I had such a good old time reading this book. There were some flaws to the plot but while reading it, I was charmed and giggly and totally absorbed. This book made me happy. That’s probably the best way to put it: it made me smile. A lot. Books like this are why I read romance.
Keri Daniels is an entertainment reporter in LA who left her hometown in New Hampshire a long, long time ago, breaking it off with her high school sweetheart Joe right after graduation and heading as far west as she could. She’s been back before, but now she’s looking for Joe – because her boss, who is something of a cross between Anna Wintour and Ryan Seacrest on the “Selfishly Evil” versus “Totally Freaking Annoying” spectra, is after an exclusive interview with Joe. In the past two decades, Joe has become a very famous and very reclusive novelist. When Wintourcrest boss finds out that 20 years ago, Keri was once the very-permed sweetheart of Secretive Novelist Joe, Wintourcrest boss steps way over the line of professional behavior to force Keri to head back home to find Joe and get an interview. Get the interview or she’s got to find a new job.
Joe is, to say the least, unimpressed. But he comes up with a challenge of his own, because he’s never really gotten over Keri. She’s welcome to join him on his family’s two-week ATV vacation in the woods of New Hampshire, and for every day she survives with his family (and without cell phone and internet service) she gets to ask him one question. In exchange he gets to ask her one question, too, but everything she asks is on the record.
Keri doesn’t anticipate being so… content out in the woods. She showers in a bathhouse that requires quarters for hot water. She rides an ATV and gets uncommonly muddy. She faces down her former high school best friend, Joe’s sister, and she has to reconsider her life having been reminded how much she’s attracted to – and misses – Joe.
Joe is also faced with sharing a cabin with Keri and dealing with the fact that after 20 years, she still sets him on fire emotionally and sexually. (Yeah. Sharing a cabin. With ex you have major hots for. That’ll end well.)
The parallel stories to Joe and Keri’s are equally compelling. Joe’s sister Terry just split from her husband, and is dealing with her own breakup while trying to run interference between protecting her brother from the subject of his own long-ago breakup, and protecting herself from dealing with the hurt of being near her former best friend.
But the major strength of this book is the dancing-in-the-grass party-on-like-whoa FUN of the writing. When Joe meets Keri for lunch, he springs the idea of a two-week interview-by-trial-by-fire idea on her:
Keri set the cheeseburger on the plate. “For two weeks?”
The length of time hardly mattered, since she couldn’t return to California without the interview anyway. But she’d like an idea of what she was signing up for.
“Whether you’re there for two weeks or not is up to you. For each full day you stick it out with the Kowalskis, you get to ask me one question.”
Keri, unlike Joe, did have a poker face and she made sure it was in place while she turned his words over in her head. “When you say the Kowalskis, you mean…”
“The entire family.” The dimples were about as pronounced as she’d ever seen them. “Every one of them.”
Her first thought was oh shit. Her second, to wonder if People was hiring.
Joe reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a folded sheet of spiral notebook paper. “Here’s a list of things you’ll need. I jotted it down in the parking lot.”
Keri unfolded the paper and read the list twice, trying to get a sense of what she was in for.
BRING: Bug spray; jeans; T-shirts; several sweatshirts, at least one with a hood; one flannel shirt (mandatory); pajamas (optional); underwear (also optional); bathing suit (preferably skimpy); more bug spray; sneakers; waterproof boots; good socks; sunscreen; two rolls of quarters.
DO NOT BRING: cell phone; Blackberry; laptop; camera, either still or video; alarm clock; voice recorder; any other kind of electronic anything.
She had no clue what it meant, other than Joe wanting her half-naked and unable to text for help.
Here’s Joe’s pov ruminations on being in close quarters with Keri:
If his subconscious had been trying to punish Keri for dumping him in favor of high-rise littered pastures, it had seriously backfired. He was the one suffering.
The overwhelming – and surprising – want he felt for her was knocking him on his ass.
Sure he’d thought about her a lot over the years. Her mom and his were close friends, so she came up in conversation. And she worked for a woman one skipped dose away from being his own personal stalker.
Instead of just saying “her boss was crazy,” Stacey adds a layer of snort-worthy description – and moments like that pepper the book. Joe struggles with his attraction to Keri, his desire to protect himself, and his wish for a family of his own like the one he grew up in. Joe is a product of his family’s dynamic very much – and the members of his family are all friends with one another.
I was left with some questions though about the heroine’s conflict. She explains a few times why her career is so important to her, why she left town suddenly and broke her own and Joe’s hearts all those years ago – but those explanations are so much telling and not enough showing that I was constantly wondering when I would understand the power and the draw and the influence of her life in LA vs. the happiness she was experiencing with Joe. “Change Everything!” is scary as hell, and I know that like damn, but I never fully understood the hold Keri’s job had over her.
I’m dancing around saying more and have written this paragraph three times because I’m trying to avoid Ye Olde Spoiler That Maketh Me a Douche Canoe. Let me put it this way: I didn’t think there was enough balance between what Keri suddenly realized she wanted (and that’s a whole buffet of things) and what she had back in LA that was so important to her. There wasn’t enough balance between “here” in New Hampshire and “there” in LA that I could empathize with her indecision and struggle between the two.
Oh, screw it. Spoiler time. Highlight to read.
Why did her job, her life, hell, even her boss have that much influence over her? What in the world was so important, so visceral to her life in LA hat she’d put up with her boss blackmailing her into an interview and forcing her into a terrible position personally and professionally? The sad thing is, that’s the crux of the story: she’s after an exclusive interview with Joe because her boss wants it, but she’s not terribly excited about the idea herself… until she gets to New Hampshire and the fun part starts. With mud. And s’mores.
But I didn’t get the sense that Keri was lying to herself at all. She’s not practicing self deception in my point of view. I really thought she was torn between LA and NH, but couldn’t figure out beyond what few things she said (again, telling not showing) why LA was so important. So at the end, when she’s in a position to have to reevaluate her life in LA and reexamine her plans for her future, the conflict is somewhat toothless because I couldn’t figure out why the decision would be all that difficult to begin with. By the end of the book, there’s so much evidence of nuanced value in Joe and his family, her career as the other side of the scale is a hollow argument. If there’s no conviction behind one of the choices she faces, is it really that hard to give it up?
Sorry about that. I tried to discuss without giving away too much but I am afraid I couldn’t explain without giving away even a little of too much.
Breaking up and starting over are themes that wind through every part of the book, and the tiny and sneaky ways Stacey works that theme through the book are amazing. Joe and Keri are looking back at their breakup. Joe’s sister is facing the potential end of her marriage during the book. Joe’s brother is looking at a rough patch in his marriage as well, and his parents are watching as another generational marker reveals itself: the possible end of what was once a beginning.
Even the setting is about breaking up and starting over: the family breaks up their campsite each year – and comes back to set it up every year for their family vacation. Each year is different, and each year is the same. I loved that the family members were individual characters (the adults anyway- with a few exceptions the children were sort of a loud, messy, traveling hoarde) and I cared about each of them in addition to the protagonists. I loved the brothers, the wives, the family dinners, the pranks, the stories, and the jokes about bugspray. As the reader, I felt like I was part of that family.
Courtship is usually about beginnings, but sometimes wonderful romance focuses on the theme of breaking up tradition, moving on, growing up, and maybe coming together later. Maybe coming back means a person is wiser or perhaps better able to appreciate what they had – or it means they’re ready to appreciate what they have now. While I wish there were more of “where have you been,” the characters and where they are now was made of fun that is funny with romance that was charming and witty and real.
What I enjoyed most about this book is that it featured grownups living a perfectly plausible life and facing painful problems that I empathized with. I rooted for the characters, I giggled at the dialogue and the descriptions, and when it ended I wanted more.