Before I read the book Shelter in Place, I was a Nora Roberts virgin. This enormously famous American author who has published over 200 novels had never managed to make it to my personal library. When I was asked if I’d like to review this book, I didn’t know who Roberts was. So I looked her up, read the synopsis of the book, and it looked interesting enough.
The basic premise of the book is in keeping with the times. Mass shootings that have been one of the major problems America faces today are at the heart of the book. In a popular mall in Portland, Maine, three teenaged shooters go on a killing spree. The shootings last only eight minutes and it is sufficient to leave many people dead. The shooters are taken down by the police.
However, those who survive the shooting will now be living under the shadows of this particular event all lifelong. Among the survivors are our two protagonists, Simone Knox and Reed Quartermaine. Simone who is at the mall to watch a film with her two best friends, Mi and Tish, is in the bathroom when the shootings begin and so doesn’t come face to face with the shooters. She is also the first 911 caller.
Reed who works at the mall in a restaurant is on his break and so away from the restaurant during shootings. He manages to find a hiding place, and save a kid along the way and he is our second 911 caller. At this very point it becomes clear that these people are going to fall in love as the story progresses, while trying to cope with their PTSDs. Because the book is a thriller-romance, and now that the romance angle has been taken care of, we need the thriller. It comes in the form of Patricia Hobart, the sister of one of the shooters, the mastermind behind these shootings, as we are informed.
Roberts leaves no stone unturned to make you hate this psycho killer on the loose. She is intelligent, cold, calculating, self-serving girl, who is thirsty for blood. She hates her life, hates her mother, and her father, and her grandparents. The only person she loves, we are told, is the brother who is one of the killers and who has been killed by the police, and so now she wants to kill everyone who survived, and on top of the list are Simone and Reed. Roberts with the plot setting had several great opportunities to talk about the white American problem of gun violence. But not much comes of it because we are constantly being made to hate the criminal and not the crime itself. The plot conveniently relies on the idea that white people when they become violent it is always because of a certain mental illness.
Because we already know this love is on the cards, literally no effort is made towards creating any chemistry, any tension between the two characters. I really wanted to root for these two, but I couldn’t help wondering, how will these two live their lives together once they put the entire Patricia Hobart episode behind them? She is the glue binding them together. We hardly see any simulating conversations between the two of them
Roberts, instead of taking the easy route out here, could have addressed problems associated with white terrorism and the lack of gun control, but by choosing to gloss over the real issues she makes the novel apolitical, and I am not sure how forgivable that should be in these times. There is a lack of introspection that plagues the novel throughout, and it doesn’t help that you are repeatedly subjected to Patricia’s evilness—she kills her mother, and her grandparents, in cold blood, because all of them are an annoyance and because she blames them for all her struggles.
This is not a complicated villain, you don’t have to conflict your pretty little brains for this one. She is tailor made for hate, much like the rest of the characters of the book are cut out for love. It gets tedious.
Simone grows up to become an artist, and has some minor struggles with family—her parents want her to do well in life, and become someone who will be successful in a worldly way. Her freespirited grandmother, CiCi, who is perhaps the most obnoxious character in the book—her awesomeness is repeatedly thrown at our faces so we aren’t allowed to forget that this is the character we are to love and respect, the anti-thesis of Patricia—is the only one who gets Simone and encourages her artistic side. Armed by the disdain she holds in her heart for her family, and the love she has for CiCi, she turns her pain into art. She starts making sculptures to commemorate the dead. A lot of detailed writing goes into the description of Simone’s art and I found myself rolling my eyes every time a piece of work was described as haunting or beautiful, or magical— tired adjectives that real sculptors will probably be scoffing at, are considered profound here. When the love story finally begins, we are nearing the end of the first half of the book.
Because we already know this love is on the cards, literally no effort is made towards creating any chemistry, any tension between the two characters. I really wanted to root for these two, but I couldn’t help wondering, how will these two live their lives together once they put the entire Patricia Hobart episode behind them? She is the glue binding them together. We hardly see any simulating conversations between the two of them.
We are told that Reed’s heart skips a beat every time he sees Simone, but why, we don’t know. It could be that she creates art that is related to that night, or it could be that she is beautiful, or it could be that she is CiCi’s granddaughter, the woman Reed is in love with and constantly tells that to anyone who will listen. This is of course meant to be a joke, but it is not a very good one, and it is further killed by its overuse. Reed is as committed to this joke as he is to killing Patricia Hobart. Every time a tender moment is building between Simone and Reed, he kills it by saying he’d much rather have her grandmother, but since she isn’t interested, he is settling for Simone. The man of everyone’s dream, Reed Quartermaine. There are a lot of problems with the novel. The writing is fine, but gets tedious because it is spending more time in describing unnecessary details than it is in building the plot and the characters.
The joy of a thriller is killed by stressing on the fact that killer is a psychotic person who is losing it, so we know she is going down, it’s only a matter of time. There are people dropping dead throughout the novel, but none of them are characters we care about, so it doesn’t become much of anything. Simone loses one friend in the shooting and she is the emotional anchor of her life trajectory.
Everyone else in her life lives; the friend dies too early in the novel for us to develop any feelings for her. An event like this has to be extremely traumatic, but we hardly get to see the scars, what we see in Simone isn’t very different from what we see in the movies about average American teenagers, all trust fund kids, like Simone is, with zero consciousness of their privilege, and unexplained hatred for their parents who just don’t get them. This is an exhausted character and I am someone who loves such exhausted characters, because usually they are, at the very least, fun. Simone is not. Reed who becomes a cop after the tragedy is given even less of a story. He isn’t in bad terms with his family. He is a good cop. He can never forget what happened that night.
And then he falls in love with Simone. This pretty much sums his life in the book. This is a completely white novel, where in the name of tokenism there is all of one person of color with somewhat a significant part—Mi—but she doesn’t get to do much in the novel other than supporting Simone, even though she herself is a major victim of the gun violence, more so than Simone in many ways. With not much thrill, and an absolutely dud romance, this is a book you can easily give a miss even if you are a fan of the writer. As for me, I wish I would have stayed a Nora Roberts virgin. But since I am not now, I am calling this a one-night-stand, and forgetting all about it.