by Leslie Esdaile, contemporary (2001)
Arabesque, $5.99, ISBN 1-58314-185-5
Love Notes is a beautiful, honest relationship story about a marriage falling apart in its first half. It tells the story of 39-year old artist Nina Carpenter and 41-year old jazz club owner Anthony Williams and their struggle to keep their two-year marriage together. Nina comes from an affluent family, while Tony comes from the lower rung of the social hierarchy, and their parents were against their marriage from the start. But hey, they thought true love would overcome everything.
Wrong. Now they discover that their philosophies are actually worlds apart. Tony just can't seem to take Nina's art career seriously, and she thinks he's more interested in money than her. Talks seem to breakdown into temper tantrums and tearful sulking, and worse, they don't even seem to be at the same house in the same time anymore.
Nina's friend Vonetta wonders if Tony is having an affair. Oh dear.
There's no easy way out of this, really. Love Notes, at this point, isn't an easy read: the misunderstandings ring so real that they seem to echo some of the rockier times in my own marriage. The author doesn't make it easy on me either: both Nina and Tony are flawed people who are equally to blame for the mess they're in. The author doesn't even try to mask the sexual frustration of these two unhappy people. In a way, this story can strike too close at home.
But it isn't just gloom and doom. This is not Once And Again (one of my favorite TV series, by the way) minus the sunnier moments. Nina expresses her frustrations on her canvas, while Tony loses himself in jazz, and through art and music, these two characters bring to life their pain to me in heartbreaking vividness. The author's prose is whimsical, reining in before things get overblown and bombastic, hence Love Notes flows like the most beautiful of songs.
Then, in the second half, the author pulls a fast one on me. I know there are Arabesque readers that complain and stab forks into the book when the author doesn't put in suspense elements, but hello? Love Notes. Relationship story. Who made Nina Sam Spade? Tony's club blows up on murder and drug charges and Nina saves the day. External conflict forces our couple to reconcile more than any internal compulsion on the characters' part. Even more insulting, there's a catfight for Tony.
Please. Can we keep the female catfights to B-grade horror movies where lesbian scenes are mandatory to excite the horny, no-life pimply prepubescent male audience?
Although I must admit, the evil catfighting ho is the one that keeps me interested in the second half. She's a sexually active woman. No surprise the author has to make this woman a really sick creature who has been sexually and physically abused as a child and soon after by every single man in her life. I find it odd that Ms Esdaile takes pains to create realistic characters in Nina and Tony but loses the plot when it comes to this secondary female character. But this Evil Ho's unexpected romance with a police officer who has his own demons is very poignant, darn, they deserve their own book.
I'm torn. The first half of Love Notes isn't an easy read - the author doesn't take short cuts in detailing every ugly detail of how a marriage can go wrong on its own accord. And she does that in beautiful, elegant prose and such striking characterization that it's impressive. Then comes the Nancy Drew second half and I want to scream. I smell editorial hijack here. It is a sad, sad day when I can't even read a complex romance without having unnecessary bang-bangs and crucifixion of evil other women thrown in.
Still, Love Notes does take the extra mile in creating non-cookie cutter relationships of characters so real they could be me or anyone I know. For the hours when I just can't stop reading, fascinated and riveted that I am in the story, even during the mediocre second half, I must say that Love Notes is a cut above the current barrage of cookie-cutter mediocrity swamping the market. It won't win fans in readers demanding complete escapism, but it has one in me.
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