I was going to start this review of Heather Walsh’s novel The Drake Equation by saying that I’m not normally a fan of romance novels, but then I realized that probably sounded stuffy. Upon further reflection, I realized it sounded downright snobbish, and I’m not a snob, literary or otherwise. Seriously.
Still, I felt it was important to leave that comment in because it helps me to make my overall point: Heather Walsh’s The Drake Equation is an enjoyable book. It’s well-written, its characters are interesting, and I liked it. Yes, it’s a romance novel. If you like romance novels, you’ll probably like it. If you don’t like romance novels, there’s still a good chance you’ll like it.
See where I’m going with this? When I say I don’t normally enjoy romance novels, I mean novels that contain all the requisite elements of the romance genre, specifically at the expense of a good story. To be fair, I‘d say that about any genre novel: science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, horror, and on and on.
Bearing that in mind, then, you might expect me to say I’m not normally a fan of any genre.
Newsflash: My bookshelves tell a different story.
As I’ve said before—and I’m certainly not the only one—the most engaging stories are about interesting people, regardless of their circumstances. We don’t have to like the characters, though that sometimes helps, and we don’t have to be able to identify with them, though that’s often useful as well. Sure, the specific circumstances may make the story more appealing: the characters may be race car drivers, athletes, politicos, nuclear physicists, secret agents, doctors, lawyers, artists, or even aliens. But if there’s not a compelling tale at the heart of the novel, it runs the risk of becoming an empty cliché that will only appeal to a narrow audience.
On to The Drake Equation. Emily Crossley is a crusader who works for GeoForce, a non-profit environmentalist group. Actually, it’s more accurate to say she runs GeoForce, since her boss, a goodhearted but scattered man named Andy Hill, is the company’s number-one man in name only. Along with her co-workers Carson and Rachel, Emily does everything from planning fundraisers to writing press releases to hitting people up for donations on the telephone. She’s a workhorse, idealistic and passionate, and each morning, the mantra think globally, act locally gets her out of bed.
The real story begins when Emily meets Robert Drake at a “Give Up Your SUV for a Day” fundraiser. Robert is a PR man for Bell Motors, an automotive company, and he’s politically conservative, the seeming antithesis to everything Emily stands for, yet they hit it off and begin to see each other. Not surprisingly, things don’t go as smoothly as we might expect. But that’s not too much of a reveal, right? We go into stories knowing—even if we don’t know that we know—that obstacles will arise. And arise they do in The Drake Equation, but they’re not the obstacles we might expect. This is a good thing, by the way.
This novel’s biggest strength is in the dialogue Walsh writes between Emily and Robert. Stories are often about the changes in a character, and it’s easy for a writer to get ahead of herself, to rush these changes in the interest of time. The two-fold challenge is to a) make the change happen more quickly than it would in real life (who has the time to read years and years of story, after all?), yet b) make it believable. No small challenge there.
Walsh pulls it off, though. There are no car chases, shootouts, or bank heists, thankfully. (Actually, there is a bombed-out vehicle, but you’ll have to read the book to discover the context. It works, too.) The conversations between these two characters are what make the story come alive. Emily and Robert constantly test one another, feeling the other out and gauging responses to try and determine whether or not this one could be “the one.” But they’re not talking about the things we might expect two people of their political stripes to talk about, nor are they or their beliefs the caricatures we might predict them to be. Each character has deeply held convictions and makes a plausible case for having them.
Another plus here is Walsh’s ability to defy expectations. As mentioned before, the problems that beset these characters are not the ones we might normally find in a romance. Neither are the character transformations: Emily doesn’t turn into Robert or vice versa. Too often, protagonists end up becoming more like the people they love, sending the message that to be in love is to eventually be changed by someone. In this case, however, each character strives to grow to understand the other, to see the other person as more than a cartoon character or a set of ill-conceived beliefs.
In many ways, this is also a coming-of-age novel. Anyone who has been through their twenties will be able to identify with Emily and Robert. They’re not self-absorbed—well, not any more than you’d expect twenty-somethings or any-somethings to be—and their concerns about life are relatable. How do you live your passions, caring about the things you love, and still be an authentic human being? Is it possible to not only learn to live with someone you disagree with but also learn to respect that person’s differences? (Hint: You’ll have to read the book to answer these questions.)
So do I enjoy stories about people who fall in and out of love with each other, perhaps even falling in and out of it a few more times in the process? Absolutely. I enjoy them if they’re good stories rather than just good romance stories.
The good news is that Heather Walsh’s The Drake Equation is a compelling story about interesting people. It just happens to be a romance novel.