I took a chance on this book because it has a dog in it, and for the most part the chance paid off. It took a lot to make me laugh during the first days of Sacramento’s stay-at-home Covid-19 prevention policy, and while this book did the trick despite discussing a hefty amount of trauma, I need to stress some TW/CW for public hostage situations, death by gun, ableism, and domestic violence.
Our story begins as Dallas Emergency Room nurse practitioner Lila moves to the small town of Papillion, Louisiana. She is taking over the local medical clinic and seeking a new start after a horrible and violent event in her ER left her best friend dead and herself traumatized.
The very first thing that Lila encounters in Papillion is an alligator, and because she speeds away from the alligator she gets a traffic ticket from the local Hot Sheriff, Armie. Armie is a single dad with a sixteen-year-old daughter, Noelle. Her mom (his ex-wife) was killed in a car accident that injured Noelle, who now uses a wheelchair. It is, of course, a done deal that Lila and Armie will fall madly in love, so most of the book is them getting on with it while Lila wins over the town and adopts a dog.
The small-town feel is well done. Papillion has its lovely features (much pretty) and it’s whimsical features (an alligator named Otis serves as sort of an ambulatory speed trap) but the book avoids being too cutesy. People gossip and have grudges. The previous doctor was able to get away with negligent treatment of his patients because of lack of oversight and because he was a fixture in the town. The same domestic violence that existed in Dallas exists in Papillon. While it’s obviously possible to make a good life for oneself in Papillon, career and educational opportunities are fewer and farther between. I appreciated this take on small town life and that it was neither too claustrophobic or too twee.
I also enjoyed the competence porn. Lila and Armie make a lot of mistakes in their personal lives, but DAMN they are good at their jobs. In one scene, Lila is the first responder to an accident that involves four individuals, three of whom are in a “moments away from death if not treated” situation. She has to make a lot of high stakes, high stress decisions while performing procedures, and she, Armie, and Lexi’s nurse Get Shit Done in a way that is exhilarating even though the situation is terrifying. The scene was so vivid that when it was over I wondered why my house was so quiet. I had been hearing all the loud noises from the scene in my head.
I must warn readers strongly that the cover art suggests a much lighter story than the one you get. Once I accepted the tone of the book, which is half trauma and half alligator speed traps, I liked it. The story is one of healing and resilience with a realistic mix of things that really suck (violence, loss, trauma) and things that don’t (love, rescue dogs, whimsical alligators). I’ve talked a lot more about the heavy parts of the book than about the funny – but trust me, there is some serious laugh-out-loud humor here.
However, the book has mixed success with how it tackles a subplot about Armie’s daughter, Noelle. Noelle was in a car crash that resulted in a spinal cord injury and lower-body paralysis. Armie and Noelle both assume that she will not leave Papillion, that she will not live independently, that she can’t be alone, and that, as Lila puts it, she needs to be “coddled.” As Lila points out, that’s a crock of shit.
Lila pushes Noelle to regain more mobility, thinking that Noelle might be able to walk again with the help of braces. I both liked and disliked this. I liked that Lila refuses to coddle Noelle. I liked that Lila, far from being put off when Noelle starts to fight her, is relieved to see that Noelle is letting go of the pressure to be perfect and showing some fight instead. I liked that Lila insists that Noelle can have a vibrant and independent life.
However, I wish there had not been so much focus on Noelle re-learning how to walk. Lila does point out, many times, that even if Noelle does not regain the ability to walk, she can still have a wonderful and independent life while using a wheelchair, and that Armie’s behavior is holding her back from that outcome. Lila adds that as Noelle’s doctor, it is her job to help Noelle regain as much physical function as possible.
Still, I think some of the anti-ableist message is lost by the emphasis on getting Noelle out of the chair. I’d have preferred for the focus to remain on Noelle gaining more independence in the chair, something which Lila does help her with. The “It’s a happy book because she’s cured!” trope doesn’t fully apply here, but the book plays with it close enough to be a problem for me.
Meanwhile, the conflict between Armie, who insists on sheltering Noelle and doing everything for her, and Lila, who insists on some tough love, is believable. As a parent, I found Armie’s behavior to be ableist and wrong (it’s never presented as justified) but relatable. It’s easy to understand why a parent with his own trauma from the crash would be so protective of the daughter he clearly adores. It’s also obvious how damaging that behavior is, and how much Armie and Noelle are both limiting themselves due to their own trauma and how they perceive one another’s trauma.
I admired Lila for doing what she felt best for her patient (Noelle) even though it meant straining her relationship with Armie. I even admired Armie for backing Noelle instead of Lila (because he thinks it’s important to choose his daughter over his love life) although I admired him much more for reconsidering his own behavior (because he’s being a smothering ableist co-dependent). Armie is wrong, but relatably wrong, which makes it all the more cathartic when he gets his shit together.
In general, this is a romance between grown-ups who act like grown-ups. Both Armie and Lila are healing from different but equally traumatic events. They are both very flawed individuals. However, they also are both good communicators, which is sexy as a hell, and they are both mature enough to work well professionally even when in conflict – also sexy as hell. I loved these two together.
Sadly, towards the end of the book there’s a rushed improbable crisis that causes them to resolve their arguments about Noelle and vow eternal love. This weakens the whole thing. Reconciliations and realizations made in the glow of adrenaline are not reliable. Armie and Lila already have reliable things – mutual trust, mutual respect, good communication skills, shared goals and values, extremely hot sex. Why undercut all this by instead having a violent crisis induced climax?
I suspect this will be a divisive book given that the marketing and cover art leans hard on “whimsical” while the story leans hard on “healing,” especially given the number of potential triggers. My personal experience was a positive one. I enjoyed the romance, which was based on clear communication, passion, shared experiences and values, and mutual respect. Lila and Armie were flawed in understandable ways and they acted like grown ups. I love that shit. However, I wish the ending hadn’t been so rushed and that Noelle’s journey had been dealt with slightly differently. The emphasis on her walking dropped my grade from a B- to a C+. However, I will happily read more in the series, ‘cause people who talk like grown-ups are my jam.