(Note: this is a fairly spoilery review and goes beyond my usual "don't say much beyond the first half" rule. Then again, it is a romance novel and you can probably guess how the end is going to go. Not a lot in the way of major twists in the plot either. Oh yeah, and the book's plot doesn't even start untli the halfway mark anyway!)
This book is Susan Isaacs's Tribute To America! Which Is A Big Deal! And emphasized everywhere she possibly can do it!
We start out with a brief prologue introducing our main characters, in kind of an odd third person tone that's kind of put on and false. We're preached at at the all-American-cowboy-ness of Our Hero, FBI agent Charlie Blair, who's from Wyoming and is a fairly handsome, old-timey dude straight out of the movies. Or would be if life and a pretty-much-over-with marriage and being abandoned by his wife and kid hadn't made him a sad panda. Then we're introduced to our heroine, Lauren, like this. You get the drift...
"...a young woman in a town called Shorehaven on Long Island in the state of New York is debating whether she should pack her Wonderbra for Wyoming. Telling you this is not meant to make her sound frivolous, for that is certainly not the case. In fact, having mentioned that Charlie Blair is a hero of this story, it is time to present our other her: Lauren Ruth Miller, the child Anne Hutchinson and George Washington never had."
Thank god the author eventually drops this annoying tone of voice, because dear god, I don't think I could have taken a whole novel like this. This is pretty much why I never bought the book when it came out and am now reading it for cheap. Turns out it is worth reading, but dear lord, does it take awhile to get to the damn plot and get past the omniscient smug tone of voice.
Anyway, after setting up the prologue--FBI agent Charlie is going undercover to infiltrate a paramilitary group in his home state, and Lauren the reporter is flying all the way out from NYC to get a story--we're told that it's Very Important To Tell You that these two share a great-great grandmother in common, something they'll never know what with genetic and geographical drift and people not keeping up with their history. So it's Very Important To Tell You their ENTIRE family history, starting with that great-great grandmother.
The first half of the book reminded me of Judith Krantz novels (which frequently start out with an "in the moment" scene and then shoot back to talking about the characters' parents for half the book), but even more so of Sweet Valley High Saga books, in which we had to find out EVERYTHING that went on with the main character's ancestors before we get to Elizabeth and Jessica. Each descendent gets a wee bit of character development before they begat a couple of kids and we move on to them. In order, we cover:
- Great-great-grandmother Dora, who got herself knocked up out of wedlock and marries the first dude who will have her. She spends the rest of her life miserable and afraid of his penis. I am not kidding. She begats Jacob and Ruthie.
- Jacob gets himself involved in crime and ends up having to flee New York City, ending up in Wyoming and changing his name because nobody in the west can comprehend "Blaustein." He shacks up with/marries/knocks up the older woman who saves him from a blizzard, and they seem happy enough, more or less. Or at least his wife Queenie gets laid a lot, even if she's always doing all the work and Jake is a periodically cheating layabout. But he's hot! They begat...
- Willie, who's completely disgusted with his dad's behavior and takes off as quickly as he can to go on his own. He'd love to have a ranch of his own. He falls in love at first sight with rich girl Lois Bryant, who turns out to have a ranch and a dying dad! Convenient! But they're actually pretty sensible folks and happy together, so that's nice. They begat...
- Chuck, who is nothing but a sleazy politician and a jackass and a cheater. He sells the family ranch and goes through women like Kleenex. He begat...
- Charlie Blair, Our Hero, who also grew up disgusted with his dad and was supremely disappointed with not getting to have his own ranch. This led him to join the FBI instead. He married a woman he was totally hot for sexually, but once they had a kid, everything petered away.
Back to Lauren's line of descent...
- Ruthie, who is very smart but very plain, marries the first guy who wants her. He turns out to be a liar and a wife-beater. Resourcefully, she runs out on him, sells her wedding ring, and goes to the nearest Catholic wayward girls' home pretending to be single and Catholic. Then outs herself as a Jewish married woman who won't give up her kid once the baby comes. Hah. You gotta admire her for that. She begat...
- Sally, who falls happily in love, but loses her husband after a few years in World War II. She's depressed for years, forcing her mother and her daughter to take charge of the family for awhile. Sally later gets a job and carries on a long-term affair with her boss. She begat...
- Barbara, who's also smart but not the hottest thing going out there. I really felt for Barbara, living the life her grandmother would have wanted (as a high school history teacher), but she still hasn't met a guy yet. She finally meets another history teacher, Jed Miller, and it's true love. Yay. They begat...
- Lauren, who's been a diehard reporter since birth and has hopped between papers trying to better her career. Finally getting fed up with life in the Midwest, she took a job with the Jewish News in NYC so she could go home, even though her family is very tokenly Jewish at this point and she has no clue on Jewish life.
Now, you may be wondering, as I was: Is there a point in knowing all of this backstory when reading about our main characters? The answer is: PROBABLY NOT. Some folks are more mildly interesting to read about than others (Willie and Barbara stand out), but really, they're just there to trace AMERICANNESS. And What It Is To Be American. Especially if you are Jewish, but not very Jewish, I guess? I honestly felt like I should have "America" from West Side Story playing in my head while I was reading this section.
Very eventually we get back to our main plot, "The Americans," with Charlie and Lauren going to work in Wyoming. Charlie stomachs dealing with the leader, Vern, his dumb-but-not-as-bad-as-everyone-else henchman Gus, and the super-creepy Kyle. Lauren, who's pretty dang ballsy, goes in to interview Vern, sees Charlie, and it's insta-twue-wuv for the both of them. Now, I would normally kind of have objections to the insta-love, which is darned quick, except given the circumstances, I can't really blame the author for choosing to go there. Because Charlie has a problem that few men in the world do: What do you do when you see the love of your life...and you're pretending to be a neo-Nazi? AWK-WARD!
Fortunately for him, Lauren's a snoopy girl, breaks his cover identity (isn't Charlie lucky the rednecks didn't bother), and they meet up, Charlie gives his real name and identity, and the sexy breaks on out. The insta-love continues even as the two investigate separately. There's actually a pretty good discussion in there about how these sad guys with sad jobs and not much going for them will fall into these paths of being racists and blaming it all on the government. Eventually things end a little more quickly than anyone anticipated--Lauren's ballsy enough to go looking for Gus, even though Charlie's warned her that Gus wants a date. Then the novel finally hits the question of "Oops, we live on opposite ends of the country, what do we do now?" Which is wrapped up in a Gift of the Magi-ish way, and then they live happily ever after. Ta-daaaah!
What's good about this book?
- Lauren and Charlie are good eggs, both. If they end up happy together, fine by me. Lauren has guts and I appreciate that. Charlie is a pretty sweet dude. I normally hate adultery plots, but his marriage is all over but the technicalities at this point and hell, he might as well by now.
- I think the psychology of the neo-Nazi types is gone into pretty well--I especially liked the last page commentary about it.
- The world building is done well.
- I liked the little snippets we saw of certain ancestor characters.
What's not so good?
- The annoying tone at the start of the book.
- I honestly don't think the book was massively improved by spending hundreds of pages tracing the characters' ancestry. It's not so much that that stuff is bad so much as it just did not feel that necessary. This book is nearly 600 pages. This didn't bother me so much because I speed read, but taking a long-ass time to get to the point did not help me want to purchase the book new (rather than getting it for cheap years later) originally. It's kind of a giant prequel before we even get to the novel, and I think it could have just covered Lauren and Charlie just fine without me feeling that I missed out on say, great-great-grandmother Dora and her penis fear. Giving them some more space for romance development instead would have been beneficial.
- The "coming to America' theme is pretty much BASHED THE HELL OVER THE READER'S HEAD A LOT A LOT A LOT. Like OVERKILL. Like, geez, we GET IT ALREADY, you can tone down the "America! America!" stuff some now. I know that's your theme, but I felt like it was too forced and anvil-ish.
Overall, I'll give it three stars. It's kind of a compromise rating, there. Bottom line is that it's somewhat of a slog to get through, but if you do, it gets better. Then again, you could just read the prologue and the second half of the book if you like and do just fine, too.