that would work."
His brown eyes filled with hurt. "Couldn't you even pretend to like me? It wouldn't have to be real."
Gabe forced himself to meet the boy's gaze and utter his lie with complete conviction. "I do like you."
"No." Edward shook his head. "But you could pretend. And I could pretend about you, too. If we pretended real good, my mommy would never know." (287)
To watch this shy fragile little fellow transform into a strong, funny, young boy able to finally give away his well-loved stuffed rabbit named "Horse" to Cal and Jane's baby, Rosie, to see him grow in confidence, to begin to enjoy making friends, to be a normal five-year old boy, to call Gabe Bonner on a lie, to take a proactive role to persuade his mom not to leave behind the place and the people he has come to care about made him as much a part of this story as the romance between Gabe and Rachel.
One of the first things I fell in love with in Nobody's Baby But Mine was the marriage-in-trouble subplot of Cal Bonner's parents. In Dream A Little Dream, there was the secondary romance of Reverend Ethan Stone and his church secretary, Kristy. If I had a complaint about this book, it would be that these two really needed their own book. I loved when Kristy had had enough of being doormat for Ethan, watching him lust after women wearing tight jeans and spandex but never seeing the woman right in front of him, who has been in love with him for years. When she comes in to work wearing jeans so tight she has difficulty breathing, a new flirty "feathery" hairstyle, magenta polish on her toes, rings on her fingers, and breasts minimally covered in a tank top, defying gravity with the help of her new Wonderbra, Ethan is shocked and disapproving. Her jeans are too tight, her lipstick is too bright, and her breasts are too prominent. In short, Kristy is not appropriately attired for a church office. He feels betrayed because Kristy was supposed to remain invisible and sexless so that he never saw his friend as a sexual being. Kristy is justifiably furious about Ethan's double standard. After all, Ethan drools "over Laura Delapino with her crimson lipstick" and her spandex but for Kristy he has only criticism.
"You don't like my lipstick," she said flatly.
"I didn't say that. It's not my place to like it or not. I just think for a church office . . ."
Rachel would never put up with this. Not in a million years. And neither would she.
"If you don't like it, you can fire me."
He seemed genuinely shocked. "Kristy!"
She had to get out of here before she started to cry.
"Now there's no need to get upset." He cleared his throat. "I'm sure once you have a chance to think this over. . ."
"I have, and I quit!" (171)
Kristy runs out of the church office, upset that she'd wasted so many years waiting for Ethan, waiting for him to see her, to really see her, and realizing that he probably never will. Ethan pursues her to her car.
The engine roared to life. He ran toward her. She shot out of the parking space.
He rushed to the side of her car. "Stop it, Kristy! You're overreacting! Let's talk about this."
That was when she did the unthinkable. She rolled down the window, thrust out her hand, and gave Reverend Ethan Bonner the bird. (171-172)
I was applauding frankly. Ethan needed almost as much shaking up as Gabe.
I read a post earlier this week at Book Riot, "Some Like It Hot: The Literary Function of Sex Scenes in Romance" by Jessica Tripler. In it, she said something that stuck with me while I was reading Dream A Little Dream.
We often think about emotions as psychological, but romance fiction recalls us to our lived bodily experience, and nowhere more so than in sex scenes. Emotions in romance aren’t private mental entities that one can choose to share or hide. The body doesn’t “reveal” emotions locked up in the head. Instead, emotions reside within and between bodies, forming the stickiness of our connections with each other. A character becomes aware of herself as a subject and an object. She sees herself both from her own point of view and through her lover’s eyes, and she knows her partner is doing the same. Sex is an integral part of the attunement and mutual recognition that constitute a successful and convincing romantic relationship.
Of course, some writers do this well and some don’t. Sex scenes in romance can be boring, cliched, repetitive, ridiculous, pointless, offensive, or ineffective.
Sex between a hero and heroine in a Susan Elizabeth Phillips' book is not gratuitous. Though I've only read six of her books, I haven't run across anything close to "boring, cliched, repetitive, ridiculous, pointless, offensive, or ineffective" sex between her heroes and heroines. Instead, sex reveals something about character, says something important about where the couple are in their relationship. That scene at the beginning of this review? That one fueled by Gabe's anger with a tinge of lust and Rachel's stubborn refusal to be used or cowed by any man? It's the line in the sand: How far will he go to stop her from dragging him into the land of the living again, to leave him alone with his comfortable numbness? Will she stand her ground or will she run? How much does she have to lose? Has she reached the bottom of her reserves of strength yet? What does it say about Gabe and his dark space that he wants to break Rachel? In the end, he is forced to acknowledge that between the two of them, Rachel is much tougher than he is.
The first time they actually make love is a stripping away of their pasts. For Gabe, it's a reawakening, an acknowledgement that as much as he may want to be, he is not dead. He is very much alive. It's the first time he makes love with any woman who was not his wife, Cherry. For Rachel, it's long-awaited satisfaction of her curiosity, an affirmation that she is more than a mere "vessel." For the first time she is free to participate, to reach out and grab some little bit of pleasure just for herself, instead of feeling the "horrible, stifling, solicitude as if she were not capable of making up her mind, as if she were breakable, untouchable, undefilable", not a "woman at all." This is where Rachel and Gabe both become aware of each other as partners, the beginning of their "mutual recognition." Then, there's a funny yet tenderly passionate scene between Rachel and Gabe. If you don't believe me, just wait till you read the "squishing/assault with a deadly book" scene. They are a comfortable with each other, there's an easiness and a knowledge of each other mixed with genuine longing for that emotional connection that creates a deep intimacy in the scene only to have the intensity lightened with laughter and a sense of the absurd.
I honestly did not intend this review to be quite this long, and yet here I am. There's so much more than what I've rambled on about here. Susan Elizabeth Phillips has a talent for making me care, care very deeply, what happens to these characters. I haven't started one of her books yet without a little bit of a wince and a stray thought that maybe this book, these characters, are not for me. But her greatest talent, her gift, is that each and every time, she's turns that around for me, making me the loudest cheerleader for those questionable characters, and she does it with humor and with complex, very flawed characters facing real problems and barriers to a happy ever after. If you haven't had a chance to read a Susan Elizabeth Phillips' book, Dream A Little Dream is a good place to start. I highly recommend it.