Rating: 3.25 stars out of 5
Banker Phineas Bell has, by necessity and law, hidden his sexuality behind a kind but prim exterior, one expected of a banker in Montana in 1901. But the arrival of Elliott Tucker in Cold Springs, Montana stirs up old feelings and desires Phineas thought he had buried. Elliot is a vet from Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American war and has been looking for a place to settle down and call home. A homosexual used to hiding his preference for men behind dalliances with women, Elliot thinks he knows what’s best for Phineas as well as for himself.
When the only room available in town for the new sheriff is as a lodger in Phin’s house, the close quarters make the sparks fly but the consequences might be not only traumatic but costly when Phin’s uncharacteristic behavior causes an uproar.
But even more dangerous are the scoundrels that have come to town to make sure that Phin’s friends don’t open a store in their mine owned and operated town. When their insidious plans don’t pan out, then desperation causes them to kidnap someone close to Phin’s heart. Elliot and Phin must race to catch the kidnappers before something unthinkable happens and the child is hurt. But will their hidden romance be revealed? And at what cost to the themselves, the town, and their loved ones waiting for them to return?
I have very mixed feelings about this story and some come from the westerns I love and read growing up. Those stories by Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey set a standard against which, right or wrongly, I judge all western stories I read. From their characters to their authentic settings and plots, I reveled in every story of theirs I could get my hands on. Luckily for me, my dad was an ardent fan of both authors so I had their entire library of stories to pull from whether it was Louis L’Amour’s The Sacketts or Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage.
Now I can hear you grumble that this is a m/m romance and that’s true. But that doesn’t make the comparisons any less relevant. I bring to these m/m western romances a need to hear a dialog that would make sense in the time period involved. I want behavior and mannerisms in keeping with the times and culture of the west. That includes Easterners that have made their home in the territories (for surely they would have appropriated some of the local colloquialisms and idiosyncrasies after they settled in the area) as well as taciturn cowboys and soldiers who have learned to hide their sexual preferences. I am also a stickler for detail and historical accuracies. While I have seen more than one author tripped up by poor research and inattention to detail, I have also read stories by authors (m/m authors) who embraced the genre and made it most memorably their own. With all that in mind, Somebody to Love is a mixed bag for me.
This is the first story I read by Merry Farmer and its apparently one in a series called Montana Romance. Without the other books as a support, I don’t know if the issues I have with Somebody to Love are pertinent only to this story or all the others too. So let’s start with the elements I thought were well done.
Merry Farmer has researched the era and physical setting of her story. The town of Cold Springs, Montana comes alive here with its stores, bank and lively citizenry. The section of the book that deals with the underhanded tactics of mine owners protecting their interests feels authentic and true to the times. The “Copper Kings” and the Anaconda Mining Company were ruthless in pursuit of their interests and holdings and their tactics were as varied and wide ranging as their need for domination of the copper market. Those agents are represented here by two women and how you feel about their characters, their “realness”, and their placement in the plot might guide your feelings about the story.
I did enjoy Farmer’s plot. I found it interesting and certainly entertaining. But what held me back from connecting with these characters and their passion for each other was believability. I never found their behaviors or actions to be realistic for both the time period and the setting. Phineas Bell is a “confirmed bachelor”, typical of that age. He has never demonstrated any interest in the women in town, and other than his adopted family of friends and their children, Phin occupies himself with his bank and financial dealings. In short, he is an upright, well regarded member of the community. Into town comes Elliot Tucker to upset everything, and I do mean everything, including the believability in their romance and story.
For me Elliot is everything that is “off” about Somebody to Love. Elliot is a former member of the Rough Riders that stormed San Juan hill and has arrived to take the Sheriff’s position in town. But almost immediately, without “taking the lay of the land” so to speak, Elliot decides to admit he’s gay to the town banker he just met, kiss him, assume he knows best for Phin and urges him to flirt and date girls in town, including some of the more disreputable bar girls, to act as beards for their affair. He starts a fight that Phin is involved in, all in a matter of hours and days. This is the man the town is supposed to have faith in as a Sheriff? Someone so completely lacking in judgement that his actions and hotheadedness would surely have gotten him killed in action before now. And our staid, closeted and utterly reliable banker is following his advice? Why would the town continue to let him hold their money and futures in his bank when all of a sudden his actions are unaccountably crazy? The fact is that they wouldn’t and a later scene with a run on the bank should have come much earlier in the story if the author had wanted to remain realistic to the times and actions of a small town in the territory. And Elliot’s strange and impetuous behaviors continue throughout the story to my astonishment. In the space of a few days the author has Elliot almost completely destroying Phin’s reputation and business and we are supposed to connect with this man? It never made any sense or came across as realistic for the times. For a war hardened soldier with the past that Farmer provided for him, Elliot is a strange and unbelievable character from start to finish. And he takes the character of Phineas Bell down the rabbit hole with him.
Merry Farmer included some wonderful and suspenseful scenes within this story. There are fires, and rescues, and all sort of shenanigans that will make you catch your breath and tense in anticipation of the action to come. Those segments are described with energy and are bright with emotion. But time after time, an element rises up to disconnect me from the story with its irrational and unrealistic idea or plot point. The town is flooded with counterfeit money at the exact same time to strange women come to town with threats and devious actions. Elliot and Phin figure it out but the town immediately assumes it’s Phin whose the culprit? And the actions they take, even after some initial investigations into the nefarious goings on, had me dumbfounded because they were so far removed from reality and common sense. The behavior of Phin and Elliot seemed to change according to the needs of the plot instead of being aligned along those of human nature and societal norms of 1901 in the Territories. I just could never lose myself in either their romance or the storyline as it proceeded no matter how I appreciated other parts of the story and various characters I met along the way.
It’s a difficult task authors set for themselves when writing historical novels, western or otherwise. They must bring their characters and stories to life within a defined range of cultural morays and mannerisms found in the particular time period they have set their stories. Everything, from the dialog and to laws and societal norms must be taken into consideration and still connect the readers to the plots and passions of those involved. That’s a huge undertaking, and it’s one I’m not sure Merry Farmer accomplished here. For every element I enjoyed there is its opposite that served to disconnect me from the story and the characters.
Somebody to Love is similar in my mind to a m/m “Paint Your Wagon” sort of story. Part of it made no sense, likewise the casting. Parts of it were fun, absolutely enjoyable while others were, well, lets be kind and just say perplexing. But not every reader will feel as I do and for some, this journey into 1901 Montana and a Cold Springs romance might just be the thing for them. It’s all in how you approach historical fiction and your tastes might vary from mine.
But if, like me, you are a fan of the more typical Western, including m/m Westerns, there is a host of other stories and authors to explore. Start with the older authors such as Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour and then look at the 5 star western m/m stories circulating now. There is a book and author out there for everyone. Let me know who is at the top of your list of authors and stories who brought the West alive to you!
Cover Art: The lovely cover is by Pehr Graphic Design.
Kindle Edition, 288 pages
Published April 27th 2014