Book Review

All He Ever Desired by Shannon Stacey


Title: All He Ever Desired
Author: Shannon Stacey
Publication Info: Carina Press 2012
ISBN: 9781426894459
Genre: Contemporary Romance

All He Ever Desired: a blonde woman in the arms of a dark haired dude in a plaid shirt on a sunny summer day - a beautiful cover.

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.












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.

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Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    kkw says:

    This comment is spoilery:
    I’m thrilled that they don’t end up in Maine, because I get really sick of the small town propaganda of so many romance novels, including some of the other Stacey ones (which I do love, but it gets oppressive).  Also, I grew up in Boston, and I have lived in many places in New England, including Brookline (where coincidentally I did a lot of construction and landscaping work – it’s a great location for that kind of company).  Just so’s you know, Brookline is pretty much surrounded by Boston and is part of the main subway system, but it has phenomenal schools, a large Jewish community, excellent property values (and lots of gorgeous homes), wonderful shopping, a fabulous old movie house, yummy bakeries…really, it’s a lovely place to live and they’re going to be very happy there.

  2. 2
    Ellen says:

    I guess this, too, comments on the spoiler.  But I often wonder how these small wonderful towns can handle yet another new family once all the begatting begins (I am looking at you, Fools Gold).  I am sorry that Ms. Stacey painted a not-so-pretty picture of the new family home, but I can see how getting away from the basic family unit is a good thing.  And maybe that beige is a canvas they need to paint for their new lives together.  Nothing is static (even in make believe world).

  3. 3

    Mmm… Interesting. I just started reading this one today and so far I’m liking it alot, though I think the Blurb is a little misleading.

    As for the problems with the ending you describe – yeah, I read them because I’m a total spoiler hound – I’ll keep it in mind when I read. :) See if I think the same.

  4. 4
    SB Sarah says:

    I don’t doubt it! Not that Kowalskis need all the Jewish community services, but yes, Brookline is the bomb. My problem was that so little time was spent developing that location, that when the conclusion arrived, it was a much weaker option in my mind simply because of how little support it had from the novel or the characters.

  5. 5

    This review totally has me grinning, and I’m dying at the “huge deflating farty-balloon-sound” part of the spoiler.

  6. 6
    Carol says:

    My problem with the ending is more with the “baby” part.  Feel bad for Ryan on that front. But it didn’t bother me as much about living in Brookline. Now I can’t wait for Josh and Katie. And the hint about Liz as well.

  7. 7
    Kylie says:

    This one didn’t quite have the same impact on me as the other Kowalski books, and I am still pondering why.  It wasn’t just the ending though.  About halfway through I skipped to the end to see how things work out, and then read it through. 

    I just didn’t feel the connection with the characters this time- although I do want a Hailey story, and the Liz story, and the next book has been pre-ordered. 

  8. 8
    Beccah W. says:

    I do have this to say: I live in MA (near Brookline), and it is such a cute area of the city! While they may not be close to their family, they will most definitely enjoy living in Brookline…if only so they can get brunch at Zaftig’s!

  9. 9
    Mandi says:

    My first impression when finishing this book was how much I loved the end.

    Spoilers – – – – -

    I loved that the heroine and son are the ones pushed to make a change and move to a new town. Because I totally wasn’t expecting it. It felt realistic to have them move since the hero had the better job. As I got to the end I kept thinking the hero would make the grand gesture of moving his entire life to suit the heroine, but that didn’t happen and I wanted to cheer for that decision because it was so different.

    But yes, as the reader I can’t picture them living in the new town since I don’t know anything about it. And I do like to picture that HEA in my head. Definitely an interesting ending.

  10. 10

    I have to agree with Mandy, I like the idea that someone was thinking practical in a romance novel at the end because that so rarely happens in small towns are great Yay! romance novels (which I digress but growing up in a town with only one stoplight I have to ask why? WHY? There is no Yay when your only Friday night amusement is cow tipping).  Hey he has a better job maybe we should give thinking practically a try and move to where the work is like every other sucker in the world but it sounds like they could have at least thrown a scene or two in of them in Brookline (maybe her visiting to see his new home or whatev IDK I haven’t read this book yet) to sort of ground the ending there and make it more real.

  11. 11
    Mandi says:

    She visits his home and stays overnight once…but they don’t venture out.

  12. 12
    Lauren says:

    I read this book through NetGalley, and…YES. Exactly on the ending. I didn’t blame them for taking that next step at all. It’s like what Sarah and everyone else has said: that’s where Ryan’s job is. Lauren (also my name, yay!) would have more opportunities probably, and Nick definitely would. Also, I grew up in a small town and found it very oppressive – I can see why the whole returning-to-your-roots plot is great for contemporary romance novels, but the propaganda sometimes gets to me. I definitely fit better in a city. (You know who else does this a lot? Kristan Higgins. I love her but sheesh.)

    But yeah, it’s so…abrupt. There’s been all this really nice buildup, but they’re barely in the city at all, and all of a sudden they’re moving there? Could Lauren at least have seen potential in the house? Could Nick have found a specific really cool thing he wanted to do there, rather than just vague “opportunities”? Could we have at least one real closing scene in the city, an epilogue perhaps? Yeah. Frustrating.

    This was my first Stacey book and I definitely want to read more, though!

  13. 13
    Jane says:

    I actually loved the ending because it was a different choice than we so often see in a small town romance and frankly it made more sense for it to happen the way that it does in the book. It’s more natural.  The elevation of small town life over all else was rejected in this book and embraced at the same time.  I’ve appreciated that quite a bit. I thought Stacey made different choices in this book which made the story more fresh.

  14. 14
    Desireeholt says:

    I am just so glad I read this review and everyone’s comments, because I finished the book last night and thought to myself, what? I must be crazy. I LOVE Shannon Stacey’s books and feel as if I know everyone in the Kowalski family. But the ending of this book left me hanging from a tree. I mean, one visit to Ryan’s houser, we get a glimpse of beige (which is no longer my favorite color), we know nothing about the area and boom, they’re moving there? What’s with not taking Lauren and Nick there for a long weekend to show them the environment? let Nick see the schools? Now, let me tell you, I grew up in a town just like Whitford (in Maine) and I couldn’t get the hell out of there fast enough. Only now I live in one even smaller and love it! And Brookline has such a richness of environment…where the hell is it? And to dispose of the baby factor in two paragraphs? I’ll keep reading cuz I love Shannon but holy nutballs.

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