Novels Review

REVIEW: Steadfast by Sarina Bowen

Written by ibxis

Dear Sarina Bowen:

I read the first book in this series three and a half years ago and gave it an A-, yet somehow never managed to continue on with the series. Maybe I was waiting for the second book to be free like the first one was (and eventually it was!) – no, actually I think I just kind of forgot about the series, though I did think of it occasionally. It’s up to eight books, so maybe I shouldn’t expect to get them *all* for free.

It also may have been that I wasn’t overly enamored of the setup of this second book; if so, I may have been right on that count.

Jude Nickel has been picking apples for the season at the orchard owned by the hero of book one; the family there took a chance on him though he was an addict recently out of prison for vehicular manslaughter. He returns to Colebury, Vermont, and his alcoholic father’s run-down auto shop reluctantly. Jude knows that Colebury is terrible for him and his sobriety, but he can’t get a job anywhere else with his record, and he needs to make and save some money. At least there is work, scant though it may be, at the auto shop.

What Jude doesn’t count on is that his old love, Sophie Haines, will still be in town, living with her parents. It was Sophie’s brother that Jude killed in a drug-fueled wreck he doesn’t even remember. Jude thinks that Sophie should be in New York City, living out her dream of being a singer. He doesn’t realize that her brother’s death sent Sophie’s family into a tailspin, and she has been tasked with keeping things running for the past three years.

Jude refused to have anything to do with Sophie after the accident and returned the letters she sent to him in prison unread. Of course he’s doing the whole, “noble hero cutting off heroine for her own good” routine. I usually find that stupid, but it was *especially* stupid (and honestly distasteful) here. Jude killed her brother; he owes Sophie whatever sort of contact she wants to have. I know that all this was a set up so that in the present day they could meet as they do, but it was the first of many times that Jude, Sophie, and the book itself prioritized Jude’s feelings and perspective over Sophie’s. In retrospect, the initial focus on Jude’s suffering over Sophie’s set a tone for the book that ended up being a big problem for me.

As it is, I am not the best reader for addiction stories, due to personal history. I’m not across the board unsympathetic to alcoholics and addicts, but I am sensitive to just the dynamic I perceived here, where the addict’s feelings are given outsized importance (or so it seemed to me).

Sophie has actually put away her New York City music school dreams for reasons other than self-sacrifice, at least in part. I did like that it wasn’t portrayed as something she lost due to her brother’s death; she made the decision that her chances of success as a singer weren’t worth the grind of auditions (which she hates) and the life of a starving artist. She’s working on her bachelor’s degree in social work and has an internship at a hospital in the meantime. Sophie feels stuck in her parents’ house and realizes she needs to move out, but worries about her once-vibrant mother, who is stuck in a perpetual daze. Sophie clash with her police father, who starts out as an asshole and becomes villainous as the book goes on (at one point he felt slaps her hard in the face, and I like that violence was brushed off in a way me uncomfortable).

Jude and Sophie start running into each other when the NA meeting he attends in the basement of a church turns out to end just as Sophie’s volunteer gig at a weekly soup kitchen starts. Jude is wrangled into volunteering as well by the local priest. Sparks start to fly, only mildly complicated by Sophie’s fellow volunteer and co-worker Denny, who nurses an unrequited crush on Sophie.

Meanwhile, Jude is getting menaced by a bad guy who thinks Jude knows the location of a stash of drugs that went missing around the time of Jude’s accident. He also has to worry about the police chief, who would be happy to send him back to prison if he could, and Jude’s own sobriety is often hanging by a thread. (There’s a whole scene early in the book – pretty much right after he gets to Colebury – where Jude goes looking to score. I guess it was meant to show how difficult it was for Jude to fight his addiction, but all I could think was that he wasn’t going to succeed if he was falling off the wagon *that* quickly.

I’ve complained a lot about New Adult books where the characters deal with heavy issues, but the treatment of the material doesn’t give it the weight. I feel it should. This was definitely a problem in Steadfast. Jude had an absent mother (she ran off at some point in his childhood and is barely mentioned). He has an alcoholic father (I don’t recall if the hereditary aspect of addiction is ever mentioned, but it’s not given much attention at all if it is). He has his own addiction, and the guilt of having someone’s death on his conscience. It’s a lot. I felt like there was a focus on his addiction as a separate, almost biological thing rather than something that might be tied to his terrible upbringing. I really wish the addiction storyline had been covered in more depth if it had to exist at all (which I guess it did, since the book revolves around it).

To be clear, I understand that there is/can be a biological aspect to addiction. But there’s no indication that Jude attends therapy or does something else to process his past or in any way ties his addiction to his childhood or his father’s struggles. That didn’t make sense to me.

Meanwhile, Sophie has a more conventionally middle-class, two-parent household, etc. upbringing. She was a good girl in high school until Jude noticed her and they started dating. Her father didn’t approve, but there’s no sense of real darkness before her brother’s death.

Which brings me to a major WTF – Sophie’s brother Gavin is sketchily portrayed as an asshole in the mold of his father – he hated Jude and was just kind of an obnoxious jock. But still…there is really not one moment in the book that I recall of Sophie expressing any grief – any feeling whatsoever! – about the death of her only sibling. Her only feelings about it seemed to revolve around the effect it had on Jude, her mother and her father (the latter simply because it made her father even angrier and more aggressive).

Look, I know different families are different. My only point of reference is my own family (which is very different!) but I know people who aren’t close to their siblings for various reasons. But at such a young age, to lose your only sibling in such a traumatic way, and have no apparent feelings about it just struck me as bizarre, and ultimately not realistic. To the degree that it was realistic, it made Sophie seem insensitive and kind of obsessed with Jude to the exclusion of everything else:

Nobody would even say Jude’s name in my home. The only name on anyone’s lips was Gavin. Poor Gavin. Gavin the great. Lacrosse hero. Beloved son.

On the outside, I did all the right things. I stumbled through my brother’s wake and then his funeral.

But secretly, my heart tore open for Jude.

I would have found Sophie more realistic and relatable if she ever evinced any anger towards Jude for any of it…the drug addiction that he hid from her, the car crash, the fact that he wouldn’t talk to her at all afterwards…any of it. But any anger or disapproval she shows is very mild and mostly overshadowed by the fact that she still acts like a lovesick teenager around him.

I don’t even know how to feel about a twist late in the book. Is it really a twist if you’re expecting it all along? But the denouement that it lead to was excessively melodramatic and more of the “gosh, that seems like it’d be really traumatic but let’s just brush it under the rug with an all-well-that-ends-well!” vibe that bugged me in other parts of the book. The terrible things that happen to two quite young people in this book would have me in therapy for years, but they seem none the worse for wear.

I found Steadfast readable; it held my interest. That usually brings my grade up quite a bit, but in this case the things that bothered me really bothered me. I think I’m going to give it a C-. I still will continue with the series in the hopes that the other plotlines aren’t quite so triggering for me.

Best,

Jennie

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Jennie

has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she’s reading a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she’s had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and JR Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she’s not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

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