Bella’s Run is not what you might expect when you think ‘rural romance’. The cover places it firmly in the tradition of formulaic romance fiction – a sort of Mills and Boon meets McLeod’s Daughters, where vast blue skies match the yearning blue eyes of a good looking country girl and her Wrangler-clad intended. But far from being just another cookie-cutter romance, Margareta Osborn’s novel explodes with energy from the first page, offering empowered, anarchic protagonists and a contagious affection for the outback landscape.
Bella Vermaelon and her best mate Patty are off on a road trip to remote central Queensland. Young and free-spirited, they bounce from job to job, mustering cattle and doing odd-jobs on stations, relying on no one but each other to take their adventure to its limits. When they cross paths with Patty’s brother, Will, the girls realise how much they’ve missed their Victorian mountain home and Bella, for the first time in her life, begins to flirt with the notion of settling down. But the path of true love, of course, never runs smoothly and, when tragedy strikes, Bella’s world is turned upside down.
This may seem like a fairly predictable narrative. And it’s true that many aspects of the book satisfy romance fiction requirements: star-crossed lovers, the heated intensity of first glances and brushed fingers, melodramatic twists, heaving bosoms and bulging trousers – it’s all there. But that is just about where the formula ends. The distinctive characterisations and authentic descriptions of rural life lift the novel above its more run-of-the-mill contemporaries.
Bella and Patty’s hard core partying is more reminiscent of a grunge novel than an old-fashioned wistful romance. Downing rum and coke as they whip the men around them into submission (and I mean that literally), the girls are an unstoppable pair of horse-riding, ute-driving cowgirls with an enviable lust for life. I admired their easy confidence in their own skins, particularly around lecherous station men. At the same time, their drunken escapades left me feeling very glad for my current sedate lifestyle where next-morning regrets are a thing of the past. I was surprised at their free and easy use of C-words … like cake, chocolate and cheese! I cannot recall another example of romance fiction, or the chick lit hits of recent years, where the protagonist would chow down on a bacon sarnie alongside the man of her lustful dreams. There is much to differentiate these girls from the stereotypical forlorn females of your average tales of love and loss.
Osborn’s novel breaks new ground in rural fiction, as well as drawing a very modern picture of the outback heroine. I asked her whether she felt there were any differences between the ways city girls and country girls approach love and romance? “No. Not really,” she said. “We all fall in love with the wrong bloke and then, if we’re lucky, end up with the one we should have started out with in the first place.” She elaborated that there may be some differences in the ways girls actually meet men. “We country girls might wander off to a B & S, a Young Farmers Ball, or the Deni Ute muster. A city girl might head to a nightclub or bar perhaps. But we’re all looking for love and the happily ever after, aren’t we?”
Another distinctive feature of this book is how at home Osborn is in this setting. Drawing from her own life as a fifth generation farmer, her descriptions of the land are heart-felt, from the colours of the sweeping hills to the small details of rural life, like farming techniques, clothes and music. This is no city-slicker’s idealised view of the land.
I asked Margareta what it is about the outback that she finds so inspiring? “My family’s property has been in our care for 150 years and that is something very special in this modern and transient age,” she said. “Bella’s Run is steeped with my passionate love for country life and working the land. My surroundings give me a sense of place, of community, of belonging. Rural life grounds me and makes me who I am. Through my books I want others to experience this incredible life, which we country people are privileged to love and live.”
As just one city-hugging reader, Osborn’s descriptions had me tasting the fresh air and feeling the sun on my back. She also helped me appreciate how tough it can be to keep a vast station ticking along through droughts and storms while juggling the usual array of family dramas (and, of course, for the novel’s sake, unrequited love). I questioned how Osborn herself manages to write in between raising children and working on her property? “Seriously, it is hard. Really hard. But I guess it’s the same with most things. If you really, really want to do something, you will find a way”. She has given this spirit of resilience and tenacity to the formidable Bella who does, of course, get her man in the end (spoilers!) but who does so after learning some very hard lessons, and well and truly on her own terms.
Bella’s Run is released in March 2012, published by Bantam Press, also available as an eBook, is great romantic escapism, and may even teach you a thing or two.
* Want to WIN a copy of Bella’s Run? The generous souls at Random House have allowed me to share this raunchy romance with one of my readers. Just write ‘Pick me!’ in the comments area below before 5pm (Qld time) on Friday 9th March. A winner will be chosen at random (geddit?). Happy reading!
This review will also be listed as part of the 2012 Australian Women Writers reading challenge.