I recently read two romance novels that turned out to have very similar themes. One of them worked brilliantly for me, and the other one completely failed. Both novels featured a friends to lovers theme, with the female half of the couple being the one who is afraid to admit their feelings. Both women have issues with their daddies, tho one of them idolizes hers in an unrealistic way, and the other feels unable to live up to her father’s exacting standards. The difference for me was all in the personality of the heroine of each novel.
In Always on my Mind by Jill Shalvis, Leah has returned home to Lucky Harbor (yes, back to Lucky Harbor again!) after competing in a reality cooking show. The final results show is coming up fast and she is determined to leave Lucky Harbor before it shows. She’s sworn to secrecy on the results show, but it’s clear that something dramatic and unexpected will happen and she wants to be gone before it does. Leah grew up next door to local firefighter Jack, and together they listened to her father berate and criticize her for her entire childhood. Jack and Leah were best friends and he was often her only support when her father tore her down. After graduation Leah takes off, while Jack stays home to try and fill his own father’s heroic shoes. Now Leah’s back and for spoilerish (but believable) reasons they find themselves playacting at dating. As I always hope it will happen, the playacting quickly becomes real even if they are both unwilling to admit it.
Always on My Mind really worked for me. The situation between the two is realistic and the tension is hot and believable. You can see their relationship develop out of their friendship, and even when things are shaky and new, they are still friends and still LIKE each other. Jack is solid hero material, both in the sense of being the hero of the book and from being a firefighter. Leah is completely loveable, even if she herself only sees her own shortcomings. There is a little bit of an outside mystery going on, but any reader with a brain figures it out well before the characters do. This doesn’t actually distract from the book, as the tension he provides spurs some deep thinking on the part of the characters.
In direct contrast was What Happens Between Friends by Beth Andrews. Sadie has run back home after her most recent string of failures and expects everything to be the same as always with her BFF Jamie. Sadie has always lived a life of adventure, only going home to regroup after failing at one career or relationship or another. She idolizes her father, who passed away when she was a child, for his free spirit and his quest for adventure. For the first 9/10th of the book she is outright scornful of her mom for settling down after his death, and of her sister and friends for being content to live in one town with a career and family. Jamie is actually fairly likeable. He’s worked for his father’s construction business his entire life. He’s a hands-on uncle, a terrific brother and an all around good guy. He has been in love with Sadie for his entire life, and finally realized that he either needs to go for it or give up on the idea of being with Sadie, if he ever wants his own wife and kids. He chooses to go for it, of course, and while Sadie is happy to spend the night with him, she freaks out the next morning. James stands firm tho, and isn’t willing to go back to his dreams, even if it means closing her out of his life.
This book has one major problem, and that is Sadie. She is completely unlikeable. From her first scene to the end of the book, she has very little to recommend her. The author tries hard to paint her as a likable free spirit- she’s not into drugs, she is a hard worker, she never ever borrows money, etc, but it doesn’t make up for the fact that she thinks every single other person in the book is a complete idiot for wanting a stable life. This rears its head early in the book and I thought perhaps I could grow to love her as she grew to realize that she wanted to stay put, but she doesn’t show any signs of maturing at all. James does his best to close her out once it’s clear that she has no plans to stay for him, and there’s one heartbreaking scene where he tells her he never wanted to change her; but Sadie refuses to even consider sticking around until literally the very last pages. When she does, it is completely unbelievable. It is never really clear why Jamie and Sadie are such good friends, or what draws him to her and I wasn’t able to see her from his point of view at all. I would have loved to see James in another book, with someone with the least bit of sense and likeability. It seems possible that there will be (or have been) books about the supporting characters, but I have no desire at all to seek them out.
I received both of the above books from NetGalley.
Always on My Mind will be released on September 24th.What Happens Between Friends came out August 6th.