I've been trying to figure out how to review this book since I finished it. It's going to be difficult to avoid spoilers or a frank discussion of the end of the book, which is the part I had the most problems with, so I'm going to divide this review into two parts. Part the first: spoiler free, and excitingly vague. Part the second, marked by a big ol' line, will be more frank and specific, and muchly whited out.
If you're reading this on an RSS reader, BE YE WARNED.
All He Ever Desired is the second book in a second trilogy about the Kowalski family. This branch of the family lives in Whitford, Maine, and three brothers and one sister are focused during the trilogy on repairing a family lodge to try to bring new customers to visit the lodge and the nearby town. Ryan, the brother who owns a custom building company in Brookline, MA, is the hero of this story. He's come back to town (this is Shannon Stacey's Thing: someone is coming back to town, so this fling is only temporary, oh crap, maybe it's not) to help with the construction work that the lodge badly needs, and is trying to minimize his presence in town, mostly to avoid seeing Lauren Carpenter.
Lauren married Ryan's high school best friend back in the day, but Ryan had secretly loved her for a long time. But Lauren's marriage went bad several years prior after she caught her husband cheating, and she's been raising her teenage son Nick on her own. She's been trying to avoid seeing Ryan as well, but Whitford is a very small place, and of course they run into each other.
Ryan and Lauren have a very complicated past, and have to not only come to terms with everything that happened before, but must also acknowledge how they've each changed and grown – and how some things, like the attraction between them, have stayed the same. They each have family looking over their shoulders, including Lauren's parents, who own the hardware store, and Ryan's family, who are Kowalskis, and if you've read any of the the books in the series, you know that they're genetically hardwired to get up in each other's business.
When Lauren's son is caught vandalizing the lodge, Ryan is ready to prosecute him until he realizes who he is, and instead decides to offer Nick a chance to work off the cost of the damage he's caused. This means Nick, and by extension Lauren and Ryan, are thrown together even more, and their relationships get complicated in a hurry.
All the quiet and enjoyably loving humor from the other Kowalski books is present and accounted for in this story – and I realize I may be leaving you with the impression that I didn't like it. I did like this book – I enjoyed reading it thoroughly and may read it again. The sparkly warm and wonderful humor and romance went flat in a hurry at the end for me. But the parts leading up to the end, oh, they were wonderful. (Hence my disappointment).
The benevolent cranky mother figure is still present in Rose, who raised Ryan and his siblings and is now running the lodge and helping plan Paige and Mitch's wedding (they got together in All He Ever Needed). Rose has some ominous problems that develop in this story and I am guessing will be developed further in the next book, but she manages all the adults in her family with humorous ease:
Lauren watched as he pulled a bowl of what looked like chocolate pudding out of the fridge. Then she put her hand over her mouth to stifle a laugh when Rose took it away, slapped his hand and put it back in the fridge. She replaced it with a brownie, which Ryan scowled at.
For whatever reason, the image of Ryan scowling at a brownie made me laugh. There's little scenes and mentions in this book that surprised me with the emotion they created. When Paige gets married, the description of what she was wearing was so surprising poignant, I got teary eyed. It's one sentence and I got all stinging sniffly over it. I do cry rather easily, but not at weddings and usually not over the weddings of fictional characters from a different book.
Lauren is wonderful. She's trying to be strong and a good parent, and suffers the same doubts as any other parent – while also dealing with the thrill and curious insecurity of being attracted to someone. She has real friends and real problems, and isn't perfect by a long shot. But I liked her and empathized with her and enjoyed all of her varied and real relationships with different people, from her parents to her boss to her best friend. Bonus: in one scene, her joking threat to her best friend, who is the town librarian, is SO EVIL I highlighted it and nearly read it aloud to a stranger sitting next to me. (I restrained myself.) (Barely.)
Like the poignant moments that snuck up on me, there are scenes that are hilarious that I didn't see coming, such as when Ryan goes into the hardware store to buy supplies, and is confronted by Lauren's father, for whom English is a second language. Lauren's father's anger at Ryan is completely familiar, but the scene that results is so funny and different, I had to re-read it twice.
I liked Mitch, too. He loves his family. He's not abashed about it, though he gives his brothers all kinds of shit, and they give it back to him. He respects Rose and has to walk that weird line of being an adult at his childhood home, where he's treated as part adult and part kid. There is no doubt that the Kowalskis genuinely love one another, and take care of each other. I love seeing that warmth extending to include the spouses and girlfriends of each of the Kowalski children, and seeing previous Kowalski couples at a family wedding and enjoying every part of it. It's not like the prior couples are trotted out in color-coded dresses and are as exciting as plain yogurt because their story is over, either. The prior couples are still growing together and the family is still becoming bigger. As a reader, I get to be a tangential part of that family, and it's a lovely experience. One of the best parts of these books is visiting the Kowalski family each time.
Most of all, I loved that this book, like many others in the series, is about people who are genuinely decent trying to figure out their lives and adjusting to the changes that emerge from their pasts. Tension can be difficult to establish in contemporary romance, and the tension here is both simple and complex: Ryan used to be in love with Lauren, but left town when she married his best friend. Now Lauren's divorced, as is Ryan, and what seemed like someone pressing “Stop” on their story might really have been someone pressing “Pause,” and now it's time to resume. That's a relatively simple conflict to turn into an absorbing story, and the complexity of emotions and responsibilities each character carries makes the story even more enjoyable.
One minor problem I had included the portrayal of Nick, the son, who was supposed to be 16 but at times seemed more like he was 12 and later like he was 25. He vacillated wildly in maturity and conduct, and I never got a sense of him as an individual like I have the other children who are part of the Kowalski family. I know 16 is a precarious place for maturity, and it shows up and vacates with frequency, but there were times where I thought Nick, and everyone around him, thought he was 12, and had to remind myself that he was 16.
OK THE SPOILERY PART STARTS HERE SO STOP READING I MEAN IT LOOK OVER THERE A CHICKEN!
You ready? I mean it, I'm going to be talking at length about the ending here, and I don't want any whining that I didn't warn you. BE YE WARNED.
Here's the thing that bugged me after I read it, and the part of the book that gave me the most trouble as I tried to assign a grade and explain my overall impression of the book: the ending was a huge deflating farty-balloon-sound sad-trombone let-down for me.
The book, nearly all of it, takes place in Whitford, where Lauren and her son live, and where Ryan is visiting temporarily to help fix up the family lodge. All the ancillary characters are in that town, and every subplot that develops and is or isn't solved occurs IN the town.
But in the end, it's apparent that Ryan's home, which is several hours south in Massachusetts, is their destination. As the reader, I found this incredibly, and I mean hugely, unsatisfying. One, none of the story save a handful of scenes (I think two) took place in that location. Two, when it is described it's in the most unpleasant of terms. Ryan's house is a builder's model show home with a ton of bedrooms, and much of it is beige with beige accents and beige trim. When Lauren visits the house with him, the only place she can find his presence, any sign of the person living there, is in his bedroom, where a collection of family photographs are hanging on the wall. Otherwise, it's a neutral, sterile, almost temporary home, and that's supposed to be the place where I as the reader envision Ryan, Lauren, and Nick at the end of the book. Their happy ending is in this big beige canvas of unknown, and it's not as secure, and not as easy for me to picture.
Because so much of the story takes place in the town, and the happy ever after takes place in a location that is (a) minimally seen and (2) spoken about with some derision or sense of pity, it's not satisfying for me as the reader at all. I finished the book and thought, “Well, I understand intellectually why they're going there, but the community was part of the heart of the story” Having them leave it because the town isn't a good fit for their happy ending is disappointing. Logically it makes sense – Lauren's ex husband explains why perfectly in one scene:
Ryan nodded. “A lot of opportunities for him, too, no matter what field he wants to go into.”
“See, there's the difference. You talk about fields, like real careers. Around here, we just hope we can find jobs that pay the bills.”
Lauren and Ryan absolutely should choose the possibilities of opportunity instead of just getting by. They are not stupid people, and the choice of where they should begin their lives is rather obvious. I just wished I had a better sense of what their lives would be like in Brookline and what the opportunity for them would look like beyond what I'd been told about it, and what limited amount I'd seen.
I wanted to believe more fully in their happy ending, that they'd be more happy in Brookline than they would in Whitford, but because of the heavy favor given in the portrayal of Whitford and the minimal and dismissive portrayal of Ryan's life in Brookline, I didn't believe as much as I wanted to.
It felt like the ending was going to happen offscreen and I wasn't allowed to see it. I could picture so much of the story – except for the happily ever after. And because I was so happily invested in them, and in everyone else, the ending was very unsatisfying for me.
And really, that's a difficult review and grade to establish: “This book was really wonderful and fun and magical and enjoyable — except for the ending.” I almost want to give it two grades. Most of the book was stupendously entertaining and I enjoyed every minute. I almost want to fanfic my own ending, which I am rarely moved to do, EVER, to reassure my imagination that they're happy and living a life with the same vibrancy and affection as the life they had in the book.
So in the end, because of my dissatisfaction, I give the book a B- with reservations. The bulk of the story is too wonderful to assign it a C+, but the ending left me so deflated, that feeling overshadowed all my prior enjoyment.