Review: ‘You Say It First’ (Happily Inc #1) by Susan Mallery

You Say It First

Famous sculptor Nick Mitchell decides to live with his brothers in Happily, Inc, “an entire town devoted to the destination wedding,” for a while before a huge international commission that he is confident he will get (He is a ‘Mitchell’, after all) will whisk him off to Dubai for two years. There, he decides to take up a temporary job with wedding planner Pallas Saunders. Little did he know that his first gig would be to bronze up and carry a palanquin for a ‘Roman-themed’ wedding.

Local girl and newly-minted owner of ‘Weddings in a Box,’ Pallas Saunders is struggling to figure which direction to take her life in after her old boss died and left his wedding planning business to her. The plan was to go to college and work in the bank with her mother. Eight years later, Pallas is armed with a degree in finance but no real desire to follow in her mother’s footsteps. When the sexy and thoughtful Nick focusses his charms her way, she is bewildered by what she feels for a man she has done nothing for.

While Nick and Pallas fall into an easy relationship, both of them come into it with a lot of baggage. Growing with a disapproving mother was very hard for Pallas, who could never understand why she had to earn her only parent’s love. That hole is filled by her circle of supportive friends, who will obviously be protagonists in subsequent books, and her family. Nick grew up in the shadow of a famous and abusive father, which made him swear off passion because he does not “want to destroy someone or be destroyed.” He likes Pallas well enough, but he is sure that there can never be anything long-term for him here. When Nick and Pallas receive some unexpected news that forces them to re-evaluate their long-held beliefs, will they have the courage to make it or not?

From what I gather, Ms. Mallery’s new series is linked to her Fool’s Gold series. However, since I haven’t gotten around to reading those yet, I am sure I missed out on the pleasure that longtime fans will get from the characters that recur. While this book has a lot of elements of contemporary romance, for me it veered more into the “women’s fiction” or “chick lit” genres. Nick and Pallas’s romance, while sweet, was nothing memorable. The best plot development happens when the protagonists are with their friends and family. It was the joy to see the group come together for Pallas every time she had a big event, giving me serious Bride Quartet (Nora Roberts) vibes. Since this is my first Susan Mallery, I can only imagine how she managed to lay out a convincing love story while simultaneously sowing the seeds for another 3-4 books, at least. For me, the best part of the book was watching Pallas become a confident woman who could take on the world with a new kickass business and the hunky Nick by her side.

Though a shaky start to the series, I will definitely read the rest of the books in the Happily Inc universe to see how all the characters I learned of in You Say It First end up.

I was provided an ARC through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

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Review: ‘Me Before You’ & ‘After You’ by Jojo Moyes

Romance novels have happy endings. The hero and heroine kiss and/or marry and/or ride into the sunset. They live happily ever after, or in the genre shorthand, HEA. Having grown up reading romance novels, I used to believe love was the most important thing. But no major literary critic has ever treated romance as a serious genre. Happiness is a frivolous dream; reality is harsh and serious, like a Dickensian novel. As a skeptical Harper’s article puts it, “Bad Romance: One genre and a billion happy endings.”

(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD)

Me Before You

If happy endings define crappy romance for critics, the Jojo Moyes’ now-a-major-motion-picture best-seller Me Before You poses an interesting case. The novel is about the relationship between Will Traynor–a former high-powered executive put in a wheelchair by a motorcycle accident–and his caregiver, Louisa Clark. The two do fall in love, but they don’t live happily ever after. Will, paralyzed from the neck down, is miserable, and even Louisa’s love can’t reconcile him to the limitations of his wheelchair. At the book’s conclusion, he goes to Dignitas, the assisted dying organization in Switzerland, and ends his life. as Louisa, grief-stricken, looks on.

Not the upbeat love-and-marriage ending you expect from a romance. And yet, putting the ending aside, Me Before You has almost all the characteristics of a romance novel. As with most heroes in romance novels, Will is wealthy, powerful, controlling, and emotionally distant. Even beyond the damaged hero, though, Me Before You functions as a romance because it’s about two people falling in love, and becoming more complete, and more themselves, while doing so.

Louisa, at the start of the novel, is a lower-middle-class woman afraid to dream beyond her small English town and bland, exercise-crazed boyfriend. Will, before his accident, was, in his own words, a self-centered “arse” and a callous womanizer; after his accident, he is consumed with bitterness. Over the course of the book, Will broadens Louisa’s horizons. He introduces her to opera (very Pretty Woman), travel, and her own potential. Louisa, for her part, helps Will overcome his self-centeredness, his bitterness, and even his depression. “I watched you these six months becoming a whole different person,” he tells Louisa, “someone who is only just beginning to see her possibilities. You have no idea how happy that has made me.” Will wants to die not because he is sad, but because he won’t accept the limited life he has, and the prospect of things getting worse. He even asks Louisa to help him die. “Give me the ending I’m hoping for,” he says.

The novel is heartbreaking because the HEA is right there, tantalizingly within reach. As I read the novel, I saw how it could work and how they could be happy together. At Will’s ex’s wedding, they share a dance together, Louisa sitting on Will’s lap in his motorized wheelchair, spinning together on the dance floor. Louisa, formerly a timid underachiever, transforms into a compulsive researcher who organizes a complicated last-minute trip to a seaside resort with Will. “I have learned so much, so much about how to make this work,” she says, “so I can do that and just be with you.”

But that’s not enough. “This could be a good life,” Will says when Louisa declares her love. “But it’s not my life.”Louisa professes her love in true romance novel fashion, and the hero not only rejects her, he decides to commit suicide. A more thorough refutation of the romance novel tropes is hard to imagine.

But, at the same time, the tropes are fulfilled. Because Will stays with her–in Louisa’s memory of him, and in the changes she has made in herself: her determination to go to school, to leave her tiny hometown, and to live a larger life. At the book’s end, as she reads his last words to her in a Paris cafe he asked her to visit for him, the two are together on the page. Which is, after all, where all romance novel happy endings live.

After You

I assume the unfulfilled romance of Me Before You irked a lot of readers who pestered Ms. Moyes about Louisa’s fate. She wrote a sequel, After You. Louisa, struggling with her own grief, tries to move on with her life in London, in part through a new relationship with Sam, and in part through a new job prospect in New York.

After You is a more conventional romance than Me Before You–which is to say, it has a happy ending. But just as the painful end of Me Before You is shadowed by the almost-happy conclusion, the happiness of After You is reached only after multiple suggested tragedies.

The first of these comes right at the beginning of the novel. Louisa accidentally falls off her roof and for a moment thinks she is paralyzed, like Will before her. The parallel is very direct: Louisa’s accident is recounted in a foreword, just as Will’s is. And Louisa herself asks the paramedic if she paralyzed. After You explicitly toys with the idea that it is the same sad story as Me Before You–and explicitly rejects it.

After You offers other wrong turns and unhappy, or mixed, endings, though. In fact, in some ways, the whole novel is a failed HEA. “Man dies, everyone learns something, moves on, creates something wonderful out of his death,” Louisa bitterly tells her grief-support group. “But that’s just a fairy-tale ending, isn’t it?” After You is about the way that the first book’s version of a happy ending failed–not just in that Will died, but in the sense that Louisa didn’t grow and change as Will, and the book’s readers, thought she would. Will’s death was supposed to leave her with a bigger life; instead, it turns out, it diminished her.

The HEA for After You is complicated, too. This is especially the case because the most resonant relationship in the novel, in many ways, is not Louisa and Sam, but Louisa and Will’s troubled teenage daughter, Lily. Lily, deeply unhappy, is desperately in need of love. Louisa needs her in return, both for herself and in order to stay true to Will. But caring for Lily interferes with both Louisa’s job prospects and her new romance. Would caring for Lily be a sad ending? Or is being a foster mother a happy enough ending to count in a romance? “That’s life,” Sam tells her. “We don’t know what will happen. Which is why we have to take our chances while we can. And…I think this might be yours.”

What chance is Sam referring to there? Part of what’s delightful, and pointed, about Ms. Moyes’ novels is that you’re not sure until the very end. After You isn’t as ruthless as Me Before You, but Ms. Moyes is a master of the wavering possibilities of good enough and is always aware of the limits that sometimes make even good enough impossible. Her other books suggest that acute awareness of failure is linked to her sensitivity to class and working-class British life. Ms. Moyes book The One Plus One is a harrowing record of the drip-drip-drip slow-motion desperation of poverty, a chronicle of how life at the bottom of the class ladder is a constant reiteration of ‘you can do neither.’ Happiness teeters over a precipice, and when it’s snatched from the edge, it’s almost a physical relief, not least because unhappiness is such a vividly presented option.

In Me Before You, and in her other romances, Ms. Moyes layers defeat over victory. But in that, she’s not somehow subverting romance. That’s what romance is.

Romance novels always have sad endings before their happy endings. There’s always a moment, or a lot more than a moment, of despair—a recognition that things could go horribly wrong, and probably did, or would. Ian McEwan’s Atonement is notorious for providing two endings, only one of them “real,” and only one with an HEA for the couple at its center. That’s supposed to make it tricky literary fiction. But really it just makes it an unusually meta romance. Everybody has imagined Romeo and Juliet happy; everyone who reads Pride and Prejudice gets through the bit where Elizabeth’s refusal of Darcy stands. And to read Me Before You is to imagine a shadow fiction next to the real fiction, where Will, instead of saying, “It’s not enough,” says, “Yes, it’s enough. I love you; let’s live.”

In fact, those happy endings and sad endings only have meaning because they exist together. The HEA (or even the happy for now) takes on moral and emotional force because it insists that happiness is deserved, in the full knowledge that often it isn’t possible. And those sad endings are heartbreaking because happiness is fully imagined, and sometimes attainable. Ms. Moyes’ novels, and romance novels in general, don’t gloss over despair, or pain, or sadness. Rather, they take happiness seriously precisely because they know heartbreak is always a possibility when you turn the page.

 

Review: “It Happened on Love Street” (Everland, Georgia #1) by Lia Riley

It Happened On Love Street

At first glance, it seems too schmaltzy to be true. And in the beginning, it was. The town is called Everland. The address is actually Love Street. The hero is named Rhett Valentine. And, in theory, I should have been gagging and/or derisively snorting while reading this book, but Lia Riley’s small-town contemporary romance is so charmingly adorable that, despite my horrible mood, I couldn’t stop awwing and laughing out loud while reading it.

It Happened on Love Street opens with recent law-school graduate and big city girl, Pepper Knight, relocating to fanciful Everland, Georgia, only to find out that the job she moved halfway across the country for has been given to someone else. Having always been the responsible one in her family, Pepper refuses to ask for help until she bumps into local vet and hottie, Rhett Valentine.

Rhett Valentine, (yes, of course, the name made me swoon) was left at the altar by his first love a few years ago and now he spends his time trying to build a local animal shelter while feuding with his father, and keeping his personal life from again becoming local gossip. When his new sexy, dog-fearing neighbor needs help, he jumps to her rescue and obviously sparks fly and they start a steamy affair.

As I said, it all seems very sweet on the surface, so sweet that it’s cloying. But as I read It Happened on Love Street, I fell in love with the protagonists and the kooky town of Everland, Georgia. While the “Southernness” of it all seemed a bit too much at times, Ms. Riley has peppered (LOL) the story with hilarious dialogue and endearing secondary characters. There are a couple of plotlines that seemed out of place, like a lifelong cynophobe becoming a dog walker overnight just because the cute guy asked her, and the completely unneeded Psycho scenario that popped up in the middle.

But I would recommend It Happened on Love Street to all readers of contemporary romance. It is sexy. It is funny. For some reason, it has a treasure hunt. It is peppered  (I can’t stop!) with hilarious pop culture references. And it has dogs named after authors and a hero named Rhett. If that doesn’t sell it, I don’t know what will.

Review: “Royal Affair” (Royals in Exile #2) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Affair

So despite not being a huge fan of the opener in this series, I decided to give Royal Affair a shot straight away. The premise was a bit cliched and, TBH, I wasn’t a huge fan of the story for about half of it. But I stuck wth it and I’m glad to say I was pleasantly surprised. #AlwaysFinishABook

Princess Charlotte Sinclair has always been the wallflower. The traumatic death of her parents and the subsequent exile in North Carolina has left her socially awkward and desirous of wanting a normal life. But when journalist Brooks Walker exposes her family, instead of being outraged like the rest of her siblings, Charlotte is fascinated by his take-no-prisoners, brash style of journalism. When they meet at a charity ball, she propositions him to have an affair with her in exchange for access to her secrets.

Despite coming from an illustrious family, Brooks Walker carved a name out for himself by building a media empire based on honest journalism, no matter how many people it pissed off in the process. When the sweetest of the Sinclairs suggests they have an affair, he readily agrees. However, he soon finds himself overwhelmed by the passion they share and starts to care for Charlotte. When an old enemy of the royal family resurfaces and gives Brooks the biggest scoop of his career, he must decide where his loyalties lie.

Again, I have to reiterate that I did not like this book in the beginning. I thought Charlotte was too naive and Brooke was too much of a wolf. Also, I believed there wasn’t any building up to the affair itself. Ms. Valentine writes like the first chapter is the fifth and the readers are supposed to know things not even mentioned in the previous books in the series.

However, in the later half of the book, there is a lot of character development. The motivation behind the protagonists’ unnatural obsession with each other is explained. Secondary characters are introduced to humanize Brooks, who I still think was portrayed as too jaded to convincingly fall in love with the princess he was supposed to use a source. As usual, there is a flurry of shocking revelations about the Sinclair family. There is A LOT of sex throughout the story, but it really doesn’t add anything to the plot.

Thankfully, this time the banter, as well as the inner monologues, were hilarious and made me actually like the characters. The conflicts were still superficial and resolved too quickly and easily to be of any consequence. But when Brooks and Charlotte finally got together, it seemed largely believable. I was fascinated by the hints dropped about Theo’s and Imogen’s upcoming stories. Hopefully, the next books in the series will actually be great and not fizzle out into mediocrity like the first two.

Review: “Royal Scandal” (Royals in Exile #1) by Marquita Valentine

Royal Scandal

At 19, Crown Prince Colin St Claire–sorry, Sinclair–is forced to go into hiding in small-town America with his siblings after a violent uprising in his homeland results in the death of his parents. There he meets spunky Della Hughes, 17, who treats him with a candor he finds refreshing. So, obviously, he doesn’t tell her he’s royalty. Moreover, he lets her believe he is the father of his two youngest siblings. A decade passes and now Colin is taking steps to reclaim his family’s rightful place. For that, he is required to marry a woman of the Parliament’s choosing but he has someone else in mind.

Della Hughes has been in love with her best friend Colin for as long as she can remember. Practically a co-parent to his “boys” and a part of the Sinclair family, she feels taken for granted because Colin has shown no interest in her as a woman over the past ten years. Imagine her surprise when she finds out he’s a prince and needs her to marry him to secure a real-life throne for his siblings.

Their deep friendship and love for each other (which is blindingly obvious to the rest of the world but not to them) makes them enter into a marriage of convenience, which quickly turns into a passionate union. However, as Colin and Della open up their hearts to each other, both are hiding secrets from the other which they think can destroy their relationship. Set against the backdrop of a litany of shocking revelations about the St Claire family and kingdom, this is, first, a story of how the St Claire family come to terms with their place in the world and then, a modern fairytale romance.

The book has a very contemporary feel to it, with numerous references to Beauty and the Beast and Stranger Things. Colin and Della are fairly progressive protagonists. They do, however, overthink the hell out of their problems, creating barriers where none were necessary on their path to finding true love. The book was unexpectedly sexy and it was slightly disconcerting (but not unenjoyable :P) to read graphic scenes when there was so much family drama in the air. Since Royal Scandal is the opening book in a series, Ms. Valentine laid the ground for a lot of subplots that would be developed in the upcoming stories. However, they sometimes took away from the centrality of Colin and Della’s romance.

Overall, Royal Scandal was an entertaining, if slightly messy, take on a modern fairytale romance. I am excited to see what lies in store for the rest of the St Claire family.

Review: “Left at the Altar” (A Match Made in Texas #1) by Margaret Brownley

Left at the Altar
Feuds don’t need no reason. Or at least none that matter.”
The year is 1880. The place, Two-Time, Texas, a town filled with gun-toting opinionated people with short fuses. In best-selling author Margaret Brownley’s opening book in her A Match Made in Texas series, Romeo and Juliet gets turned on its head and thoroughly (and delightfully) “western”-ized.
Meg Lockwood and Tommy Farrell have been friends all their life. Children of feuding jewelers who seek to control the town by imposing their own time zones, their wedding was supposed to broker a much sought temporal compromise that goes up in flames when Tommy jilts Meg at the altar.
The sole witness to her humiliation, Grant Garrison, an East Coast lawyer who has recently moved to Two-Time after the tragic death of his sister. Enchanted by Meg’s beauty and courage, Grant nonetheless agrees to represent Tommy in a breach of promise suit filed by meg’s furious father.
Despite their constant run-ins and instant mutual attraction, Grant stays away from Meg and is the perfect foil to the crazy Texans he’s surrounded by. Despite his staid demeanour, there are flashes of wit and a wicked sense of humour. Meg, on the other hand, was a romance heroine I had difficulty warming up to. At first, her thinking seemed provincial and mired in outdated societal mores like propriety and obedience. However, as the story progressed, however, and Meg herself started questioning the roles women are required to play throughout their lifetime (and the alternate ways they can wield power in the absence of political rights) gave the novel a much appreciated proto-feminist bent.
I haven’t read a lot of “clean” romances and it took me over 150 pages to realize that Left at the Altar was one of them. Ms Brownley managed to adequately convey the chemistry between the protagonists, though it is my personal belief that romance could have been developed a tad better. There were a lot of parallel story-lines which left little room for the romance to blossom independently.
The breach of promise suit proves to be a very interesting plot device and also ends up being quite educational through the nuanced arguments made in court and the author’s note at the end of the story. The feud angle felt a bit contrived to me in the beginning but the twisted revolution towards the end proved to be a satisfying explanation. Ms Brownley does a marvelous job of fleshing out her secondary characters and many remain memorable.
Ms Brownley’s Left at the Altar is a fun opener for her A Match Made in Texas series, incorporating socially conscious historical fiction with good, clean romance.   

Review: “A Way Back Into Love” by Veronica Thatcher

Way Back Into Love

I don’t have any particularly strong feelings on plagiarism. I’m from India. Some of our most famous songs and movies have been directly “inspired” from the works of others, to the extent that we just change the names of the characters and the setting to something that is “Indian” and release it. While it is true that it is insanely difficult to be truly original when it comes to artistic endeavours, creators should be aware of the thin line that divides an homage from a rip-off. Sadly, Ms Thatcher, a debut author, and an evident Grey’s Anatomy superfan, was unable to do so in her book, A Way Back Into Love.

Emily Stevens and Derek Thorpe (yes, Derek) have been best friends since childhood and it is blindingly obvious to the reader that they are both madly in love with each other. Of course, neither is sure of the other’s feelings even though they have no trouble in understanding every other innermost desire of their friend. After a drunken night and a busload of misunderstandings, Emily leaves California for Boston, heartbroken. Five years later, she returns to do her internship at the hospital where her parents are big-shots, carve an identity of her own and face Derek again. Derek, in the meantime, is engaged to Emily’s bitchy half-sister, Emma, and there seems to be no love lost between them. The big question is: Will Emily and Derek find their way back into love with each other?

To clarify, I don’t think it’s wrong at all to want the characters you create to resemble the characters you love. Hell, if I ever publish a book, I will strive to ensure that my hero is a mixture of Fitzwilliam Darcy, Rhett Butler, Chuck Bass and any Nora Roberts male protagonist. But when the similarities also extend to the family structure (Derek grew up in all-female household), the backstory (Emily’s mother is an accomplished surgeon but a cold mother), the secondary characters (Renee resembling Cristina and the nerdy guy contracting syphilis from a nurse) and an instance where Derek’s womanizing best friend, Carter, is accidentally referred to as Mark, it all becomes a bit too much. In addition, I found the banter between the protagonists very juvenile considering the fact they are surgical interns. The shifting POVs in the midst of the plot and the unconventional story structure that seemed to go on and on after what I thought should have been the Happily Ever After made this a very difficult read for me to like.

I would like to end my post by saying that I don’t hate the book. Despite its many shortcomings, I saw some potential in Ms Thatcher’s writing, especially in the moments when Derek and Emily are finding their way back to each other. I wish her all the best for her future.

I was provided a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The views expressed are personal and not meant to be derogatory in any respect.

Review: “Big Little Lies” by Liane Moriarty

big-little-lies

When I picked up my first Liane Moriarty at an airport a couple of years ago, I had to choose between an exploding rose and an exploding lollipop. From what little I could gather from the cover, The Husband’s Secret, my alternative, was about women with ethical and emotional issues, men with possibly criminal ones, and contentious goings-on at a school. If you’ve read Big Little Lies, or seen the Reese Witherspoon-Nicole Kidman-Shailene Woodley drama now on HBO, you’ll know it has more of the same.

I have always found Ms. Moriarty’s books to be long and gossipy as if she’s using stalling as a literary device. She introduces several sets of major characters, cutting back and forth among them, and scatters the narrative with foreshadowing about the terrible, terrible night — on which something terrible happened. The book is peppered with parents’ voices commenting cryptically and amusingly about whatever it was. Was the root cause a French nanny? An erotic book club? Head lice? Seeing how its predecessor was a #1 New York Times bestseller, Ms. Moriarty seems assured that her readers will happily plow through countless minor incidents to find out.

After a calamity has been established, we jump back to a chapter called “Six Months Before the Trivia Night.” And the book establishes what a power-crazed group parents of kindergarteners can be. The book is set on a scenic peninsula outside Sydney, Australia, near a beautiful beach, where there is only one school, which must accommodate children of very different backgrounds. So there are rich, bossy power moms and mousy stay-at-home types. One of the mice is the literally plain Jane, a single mother trying to make ends meet. New to the area, she gets into trouble before school has even started. At the end of orientation day, a hotshot mother with a high-powered job accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of having tried to hurt her daughter. Ziggy becomes a pariah, and Jane becomes a victim.

Two other moms come to Jane’s rescue. One is Celeste, who is impossibly perfect and beautiful — impossibly because, in Ms. Moriarty’s literary universe, everybody is hiding something awful. The other is Madeline Martha Mackenzie, for whom the wearing of spike heels is a main character trait and who tends to get outraged at the drop of a hat. Despite her apparent bubbly nature, Madeline was abandoned by a husband who now has a New Age-y wife and a young daughter who is in the same class with Madeline’s daughter with her second husband. And on and on it goes.

As the book proceeds and the schadenfreude kicks in, we discover just how secretly miserable these women are. Suffice it to say that bullying and cruelty were major themes throughout, with some well-researched parts about domestic violence thrown in. As for the question of whether Ziggy, who turns out to be the product of a one-night stand, really is a vicious boy at heart, the book traces a long strand of DNA right into one of the other kindergarten families.

Ms. Moriarty writes all this in an easy, girlfriend-y style that occasionally sounds flat. And a low-level bitchiness thrums throughout the narrative, becoming one of its indispensable pleasures. The witnesses’ descriptions of whatever happened are usually comically distorted, as in a game of telephone, so that everyone’s understanding of what happened at Trivia Night is at best half-wrong. The Australian busybody is a type very much in evidence here, and if there’s one trait all the mothers share, it’s wanting to bad-mouth all the other ones.

Ms. Moriarty also sends up the kinds of crises that rise to epic proportions in the hothouse of a contentious kindergarten. Woe betide the mother who loses Harry the Hippo, the official class toy. Here’s what she gets for trying to make reparations: “That cheap synthetic toy she replaced it with smelled just terrible. Made in China. The hippo’s face wasn’t even friendly.” Then there are the opposing forces that face off over a petition to ban birthday cupcakes. (“It’s so adversarial. Why can’t you just make a suggestion?”) But by the time the teacher insists that the kids make posters illustrating their family trees, real harm is being done over a supposedly innocent matter. Ziggy doesn’t even know his father’s name. And all hell will break loose if Jane reveals it.

The ferocity that Ms. Moriarty brings to scenes of masculine sadism really is shocking. A seemingly fluffy book suddenly touches base with vicious reality, in ways that gives Big Little Lies a definite edge over her earlier works. She’s done her homework well in describing the uh-oh moments, the tiny slights, the faint changes in the atmosphere around a charming, loving Dr. Jekyll who is about to turn into Mr. Hyde, and the battered woman who has learned to live with this and make excuses for it. Big Little Lies isn’t likely to attract much of a male readership, aside from the demographic of guys who enjoy being demonized. But it champions its women with a handy, all-purpose rationale: Sometimes doing the wrong thing is also right.

Review: “A Window Opens” by Elisabeth Egan

a-window-opens

There was this article in The New York Times a couple of years ago about Amazon, which sparked a larger debate about work culture at tech companies, that kept flashing in my head as I read Elisabeth Egan’s A Window Opens. Although the debut novelist sends her protagonist to work at a company called Scroll, the similarities between the two retail giants are fairly obvious. Both start off selling books and quickly expand to include anything a customer might want. Both make use of computer-generated data for a laser-like focus on commercial success. And both, apparently–if the Times report is to be believed–expect nothing less than complete, servile allegiance from their employees.

As A Window Opens begins, Alice is a part-time books columnist and a full-time mother of three. A New Jersey suburbanite, she enjoys spending time with her best friend, who owns an independent bookstore, her lawyer husband, and their extended family. The only disruption in her merry life is her father’s cancer, which has robbed him of his voice but appears to be in remission. All that changes when her husband’s career goes off the rails, and Alice is forced to seek a full-time job.

At first, the position at Scroll sounds ideal. Although Alice doesn’t understand much of the jargon of her new workplace, she is thrilled to be “Content Manager-slash-Industry Liaison,” or, as she is told by her chummy supervisor Genevieve, “an arbiter of impeccable taste,” collecting titles to sell in upscale Scroll “lounges.” She learns to call printed books “carbon based” and to mouth tenets like “we don’t sell merchandise, we sell the future.”

Although the job quickly becomes more than full-time and Alice misses “the kindergarten ice cream social, the first day of school, a PTA meeting,” she is content. Only just as Alice is almost accustomed to both the new grind and the loss of family time, her father’s health takes a turn for the worse. And then her bosses begin to ask for more, pushing Alice into a new position that targets her sensitivities both as a longtime bibliophile and as a mother.

That’s where Ms Egan, currently the books editor at Glamour magazine after a brief stint at Amazon Publishing, falters. Although the “pivot,” to use a Scroll word, isn’t that far-fetched, it is one step too far. It’s all a little too perfectly horrid, just as Genevieve is a little too duplicitous, bonding with Alice over House Hunters before firing off denigrating emails to Alice’s work account.

Likewise, her colleagues–all younger and apparently childless–are a little too clueless. Not one seems to have any understanding of how cancer affects a family, as if illness were only confined to the over-35 crowd, and when, on a visit to corporate headquarters, Alice overhears the line “What can I say? She’s a mom,” she recognizes it as an insult.

 With its sharp, perceptive humour, this novel plays like The Devil Wears Prada for the online giant, poking fun at the kind of ridiculous situations that anyone who has worked with a start-up will recognize. But A Window Opens lacks The Devil Wears Prada‘s moment of realization–that is, any revelation about the awful boss’s humanity. While we do get to see the toll of the stress on Genevieve–“her nails were dull, bitten to the quick. There was a greenish cast to her skin“–we never learn what motivated her. Without more understanding of how she became the “befriend then berate” leader who so disappointed Alice, Genevieve remains one-dimensional, as do too many of the supporting characters in this book.

Ms Egan obviously tapped into the zeitgeist with her debut, capturing not only the craziness of an Amazon-like company but also the debate over the “Lean In” philosophy that would have women, even mothers of three, commit to their jobs at any cost. She does so with wit, weaving the family stories into the workplace saga. But at almost-400 pages, A Window Opens is a little too long for what is simply a humourous, topical novel. The Scroll jargon must have been great fun to write, but replacing some of that with more fully realized characters would have made this book better.

Review: “Blue-Eyed Devil” (Travises #2) by Lisa Kleypas

blue-eyed-devil

Haven Travis thought she was in love. Not even a passionate makeout session with a stranger in the wine cellar at her brother’s wedding could stop her from marrying Nick Tanner, the boyfriend her overprotective family strongly disapproved of. Two years later, after having endured the worst kind of hell in her abusive marriage, Haven returns to Houston to rebuild her life. As she tries to work in her brother’s property management company, start therapy and get a divorce, Haven runs right into Hardy Cates, her sister-in-law’s trailer park teenage crush and now a wealthy Houston oil tycoon. Her body still recovering from Nick’s last beating, Haven is still drawn to Hardy, just as she was when she kissed him two years ago.

Hardy, intent on pursuing Haven, has no idea about the trauma she has suffered. In fact, he still sees her as a spoiled college girl whose apparent liberalism was more intellectual snobbery than authentic sentiment. So when Haven tends to act a bit standoffish in response to his assertive, even aggressive pursuit, Hardy isn’t sure she’s merely skittish or a tease, and he tries even harder to win her over, purchasing a condo in the Travis building where Haven works, buying her a gift that brings back memories of Haven’s childhood, and inviting her to a dance with him in front of her family, who see him as a no good, lying jerk who will take advantage of Haven if given half a chance.

One complaint that I have with some romance novels is how some heroines who are recovering from abusive relationships somehow subconsciously recognize the hero as “safe” and have little to no compunction about jumping into a relationship–and in bed–with him. What I liked about Blue-Eyed Devil the most is that it did not follow this cliched path. From Sugar Daddy, we know that Hardy has a dark past, and Haven, who had no sexual experience before Nick, was at a double disadvantage, leading to some scenes where there is a realistic sense of conflict between the protagonists, showcasing their vulnerabilities. Hardy has his own demons from his trailer-park childhood, which makes his attraction to Haven very believable in a way that it wasn’t with Liberty, in the same way that Haven’s attraction to a man who reminds her of her approval-withholding father seems kind of logical. For many readers, this kind of psychological layering makes Blue-Eyed Devil an “issue book,” but for me, it’s really a book about people who have issues that make them good for each other but in ways that are really complicated and not instantly negotiable.

Still, the story is a romance at heart, and there is a certain amount of tension between the way the book tries to show Haven’s emotional journey in an authentic way and the almost fairy tale level of happiness we know Haven and Hardy will ultimately enjoy. On the one hand, I was really moved by Hardy’s reaction when he finally learns about Haven’s past and starts putting all the mixed signals in order. On the other hand, it is obvious that the scene was set up to push Hardy and Haven into physical intimacy so that their romance arc could progress. So, while we see Haven struggling to move forward from her abuse by dealing with a sociopathic boss and freaking out about Hardy in therapy, there is also a sense of her recovery being rushed so that Haven can have a healthy romantic relationship as soon as possible.

Plus, it’s not like Hardy is without his flaws, even though we know that he is supposed to be The One for Haven.But his missteps give his character some much-needed depth and let us see that this is a man who understands how vicious families can be, especially when he has his own self-destructive streak to manage. In Sugar Daddy, he was shown to be ruthless, selfish and willing to betray a trust to get what he wanted. But by Blue-Eyed Devil, we are supposed to be able to trust him as an appropriate partner for a largely fragile Haven, which means we have to believe he is fundamentally a decent guy. It might not be a problem for people who haven’t read  Sugar Daddy, but to me, his rehabilitation seemed quite artificial. It was a lot more believable to see what Haven gives to Hardy than to see Hardy as the guy who “saves” Haven.

In the end, though, Blue-Eyed Devil is as misleading a title for what was mainly Haven’s story as Sugar Daddy was for Liberty’s story. It’s not that the romance was an unimportant or peripheral aspect, or that the men were forgettable characters, but that the plot had a lot more substance by being about a woman’s journey to being able to trust and accept herself again. Overall, it was an engaging, emotionally fulfilling and psychologically satisfying read despite its many flaws and inconsistencies.