by Jane Blackwood, contemporary (2006)
Zebra, $6.99, ISBN 0-8217-7950-8
Jane Blackwood's You Had Me At Goodbye is an interesting book. Very nicely written and steeped in atmosphere so gorgeously romantic, this story actually takes me along with the heroine to the beautiful island of Martha's vineyard to the point that I'm actually a little sorry about the story having to end because this book sings with unabashedly breathless and larger-than-life depictions of passion and angst. This is the same quality that makes Linda Francis Lee's books equally frustrating and fascinating, only unlike Ms Lee whose contemporary romance is awkward, Ms Blackwood's voice makes the transition from historical romances to contemporary romances with ease.
Kat Taylor has recently broken up with the guy she was sure is The One. Her aunt, Lila, loves older men. No, not just men in their forties or fifties, we're talking about Anna Nicole Smith's favorite version of older men, only Lila really loves these geriatric coot, of course. Lila's latest husband Carl croaked of old age and left Lila a beautiful house, Sunrise, in the seaside town of Oak Bluffs in the island of Martha's Vineyard. Lila generously allows Kat to use Sunrise as a place for Kat to recover from her broken heart. What Kat and Lila are not aware of, though, is that shortly before his death, Carl promised the son of his best friend the use of Sunrise as well. Kat arrives at Sunrise and stumbles upon Lawrence when he only has a towel wrapped around his waist. Surely, what better way is there for a romance heroine to meet her dream guy, right? Lawrence is afraid of commitment and he just wants a place to finish his book (he's British and an author) while Kat isn't sure what she wants.
You Had Me At Goodbye is a quiet romance driven solely by the angsts and baggages each character carries with him or her. The problem with this story is that the melodrama between the main characters are very artificial at the start. Ms Blackwood uses very clichéd and even derivative elements in her story - such as how Kat first meets Lawrence - and therefore the whole story feels like a dry rehash of overused plot devices and stereotypical characters. Kat is said to be strong over and over in this story but at the same time she cries at the drop of the hat. The characters' issues are part of the whole overused plot device package, and it doesn't help matters much that the characters actually take turn behaving like a jerk (he) or a victim (her) to each other to the point that the drama in this story feels really forced and fake.
However, the secondary romance between Lila and a older man of more reasonable age in Oak Bluff is just beautifully done. Reading that one, coupled to the evocative descriptions of the beauty and romanticism of Martha's Vineyard, makes me feel like I'm having some heartbreakingly sweet seaside romance. Lila turns out to be a more sympathetic character instead of a kooky caricature when she confesses that she has no idea who she is since all her life she is looking for father figures to love. As for Roy... I sigh when he tells Lila, "Lila, I'm the loneliest man on this island." It's so melodramatic, that statement, yet at the same time, with the silent crash of waves onto the beach that I keep hearing as I turn the pages to even the sea breeze that I imagine on my skin, I find myself thinking what's a seaside holiday fling if it's not unnecessarily melodramatic, right? At least it's not something really melodramatic like Lila clawing at the waistband of some Italian lifeguard's Speedos as she screams at the hottie not to stop loving her just because she has to go back to school next week. Lila and Roy are two very lonely people who connect and I can't help but to root for them.
Perhaps Lila and Roy manage to spread the magic around but by the late third of this story, Kat and Lawrence also manage to get me hooked into their story. By this point, Ms Blackwood seems to have lost the uninspiring "putting in derivative clichés by the number" way of storytelling to really start injecting her own voice and ideas into things. The late third of the story, by the way, doesn't follow the standard romance novel format - there is an almost mainstream Nicholas Sparks kind of vibe to the story that I am actually fearing that Lawrence and Kat will actually go separate ways, older but wiser after their tumultuous but painful affair. And good heavens, I actually do care enough to want to see those two have a happily ever after together. How did that happen?
I believe it's because the romance between Kat and Lawrence, which starts out painfully derivative and familiar, somehow becomes larger than life. Lawrence can be rightfully accused of being a jerk many times but Ms Blackwood manages to romanticize his angsts without relieving him of any blame that he comes off more like a boy who is too afraid to grow up rather than a jackass. There are some "Lawrence, listen to me! You are afraid! It's okay to be afraid!" talkshow moments as some secondary characters try to get Lawrence to heal but those scenes come off like an inspiring final fifteen minutes of Oprah's talkshow rather than a hackneyed attempt at psychobabbling on the author's part. As for Kat, she could have been a doormat for waiting for Lawrence, but Ms Blackwood wisely enough has Kat retaining her dignity and, for once, demonstrating that she is strong like Ms Blackwood claimed repeatedly at the start of the story.
The reunion at the end leaves the story hanging about the future of these two. There is no sappy epilogue about babies and what-not, but there is no need for one, if you ask me. There is a maturity in Ms Blackwood's approach to the unraveling of the relationship between Kat and Lawrence that I enjoy reading. When Kat's heart is breaking, Ms Blackwood's prose has me feeling that my own heart is breaking along with Kat's. I especially love this scene:
Kat's heart dropped. She could sense from the way he said her name that something awful had happened. "What's wrong? Are you all right?"
He laughed, but it wasn't a happy laugh, and she squeezed the phone even tighter. "I love you," he said.
"I know. Tell me what happened."
"I love you." It sounded horribly, impossibly like he was trying not to cry.
"Larry. Tell me."
"I don't want children."
Kat's entire body relaxed in that horrible way that happens when you know something awful is about to take place, but there is nothing, absolutely nothing, you can do about it. "I know," she said.
"I want to marry you, but I don't want children."
And just like that, she was crying. "Oh, Larry."
"Don't say that. Don't say anything. I need to think." Even as she said those words, she knew she would never change her mind about wanting children. It was something she had wanted, dreamed about, for as long as she could remember.
"I'm sorry," he repeated, and she knew he was trying desperately not to cry.
"So this is it?" Oh no, Larry. Say it's not. Say you're crazy in love with me again and you want a little daughter who looks just like me, and I'll tell you I hope our son looks just like you. Stop, Larry. Stop. Stop. Stop.
"Sorry." And he rang off.
It's the way Ms Blackwood gives voice to both characters' emotions in a scene such as above that gets to me. Stop, Larry. Stop. Stop. Stop. I know that feeling that Ms Blackwood is taking pains to describe so yes, I hold my breath along with Kat as she listens to the phone.
A big chunk of the early parts of the relationship between Kat and Lawrence are dull and contrived, but towards the end Ms Blackwood seems to have waken up from her trance or something and started to feel her characters, and it shows in her writing. I find myself caught up in their story as a result, because the conflicts are no longer just mere overused plot devices I've encountered many times before, instead they become real because the characters' emotions and actions feel so real.
Ms Blackwood was sleepwalking in her previous contemporary romance A Hard Man Is Good To Find so it's a very nice kind of surprise to learn that she's stepping up the game that made the books by her previous incarnation as historical romance author Jane Goodger on the whole enjoyable to me. This book is uneven but when it's good, it resonates me with so well that I actually have a small teardrop in my eye at the last page. Just one drop, of course.
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