Review: “Night Whispers” (Second Opportunities #3) by Judith McNaught

Night Whispers

After re-reading Judith McNaught’s Paradise and Perfect and enjoying them a lot more than I did as a teenager, I was very excited to read the third instalment in her Second Opportunities series. Not having read Night Whispers earlier, I ended up finishing the book in a single stretch. However, it failed to pack the punch its predecessors did.

Sloan Reynolds is an idealistic cop with a perfect life. She has a doting mother, a spunky best friend, a town full of people who either want to be her or be with her. Her peaceful existence is shattered by a phone call from her estranged father, a millionaire banker-socialite, hoping to mend fences thirty years after he had abandoned Sloan and her mother and taken Sloan’s sister with him. Sloan tells him to go to hell, but a meeting with FBI agent Paul Richardson convinces her to go to Palm Beach, with him posing as her friend, to spy on her father. However, she doesn’t know that Paul is hiding a crucial piece of the puzzle from her.

Once she’s there, Sloan has a hard time warming up to her father, her sister Paris, and her great-grandmother Edith. Constantly feeling out of her league and pretending to be someone she isn’t, she doesn’t even know how to respond to the advances of Noah Maitland, the handsome tycoon who’s also a family friend. With time, she begins to fall, not just for Noah, but also his irascible teenage sister, Courtney, and his charming father, Douglas. Sloan also forges strong bonds with Paris and Edith, but she can’t seem to shake her distrust of her father. As usual, the supporting characters have been sketched delightfully by McNaught, but Sloan’s father could have done with a lot more character development.

The rest of the novel follows the pattern McNaught has stuck to in all of her books. An intelligent, beautiful woman and a rich, handsome and arrogant man fall in love until a Big Misunderstanding tears them apart and they have to overcome their demons to find true love. Which is fine, if it wasn’t for the fact that in Night Whispers, McNaught has tried to hybridise the romance with a very trite crime/murder-mystery plot that rears its head only in the last quarter of the book. The story is shorter than usual, and McNaught has squandered those pages describing police procedure instead of fleshing out the elaborate love story she is famous for.

Night Whispers is a subpar read as compared to McNaught’s other works, be it contemporary or historical romance. The suspense is too predictable and the background is not given enough attention. The characters were the saving grace, equivalent to great actors doing a bad movie. Fans of McNaught might like this book and the links it draws to her other works. But I would not recommend this book to fans of either mysteries or romance.

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Review: “Perfect” (Second Opportunities #2) by Judith McNaught

Perfect.jpg

Anyone who knows my taste in men knows that I am a sucker for doomed love :p So, any book where the protagonists face seemingly insurmountable obstacles, whose time together is limited, whose love is forbidden by law or society will always tug at my heartstrings. Buoyed by the euphoria I experienced after rediscovering Judith McNaught’s Paradise, I was all set to fall in love all over again with its sequel, Perfect. Needless to say, I was not disappointed.

At the age of eighteen, Zachary Benedict was shut out of his life of wealth and privilege by his unforgiving grandmother, who wanted to teach him a lesson. With nothing but the clothes on his back and barely a penny to his name, Zack hitched a ride all the way to Hollywood, where he took a job working on the docks. Soon he was discovered by a producer and embarked on an acting career that turned him into a household name. Despite winning multiple Oscars and marrying a famous actress, he was never entirely happy with his life. His marriage was on the rocks, and as he was about to wrap the production of his latest film in which his wife was also starring, he found her in flagrante delicto with one of their co-stars. The next day, she was shot dead on the movie set. Seemingly the only person with a motive to kill her, Zack was charged with and later, convicted of her murder. After unjustly spending five years in prison, Zack hatches a daring escape plan. Everything is going perfectly till his getaway car is towed. Desperate to get away as fast as he can, he tricks a young woman into giving him a ride. However, as soon as she realizes what’s going on, Zack is forced to make her his hostage.

Julie Mathison was abandoned as a baby and grew up in a string of foster homes and on the streets, until a kind and loving family finally adopted her when she was eleven. Their faith in her never wavered, something she’d never experienced in her life, so she, in turn, promised to be a “perfect” person they could be proud of. She’s made a life for herself as a well-respected school teacher, runs an adult literacy program, and volunteers for many community activities. As she’s returning from a brief trip to solicit funds for her adult reading class, she chances to meet a man whom she thinks is a kind stranger. He turns out to be a wanted fugitive. At first fearing for her life, Julie complies with his wishes, but she also bravely does everything she can think of to try to get away from Zack. When she finally has the perfect opportunity to escape, a moment of unexpected vulnerability on Zack’s part makes her hesitate. Soon she finds herself ensconced with the handsome actor in a luxury mountaintop cabin in the middle of a snowstorm. As Julie spends time in Zack’s company and gets to know him, she slowly comes to believe that he is indeed innocent of the charges against him.

To Zack, Julie is a breath of fresh air. She’s kind, sweet, and genuine with the heart of a lion, nothing at all like his former wife or the other starlets he used to date. Romance and passion blossom between the pair, but Zack knows he must soon leave Julie behind in order to flee the country. Even though he’s grown to love her in a way he never thought possible, it wouldn’t be fair to her to take her with him, when he has nothing to offer but a dangerous life on the run. Instead, Zack sends Julie back to the safety of her hometown, with a good cover story that he hopes will save her reputation, intending to never see her again. But the love between them is stronger than he realized. Being without Julie is torturous, and when he believes she might be pregnant with his child, he risks everything to be with her again, only to be led to believe she betrayed him in the cruelest possible way. If Zack’s innocence can ever be proven, will he be able to find it in his heart to forgive Julie, or will they be doomed to live separate lives?

Matt and Meredith, the hero and heroine of Paradise, appear several times as secondary characters. Matt is Zack’s best and really his only true friend, and he and Meredith are the only ones who never lose faith in Zack’s innocence. In fact, Matt moves heaven and earth to prove it. We also get to see more of Matt’s amusing bodyguard/chauffeur, Joe O’Hara, who appears in another of Ms. McNaught’s books, Someone to Watch Over Me. We also meet FBI agent, Paul Richardson, who seems like a good guy but who kind of gets left out in the cold when Julie and Zack reunite. He shows up again in book three of the series, Night Whispers.

This story took me on an emotional roller coaster that left me breathless at every page. I got to witness the long path of growth the characters have to go through and how it impacts their first impressions, their struggles, their expectations. And then there were Ms. McNaught’s trademark sizzling sex scenes.

But this is not a book only about love. Forgiveness and hope also play an instrumental role in the story and readers will ask themselves whether it’s possible to rebuild those bridges that have been burnt, once there’s the will to do so. And the characters’ journey shows that maybe we can launch ourselves into a new life and build our future if we face up to our past first and heal those wounds that plague us.

The first time I read this book, I was obsessed with it. I was concerned when I opened the book recently to do this review that some of the magic may have faded. While the book as a whole might not have been quite flawless for me, it did contain one of the most perfect love scenes I’ve ever read in a romance novel. Once Zack and Julie finally start talking and getting to know one another on a more personal level, it builds a strong sense of intimacy and connection that makes their first love scene utterly beautiful. It’s filled with the tenderness, love and passion I crave in a romance. Even though I saw flaws in it I didn’t notice before, it still captures all the elements of an exceptional love story: chemistry, conflict, and good characterization. Perfect will always have a special place in my heart.

Review: “Paradise” (Second Opportunities #1) by Judith McNaught

Paradise

I have a good feeling about 2016. This feeling is based on no facts whatsoever but I’ve been saying it to every person I’ve talked to in  the past two days. Last year, I resolved to become a better reader instead of a faster reader, picking quality over quantity. As a result, I ended up enjoying almost every single book I laid my hands on in 2015. This year, my resolution is a lot simpler. I will read books that are “fun”. Unless I can’t help myself, I will stick to books that are relaxing, funny, exciting, thrilling and much, much more.

The book that is to blame for this decision is Paradise by New York Times bestselling author Judith McNaught. A part of me was hesitant to review an old favourite. What if it doesn’t measure up? I loved the book because I am a die-hard McNaught fan, (McNaught’s Something Wonderful was my first non-Mills & Boon romance) but what if it wasn’t as good as I remembered? I had picked it up as a weekend respite, I still ended up laughing and crying like I had no idea what was going to happen next.

Paradise is the story of a young man and woman in love who are cruelly parted and the people they become eleven years later. You may be tempted to dismiss it as just another book about misunderstandings or millionaires, but it might end up surprising you.

As the heiress to a department store fortune, Meredith Bancroft grew up in a world of wealth and privilege. Her social status, however, couldn’t protect her from being an outcast in the school her father sent her to, so she was always acutely aware of those less fortunate than herself. At eighteen, she was introduced to Matthew Farrell, a young man from the opposite side of the tracks, who’d been invited to an exclusive country club by some of her acquaintances. Realizing that these people only brought him there to poke fun at him, Meredith extends a hand of friendship to him. They instantly hit it off, and later, when he takes her home, they share an unforgettable night of passion. When Meredith discovers that she’s pregnant a couple of months later, she fears what her strict, conservative father will do when he finds out. She seeks Matt out, asking for a marriage in name only to appease her father. Having never forgotten Meredith, Matt is more than willing to step up to the plate and be both a husband and father if she’ll have him, but he’s already signed a contract to work in the Venezuelan oil fields and will be leaving in a week. After a quick wedding, they spend the rest of their remaining time trying to get to know one another as best they can before he has to leave, but it isn’t well enough to overcome her father’s machinations once they’ve parted.

Eleven long years later, Matt has finally accomplished his life’s ambition of becoming a corporate raider. He’s known the world over for his business acumen, as well as his highly publicized love affairs. He poured himself into his work in an attempt to forget Meredith, and although he’s tried to convince himself that he no longer feels anything for her, she’s never completely left his mind. Now he’s back in her hometown of Chicago, finalizing the takeover of yet another company. When Matt sees Meredith again, she stirs feelings in him he thought he’d put to rest, but because of the past and unaware of her father’s vendetta against him, he believes she’s nothing but a snobbish socialite. He decides to get revenge on both her and her father by taking over the department store that means so much to both of them. But when he finally discovers the truth about what happened all those years ago, it places him on a collision course with destiny. Now certain that Meredith still has feelings for him too, he sets about attempting a takeover of a different kind – one that he hopes will win her heart.

As I read Paradise this time through, I thought a lot about what makes it so special. One thing I truly appreciated is that McNaught doesn’t skimp on the reader. This book is over seven hundred pages long, and not one page is wasted. We are allowed to see Meredith as an awkward preteen, and we fully experience Matt and Meredith’s early romance. Frankly, I doubt a new romance author today could get such a long book published. As it is we become thoroughly attached to Matt and Meredith before their tragic parting, which makes their separation much more poignant.

While most Big Misunderstandings make me grit my teeth in annoyance, Matt and Meredith’s Big Mis is a fundamental strength of the book. So often a misunderstanding is rooted in something truly idiotic, like the hero catching the heroine hugging another man, whom any idiot (except him) can tell is her brother. But the Big Mis here is perpetrated, believably, by Meredith’s controlling father. Matt and Meredith are in love, but they are both naïve, and both fail to understand just how far her father is willing to go to separate them. The scene in which Meredith miscarries and calls and calls for Matt is utterly heartbreaking. It always reminds me of a similar scene in Gone With the Wind, which, come to think of it, also occurs after a miscarriage. Scarlett calls for Rhett, and nobody hears her; Rhett is in another room wishing and wishing that she would call his name. Every time I read it I want to insert myself in the book somehow and fix things, which is just how I feel with Matt and Meredith. The payoff comes in the incredibly touching scene when Meredith finds out about her father’s deception and tells Matt the truth. I cried like a baby even though it was my seventh reading.

But perhaps the real reason this book works so well is that the characters are lovable and real. Yes, they are both stunning, and yes, they are both super rich. But both are the kind of people you can root for. They both have to overcome prejudice; Matt has his impoverished past, and Meredith has a controlling father with an unfair gender bias. When Meredith and Matt are together, they truly enjoy each other’s company, even when they are in the midst of their misconceptions about each other. They are flanked by a cast of secondary characters who really add to the story, and their respective business scenes are always interesting.

I absolutely adore almost all of McNaught’s books, but Paradise is still more special than most others. This is a book that might make you cry buckets, but it will also make you believe in the power of love in a non-cloying way. Matt and Meredith endure heartbreaking loss and eventually find joy in each other. Rereading it reminded me of all the things I love about romance. It is truly one of the best the genre has to offer.