Don’t You Forget About Me – Mhairi McFarlane

Fans of Simple Minds (or the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club) will likely recognize the title of Mhairi McFarlane’s latest novel Don’t You Forget About Me at a glance. The comparison pretty much stops there, though.

Georgina Horspool meets Lucas McCarthy in school. He’s a transplant from Ireland and forgetabout methe two bond over an English project about Wuthering Heights. Soon the pair are inseparable and Georgina admits that “I didn’t know what falling in love felt like, I’d never done it before. I discovered you recognize it easily when it arrives.”

But then something happens at the pair’s ‘leaving party’ (the book takes place in the U.K., so let’s say prom party) and whatever was between them is suddenly over.

The book fast forwards 12 years at this point and we catch up with Georgina just as her life is falling apart. She’s fired from her job at a crappy Italian restaurant and then she walks in on her boyfriend Robin, a minor-celebrity comic, in a compromising position with his assistant. Her relationship with her older sister, Esther, and her mother is prickly. She has good friends, sure, but most everything else in her life is shite. A last minute bar tending job brings her back into Lucas McCarthy’s orbit. The thing is, he doesn’t seem to remember her. Like, at all.

McFarlane’s book depends on the assumption that readers’ patience will last through  400 plus pages. Truthfully, I almost abandoned the book around page 50 because it felt like it was trying so hard to be a British rom com in the vein of Richard Curtis (and, trust me, no one loves Love Actually  more than me!) It just felt disingenuous. But a friend whose reading proclivities are similar to my own said she liked it, so I picked it back up and settled into the book. I’m not going to say that it 100% won me over, but I didn’t find the book as irksome as I did when I first started it.

Georgina, as it turns out, has a lot of baggage. Her life is stuck. Her beloved father died when she was in her first year of university. Her mother’s new husband is a loathsome bully. And then there’s the thing that happened at the prom that  ended Georgina’s relationship with Lucas. When Lucas’s brother, Devlin, offers Georgina a job at the brothers’ new pub, it puts the pair in close proximity. Lucas is “at turns standoffish, slyly funny, dour, mischievous, helpful, haughty. It’s behaviour borne of beauty privilege….”

For me, some of the novel’s moving parts seemed slightly contrived and some of the resulting patch-ups are sort of deflated by that. I also felt like Lucas was, although certainly attractive, not a fully realized character. Georgina is transformed by a beautiful adult coat. Familial relationships are repaired almost by magic.

I don’t read a lot of romance novels. I think Don’t You Forget About Me  is trying for something slightly more complicated than straight-up romance and I liked that about it.  It takes a LONG time for these two to find their way back to each other, but most readers will likely find the journey worthwhile.

 

Starry Eyes – Jenn Bennett

Although it took the story a little while to get going, Jenn Bennett’s YA romance 94B71DCC-2A46-44E4-90BF-CABC55A86A33Starry Eyes ended up being a sweet love story with believable main characters.

Seventeen-year-old Zorie lives with her father and stepmother in Melita Hills, California. Her parents own a health clinic, acupuncture and massage and the like. Sharing the building with them is Toys in the Attic, a sex shop owned by Sunny and Jane, married mothers to Lennon. Lennon and Zorie used to be besties. Childhood friends whose feelings for each other had crossed the line into something more complicated before Lennon ditched Zorie, without explanation, Before the homecoming dance. Now the two are barely speaking to each other. And Zorie’s father seems to have a total hate-on for Lennon and his moms now, too.

It’s the summer before senior year and Zorie is in hard-core planning mode. She’s a planner because “Spontaneity is overrated.” When she is invited on a glamping trip (high end camping) with her “kind of, sort of friend” Reagan, she really doesn’t want to go. Her mother thinks it would be good for Zorie to go, though, and when Zorie finds out that Brett, “a minor celebrity in our school” will be going, Zorie agrees to go with.  Zorie has been “nursing a crush on him since elementary school” and the two had exchanged one kiss at a party. There’s also the problem that Zorie has recently discovered that her father has been cheating on her mom and she needs some time to decide how to handle the discovery.

Things get complicated when it turns out that Lennon is also going on the trip.

The first third of the book sets up this premise, and it’s the part of the book that moved the most slowly for me. When I was done reading, I did understand why some of this set up was important, but for the me, the best part of the book was when Zorie and Lennon suddenly find themselves on their own in the woods.

Being alone gives them a chance to talk, something the two hadn’t really done for a long time. There’s real energy between the pair, sexual energy, for sure, but also something more powerful: Zorie and Lennon clearly care very deeply for each other. As they walk through the woods, they talk. They are not distracted by the outside world and the solitude gives them time to reveal long-held wounds.

Readers will root for Zorie and Lennon. These are imperfect teens, but they also felt real to me. There’s a beating heart at the centre of this romance.

 

One Day in December – Josie Silver

I expect to be in the minority here, but I really didn’t see the charm of Josie Silver’s B697342F-E7EB-45CA-8ED5-439900BCD1C2novel One Day in December. It’s a book that depends on the chemistry of the central characters, Laurie and Jack, and our willingness to believe that a fleeting eye-lock might actually change the trajectory of someone’s life.

Laurie lives with her bestie, Sarah. They live in London, working post-college jobs and bemoaning their love lives (or lack thereof) over weird little sandwiches made with chicken, blue cheese, mayo and cranberry.

One day on the bus, Laurie locks eyes with a stranger waiting at a bus stop.

We are staring straight at each other and I can’t look away. I feel my lips move as if I’m going to say something, God knows what, and all of a sudden and out of nowhere I need to get off this bus. I’m gripped with the overwhelming urge to go outside, to get to him. But I don’t.

Laurie spends the next year boo-hooing about the boy, looking for him everywhere she goes, determined that he’s the one. And then, there he is. It’s a Christmas miracle. Except maybe not so much because it turns out that the love of Laurie’s life is Sarah’s new boyfriend.

Silver toggles the narrative between Laurie and Jack, so that we get to see just how tortured and two-sided these star-crossed lovers are. Because  – of course –  Jack remembers Laurie from the bus and  – of course –  he hopes she doesn’t realize who he is because he is trying “to establish her place in [his] head as Sarah’s friend rather than the girl I saw once and have thought of often since.” Even though Sarah is smoking hot he worries that if he and Sarah break up she’ll “spirit Laurie away with her.”

Ah, the tangled web.

Jack and Laurie’s relationship morphs over the ten years of the novel. That’s a lot of time to be pining for someone else. Laurie runs away to Thailand for a time and there she meets Oscar, a London banker, “but not a wanker”, who is “funny, self-deprecating, and when he looks at [her] there’s a kindness in his eyes that warms [her].” Truthfully, he’s an altogether nicer bloke than Jack.

But the heart wants what it wants, I guess. At least that’s the premise of Silver’s confection. You’ll need to believe in Jack and Laurie to fall in love with the book. I didn’t care about either of them.

The Little Paris Bookshop – Nina George

F96E7CCB-2F2E-4033-A1CA-9F4483B1F637A friend once told me that I was the most romantic person they’d ever met. I don’t actually think that’s true. Or, if it used to be true, it’s not true anymore. I think I am cynical about romance now and it’s through that cynical lens I read Nina George’s much lauded novel The Little Paris Bookshop which made me cringe on so, so many levels.

Jean Perdu (and as I was pointing out some of the novel’s cringe-ier moments, my son said “Perdu means lost, mom”) is a “literary apothecary”. Basically, he can find the right book for what ails you. Geesh, I can do that out of my classroom library, but whatever. He lives in Paris and sells books out of a barge docked on the Seine.

One day, a new woman moves into his apartment building. She’s left her husband and has nothing, so the concierge of his building asks if he might have a table to loan her. He does; the problem is that this table is in a room that he blocked off with a wall of books twenty years ago. For reasons.

The delivery of the table sets off a whole chain of events. The woman, Catherine, finds a letter in the table and it is this letter (and Perdu’s sudden and unexpected feelings for Catherine) which set the novel’s main narrative in motion. Because suddenly Perdu knows what happened to Manon (simply called ———-, for the first part of the story because, clearly, it’s too painful for Perdu to even say her name), the LOVE of his life. She disappeared twenty years ago and for twenty years Perdu has been healing others with his books, but not healing himself. (INSERT EYEROLL)

When he gets his first erection of the last twenty years, Perdu has no choice but to RUN AWAY. He hops onto his barge, about to make a clean getaway when suddenly he is joined by Max Jordan, a wunderkind writer who is now suffering from crippling writer’s block. So, the two of them float down the Seine – Perdu in an effort to bury the past and Max just because.  Along the way, they pick up one more guy, Cuneo.

The Little Paris Bookshop is a road trip bromance sort of novel filled with pithy observations about the world and set-pieces designed to show these dudes as enlightened beings. The women in the novel are props. Everyone is thoughtful and forgiving and treacly.

I had high hopes for this book. Paris (which I visited for the first time in July 2018), books: what’s not to love? I thought.

Le sigh.

Coming Up For Air – Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry’s heroines all have the same problem: they are women of a certain age at a crossroads in their lives. For Amy, the protagonist in my first Henry novel Losing the Moon, it’s the unexpected reunion with her college boyfriend, Nick. In Where the River Runs  it’s the emotions rekindled by revisiting a tragedy from Meridy’s youth.

Then there’s Ellie Calvin, the main character in Coming Up For Air. Ellie realizes at her coming-up-for-airmother’s funeral that she no longer loves her husband, Rusty. Truth be told, he’s a bit of a douche, a passive aggressive clout from the right side of the tracks. What Ellie really longs for is Hutch, her “bad boy” college boyfriend. Of course, she doesn’t know that just yet. It’s not until he’s suddenly standing in front of her and

…I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn’t passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind.

As a reader, you pretty much know what’s going to happen about then – all that remains to be seen is just how meandering the journey. In this instance, Hutch is an historian and he’s been working on an exhibit at the Atlanta History Centre, an exhibit honouring some of the South’s great dames – in which Ellie’s mother, Lillian,  figures prominently. Ellie has had a prickly relationship with her mother. Much of the acrimony,  ironically, involved Hutch.

Then Ellie finds a journal her mother kept. The entries, one a year, reveal that Ellie’s mother wasn’t always the proper and stiff woman Ellie had grown up. In fact, she’d had a deep and passionate love affair before she’d married Ellie’s father to a man identified only as Him.(Not sure why it’s capitalized.)  Furthermore, she’d been involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously, Ellie and Hutch need to find out what all this means and so they head down to the Alabama coast where Lillian’s best friend, Ms. Birdie, lives. Ms. Birdie also happens to be Ellie’s best friend’s mom…so, see how that all works out? Of course, Ms. Birdie is reluctant to tell Ellie anything much. There’s still half a book to get through, after all.

I read the whole thing, of course I did. It’s not because it’s full of hot sex, either. Hutch and Ellie barely exchange a platonic kiss. It’s not because I particularly cared about any of the characters. Even the revelation of who the mysterious Him was is a disappointment. I was hoping Lillian had been really brave.

I guess I didn’t give up on Coming Up For Air because the romantic in me wants to see the potential for love at a certain age. I’m older than Ellie and I don’t have a marriage to walk away from anymore, but I do – sometimes – long for that chemical connection. Of course, I don’t have pots of money allowing me to step away from my life and go live in a magical cottage on the water. I also don’t have a “one-that-got-away” college boyfriend.

If our lives are a story and we are characters in that story, perhaps Ellie’s Uncle Cotton’s question is valid: “What’s the next best thing to happen here?”

Unfortunately, I think Henry took the path most traveled, but I guess if you like happily-ever-after that’s probably okay.

That’s amore

Listen here.

Boy meets girl – it’s the oldest story in the book, right? And now, thankfully for modern readers, we can also add boy meets boy and girl meets girl.

A couple of years ago I talked about love and the sorts of stories that make my heart skip a beat, or more often than not, break…a feeling I have to admitting I like just a little more than is probably healthy. You can read about what I said here.

I am a romantic at heart. Sappy, even. I’m not sure I grew up believing that a handsome prince was going to ride in on his white stallion and save me, but I did believe in happily-ever-after, although I am currently on the fence about that now.

My most favourite kind of love story is the one where the couple overcomes tremendous obstacles to be together – sacrifices are made – or, even better, that they love each other deeply but just can’t be together. Angst, baby. Buffy and Angel. Hello.

So since Valentine’s Day has just passed, I thought I would talk about romantic books.

I cut my teeth on my mom’s bodice rippers – Rosemary Rogers type stuff. Sweet Savage Love. You know, wild men who can’t be tamed and the virginal women who tame them.

Clearly romance novels have changed over the years – like 40 of them – when I first starting reading them. Some argue that modern romance novels are actually empowering because they are mostly written by women for women, women are generally the hero – or should I say heroine – of the piece and then there’s the s-e-x. In the modern romance novel, women are often in charge of their own pleasure, something I doubt Rosemary Rogers would have acknowledged back in the day.

All that said – I still have a soft spot for romance between two people who have to overcome horrible odds…and if they can’t actually overcome them – even better. Clearly, I have a type and it’s all about the doomed love. I am the person who still blubbers like a baby watching Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet.

Ultimately, though, I think there should – at the very least- be the potential for a happy ending, even if it never actually happens.

So, if you are feeling the love – or you want to feel the love – or, you just want to curl up in a ball and cry…I have some recommendations for you.

The Lost Garden – Helen Humphreys lostgarden

The link to my musings about this book predate this blog, but what you’ll find if you follow the link is an entry I did for Book Drum.

Humphreys is a Canadian writer and The Lost Garden is the story of Gwen Davis a young horticulturist in 1941 London. She gets a job leading a team of Land Girls at a neglected estate in Devon. They’re going to be growing crops for the war effort. While there she meets Raley, a Canadian officer waiting to be posted to the front. She also befriends Jane, a young woman whose fiancé is MIA. From these two people – in these fraught circumstances, Jane comes to understand the meaning of love. I was so enchanted with this book that when I was in England in 2007, my kids and I spent the day at The Lost Gardens of Heligan, an estate which is very much like the one Gwen works on in the novel.

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Can I just share a little bit from the beginning of the book?

We walk the streets of London. It is seven years ago. We didn’t meet, but we are together. This is real. This is a book, dusty from the top shelf of a library in Mayfair. The drowned sound of life under all that ink, restless waves breaking on this reading shore. Where I wait for you. I do. In a moment. In a word. Here on the street IMG_0846corner. Here on this page.

But it is shutting down, all around me, even now, this moment that I stopped. The story disappears as I speak it. Each word a small flame I have lit for you, above this darkened street.

The Lost Garden is a really lovely, and surprising love story.

So, I asked my eighteen-year-old daughter why she reads romance. She was pretty quick to point out that most of the love stories she reads are unrealistic and that she realizes that. However, that doesn’t get in the way of her enjoyment. She counts books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook or The Last Song among her favourites. Nicholas Sparks definitely offers readers a heaping helping of schmaltz.

If you’re looking for schmaltz, you can’t go wrong with Robert James Waller’s 1992 novel The Bridges of Madison BridgesOfMadisonCountyCounty. You could read this book in an afternoon, it’s short. I don’t mean to suggest that Waller is a wordsmith, but this book broke my heart when I first read it. Francesca is a war bride and she lives with her husband and her kids on a farm in Iowa and one afternoon – while her family is away at a state fair or something – she meets a photographer named Robert who is in the area to photograph covered bridges. The encounter changes her life and his, too. Sacrifices must be made. Their story is discovered by her adult children after her death and they are shocked to realize their mother was more than the woman who made their meals and washed their clothes. People might know the movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood and it’s a decent version, but the book is pretty good if you have a couple hours and a box of Kleenex.

So clearly, I’ve just outed myself – if a book can make me cry the writing doesn’t even have to be stellar.

Now – how about a YA romance?

easyEasy – Tammara Webber

This is for mature teens…it kind of just crosses the line, but it’s about a second-year university student named Jacqueline who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. She meets Lucas and he’s – I suppose – the proverbial bad boy, but he’s not really. This book hit all my guilty pleasures and then some. There’s tension galore, there’s a likeable minor cast and the two main characters are smart and kind and when they finally reach their happily ever after, you’ll be swooning.

Yep – there’s something super satisfying about a love story. Check out these:

The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger

I cried so hard when I read this book, I couldn’t even see the pages.

The Banquet – Carolyn Slaughter

Henry meets Blossom at Marks & Spencer. He’s a conservative architect; she’s a young shop girl. There’s is an all-consuming love affair. Carolyn Slaughter is one of my all-time favourite writers.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe – Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Two boys, true love. So beautiful and life-affirming.

Me Before You – JoJo Moyes

Just in time for the movie. Plain Jane meets handsome paraplegic.

Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte

My first-ever romance. And you never forget your first, right?

What’s your favourite romance novel?