There was a time in graduate school when I thought I might try my hand at writing a romance novel. I won't go into the details, other than to say I underestimated the genre while grossly overestimating my skills. I did come away with one seemingly vital piece of advice from an agent who specialized in the romance genre: The heroine of your romance novel must be someone every woman will respect and every man will covet. Okay, that seems fairly obvious, but the agent went on to specify that the heroine should be an über-woman, one who embodies nearly every characteristic a modern woman reader might aspire to (that über-women are sometimes loathed in real life by other women seems not to apply to the fictional versions).
Rowan Tripp, the heroine of Nora Roberts' latest novel, Chasing Fire, fits the bill. Roberts, a novelist with more than 200 titles under her belt, hits her targets gracefully and with panache. This isn't her first rodeo, nor does it read like one.
Rowan Tripp is a Missoula smoke jumper—a "Zulie." Members of the Zulies team parachute into out-of-control wildfires and, like their real-life counterparts, the Zulies are among the most competitive, best-trained smoke jumpers in the country. Nicknamed "The Swede" by her fellow smoke jumpers for her tall, gorgeous blonde looks, Rowan is the daughter of heroic smoke jumper Lucas Tripp, who raised her on his own after Rowan's mother jumped ship and was subsequently murdered during a liquor store hold-up. Like her father, Rowan has an innate understanding of wildfire and approaches her job as an army general might a formidable and respected foe. And the über-woman in her is pretty quick to surface. Within the first few chapters, Rowan manages to parachute into the belly of a fire, yell insults at some rookie recruits during their morning PT ("Pick up those knees," she shouts, "Let's see some energy. For Christ's sake, you look like a bunch of girls strolling in the park."), bloody up a few drunks in a bar who dare to make a pass at her, and down a dozen shots of tequila (I bet you can guess how well she holds her alcohol). It's all too much to resist for Rowan's main love interest in the novel: the handsome green-eyed recruit Gulliver Curry, nicknamed "Fast Feet" for his running skills, who thinks of Rowan as the "woman of his dreams...a salsa-eating, tequila-downing, smoke-jumping stunner with brains and a wicked uppercut."
As the year's fire season begins, Rowan is haunted by the previous season's death of her partner Jim, who perished during a jump while still attached to Rowan. At the time of his death Jim had been sleeping with one of the base camp's cooks, Dolly, who blames the entire base for Jim's death, especially Rowan. Though still distracted, especially at night when her former partner keeps trying to tell her something in her dreams, Rowan manages to excel at her job. But it's a bad year for the Zulies: There are more fires, more injuries, and a lot of bad luck. When a dead body appears in the ashes of one purposefully set fire, it no longer becomes just another regular fire season.
If there's one niggling point in the novel, especially for Missoula natives, it's that the Missoula Roberts writes of might not be too recognizable to actual Missoulians. In fairness, few scenes in the novel take place in the actual town of Missoula. Much of it is set at the smoke jumper base and in the mountains. However, when she does take her characters into town, Roberts seems to have substituted a generic "western" town for Missoula (the smoke jumpers meet up at a bar called "Get a Rope"). At best, this is a missed opportunity for which there's little excuse: writers like James Lee Burke and Nicholas Evans have managed to convey Missoula's nuances without sacrificing plot. At worst, it's marginally insulting to a setting Roberts seemingly wants to celebrate.
Still, there's something deliciously satisfying about Chasing Fire, sort of like indulging in chocolate and then remembering the antioxidants are good for you. Though she follows themes she's used before, Roberts proves she's one of the best romantic suspense authors on the market. Sure, readers have seen these kinds of hijinks before in any number of thrillers, some of them written by Roberts, and parts of the plot are predictable. But Roberts's characters have the allure of people we know and still want to unpack.