So there we are: another book I've not been able to finish. Finding Drood heavy going, I was looking for a comfort-blanket read to balance it out with and ended up testing an impulse-bought Nora Roberts novel, The Next Always. I've seen two TV adaptations of Nora Roberts books and only remember them very dimly, but I do remember liking them. One I think centred around the classic plot of three daughters and an inheritance, the other was a reincarnation story where it turned out that the hero in the contemporary romance was a reincarnation of the girl in the historical one: a sweet and funny twist. So while I was expecting a fair amount of clichés (and I'm not very sensitive when it comes to clichés in English, which is why I shamelessly use expressions like "a fair amount"), I did not expect to be bored.
Before long, I was stumped. What was going on here? I didn't really think that Roberts would turn out to be "the world's greatest storyteller" as the cover boasted, but I did assume that there would be a story of some kind. But no, not a sight of one. The novel concerns three brothers Montgomery who are renovating an atmospheric old hotel in a small American town. One of the brothers, Beckett, has his eye on Clare, a woman he's loved since they were both teenagers and who has now moved back into town, a widow with three boys. He finds her attractive. She finds him attractive. Eventually, they both twig that they're in with a chance with each other and hook up. There's zero dramatic tension: Beckett's family and Clare's friends are cheering them on from the sidelines. They belong to the same set, they're both unattached, and naturally Beckett is great with the three delightful boys. Instead of introducing any hurdles for the main romantic couple to jump over, the novel is full of pointless conversation concerning the hotel renovation. It's not even all "interior design porn" describing the various rooms, though that part of it is bad enough: we also have to read the brothers' discussions on problems with the building work and suppliers. Elsewhere they're bickering about whose turn it is to buy the pizza and beer. We follow Clare through an excruciatingly detailed account of an evening home with the boys: for pity's sake, I as a reader don't have to be there when she helps one of her sons to pee! At first I thought: "Oh well, I wanted a comfort blanket, and it doesn't get much more comfort-blankety than this". But after more than a hundred pages of meandering plotlessness I'd had enough and gave up. A Nora Roberts novel should not be the kind of book you feel you have to finish out of a sense of duty.
So what kind of genre is this anyway, and what is its appeal? I suppose it falls into the category of "quotidian cosiness". After a long row of grand epics, I myself can long for a narrative where the protagonists can consider stopping their emoting for a moment and making themselves some tea and toast. Seeing characters of a whodunnit or a contemporary romance in an everyday setting, making observations on situations that you recognise from your own life, can be very relaxing and satisfying. But there has to be more to a story than that. You can't just have tea-making scenes, or their equivalents. Roberts captures the tone of easy, everyday dialogue fairly well, but if you want to listen in on these kinds of conversations, you might as well eavesdrop on fellow visitors at a café. Here, there is no drama, and nothing at stake.
It made me wonder whether it's possible for an author to like his or her characters too much. Normally, I prefer writers who have a real affection for their characters. Roberts obviously likes the three Montgomery brothers, and their mother, and Clare, and her three boys, and her best friend. The problem is, she seems to think the readers will like them so much too that they will be happy just to hang out with them, even when not much is happening. And maybe there are a lot of readers who feel that way about the characters in The Next Always, but I wasn't one of them. The Montgomery brothers are the tousled-haired, dog-owning kind of heroes who are good at carpenting, their enthusiastically interfering mother has a sixth sense for what is best for them and the hotel, Clare's sons are charmingly boisterous, everyone gets how great small-town life is (at least everyone nice), and it's all apple-cheeked and homespun and dull.
In my despair, I've started reading The Night Watch by Sarah Waters instead, although with its gentle melancholy it's not what one could describe as a comfort blanket. It's beautifully written and precisely observed, and the characters are just likeable enough to be interested in, but not (so far) so likeable you'll end up heartbroken if things go wrong for them. I think I will actually be able to finish this one. When I will summon enough strength to get through Drood, though, is anyone's guess.