Saturday, March 6, 2010

Review: THE NEXT BEST THING


THE NEXT BEST THING
Kristan Higgins
Contemporary Romance
HQN, 2010


Premise: Young widow seeks to put the past (in the form of her husband) and the present (in the form of a friend with benefits) behind her and find a new spouse.

Cover: This author's covers have become instantly recognizable, as much a part of her brand as her writing style. For the first time, the iconic headless couple are joined by a non-canine - a nice touch, that combines with the red accents to make for a contents-accurate and attractive cover (much, much better than the one for 'Catch of the Day', whose central-puppy-in-basket seemed to signal it was aimed at the tween set rather than an adult demographic). Now that a feline has broken through the doggie barrier, Apprentice Writer is burning with curiosity to see what kind of fauna will feature next - rodent? Reptile? Something with wings?

What Works: By making the heroine a widow, the author has done something courageous. "But Apprentice Writer," the gentle reader may say, "widows abound in Romancelandia. That's nothing new." True - but the literary widows AW encountered to date had either healed from their grief, never loved their husband to begin with (due to forced unions, decrepitude, or general incompatibility), or were married in name only. Lucy, by contrast, was madly in love with her husband, he with her, and continues to grieve though several years have passed since his death. She still blames herself for his fatal car accident, still watches her wedding video to feel him looking at her again, can't bring herself to visit the graveyard where he is buried, creates luscious professional-level desserts which she can't bring herself to eat, has a closet full of luxurious, stylish clothes which she can't bring herself to wear.

Moving a character from such an intense spot to a believable happy end with a new love interest in the space of one slim volume is an ambitious task. Help (of a sometimes questionable nature) along the way is provided by the secondary characters readers have come to love and expect from a Higgins story: a beloved pet (for the first time, a cat, and in a welcome development the heroine maintains affection within non-fanatical bounds), a helpful but very different-from-heroine friend, relatives who keep their eccentricity either up their sleeve or displayed for all to see, and the sights, sounds, and rituals of a small New England town.

In this story, it is the relatives who are most compelling; Lucy's mother and two aunts were likewise widowed young, and have all chosen to maintain that status. They also all work together, creating both a supportive atmosphere but also a lot of pressure to maintain the status quo - both personally, and business-wise. Lucy feels loved but stifled, and needs to find a way out. Or does she? The conversations where Lucy explores why the women wouldn't want to date again, and whether they ever learned secrets they didn't know about their hubands during their lifetimes, were perhaps the most interesting parts of the whole book. From the way parents sometimes treat their chidren, and the way people sometimes treat their sweethearts, Lucy learns two harsh facts: Sometimes love is not enough. And sometimes, love doesn't lead a person to put their own wishes aside, and do the upright thing. Disillusioning, perhaps, but realistic, and worth bearing in mind when one is tempted to spout platitudes about parents always loving all their children equally or love inevitably leading to a noble character. It doesn't always work that way.

Finally, it would not be a Higgins book without exploration of adult sibling dynamics. In this instance, Lucy's sister chooses to respond to premature death of her father, uncles, and brother-in-law by becoming an out-of-control safety freak with respect to her husband and newborn daughter. It was a massive relief when she finally got a (figurative) smack upside the head, from the correct person, alerting her to the very real possibility that her constant haranguing could cost her her marriage. Lucy's (figurative) smack upside the head was longer in coming, but also satisfying and delivered by the correct person. AW was also happy that the disconnect of one son of an Italian family being named Giacomo and the other Ethan was not only explained, but a part of the story.

What Doesn't: By nature of the content, this story doesn't have quite the same ebb and flow of humorous vs. serious moments as previous Higgins stories. Consequently, the pacing felt different than what this reader had come to expect. If she had approached this story as, say, a women's fiction novel, it would have felt completely right. As it was, it took a bit of reflection after the book was done to understand that the steady, consistent tone throughout was appropriate to the subject matter, and that the pacing for a romantic comedy would not have worked.

That being conceded - Lucy cries a lot. This makes sense, it being a story of a grieving widow and all, but that was something this reader had to actively remind herself of at times when her kneejerk reaction to more tears was 'Again?' Lucy also says 'Sorry' a lot. It reminded AW of recurring phrases or scenarios which prompt some reviewers to create drinking games. Since her beverage-while-reading choice is black tea, THE END arrived on a strongly caffeinated wave.

Overall: A thoughtful, emotion-laden entry into the author's canon delivering the trademark small-town atmosphere, close-knit but idiosyncratic family members, and love interest who is present all along but whom the heroine needs to see with new eyes.

Learn more about the author here.

m.

9 comments:

Rachel said...

I popped over not so long ago for your Kinsale posts but I keep surfing back. I love your review format! Thanks for cheering up my google reader. :)

好朋友 said...

當身處逆境時,要能忍一時之氣,吃一時之苦,並及早確立自己的目標,總有一天,你會嘗到那甘美的果實。........................................

M. said...

hi rachel! nice to see you again and glad my approach works for you

Julia Smith said...

Love the review, M - and the cover really is eyecatching. It's interesting that you expected one thing from the book and basically got more of a women's fiction story. That would make me cheer. I read a category romance that had a cover that really was misleading, but I was overjoyed to discover the book was really women's fiction in category clothing.

Rachel said...

Always happy to be here and thanks for your kind words at my blog. You must be catching me on my good days. :)

Jenners said...

Great review ... I just love your format. And I love how you analyze the covers!!

M. said...

Julia - women's fiction in category clothing? never met such a beast. then again, i don't read category...

Rachel - i'm sure 'good' days are the rule for you *g*

Jenners - whatever format gets people curious about titles they wouldn't have read otherwise is good, i think!

Wylie Kinson said...

I think I like your reviews more than the actual books :)

(with no disrespect to Ms Higgins - whose book I've not yet read!!)

Wylie Kinson said...
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