by Stef Ann Holm, contemporary (2006)
HQN, $6.99, ISBN 0-7783-2344-7
I hate to talk about the labels that should be tagged to a book because I don't really have a problems with labels and people will assume that I do when I say things like this, but there are readers who want to know about these things and I should try to oblige them.
So here goes, once again another label warning: Stef Ann Holm's Lucy Gets Her Life Back is actually more of a Divorcée Fiction thingie than an actual romance because the romance between our heroine Lucy Carpenter and hero Drew Tolman isn't the front and center of the story. It shares as much space within the pages of this book as the story of Lucy getting her life together again, Drew's reunion with his estranged daughter Mackenzie, Lucy's relationship with her teenage boys, and Drew's ex-girlfriend Jacquie's friendship with the town matriarch-of-sorts, the irrepressible 103-year old Fern "Spin" Goodley-Leonard. If you're looking for a story that is first and foremost a romance, you may be disappointed with this book. But if you're keen on reading mainstream women's fiction with romantic elements, you can do a lot worse than this book.
Forty-five year old Lucy arrives in Red Duck, Idaho, with her two sons Jason, who's sixteen, and Matt, who's twelve. Her husband is a textbook "ran off with a bimbo and is too broke to pay decent child support" case and Jason was recently busted for possessing marijuana. It wasn't the first time Jason was caught so Lucy brings her sons here for a fresh start and hopefully keep Jason away from bad influences. Since Red Duck is just next door to a posh enclave where movie stars and other Hollywood celebrities come back during winter to ski and all, I wonder whether Lucy is just naive or worse if she imagines that nobody will sell drugs here when we have a bunch of rich and spoiled people making their winter getaway just next door.
Lucy hopes to start a catering business for these rich people - she'll cook for those people who are busy at their clubs and saunas to cook, that kind of thing - but she'll have to get past the resident caterer who zealously protects his turf from all outsiders. Meanwhile, she meets and finds herself attracted to Drew, an ex-baseball star who currently coaches the kids around the place. Drew however has an on/off relationship with Jacquie who loves him but has to deal with the fact that she is losing him. Meanwhile, Jason finds a new dope dealer while Mackenzie, Drew's estranged daughter, drops by for a visit. Is everyone going to have a good time in Red Duck?
Drew is a nicely drawn character although I personally don't really like this guy. But that doesn't get into my ability to enjoy this story, though - I may not like this guy but I do find him an interesting character. He has been a big jerk in the past, such as refusing to even meet his daughter that he had with a girlfriend that he ditched to become a big star and at the start of this story not really treating Jacquie fairly. As much as I can't blame a guy for hooking up with a sexy woman for casual sex, it is pretty clear that Jacquie expects more from him and I wish he has the balls to be fair to her and break things off with her for good. Nonetheless, Drew tries to change to be a better man and I have to respect him for that. He may not always succeed and he isn't always the nicest guy around, but he is trying nonetheless. I like how Ms Holm depicts Drew's internal struggles. It isn't easy to change after a lifetime of being the way he is, I know, and the fact that he is on his way to getting there makes him A-OK in my book.
However, I don't know why Ms Holm does this but the other characters are blindly adoring of Drew, openly stating that he can't do wrong in their eyes, and even Mackenzie eventually becomes Daddy's Best Little Girl without anything more than some brief lip service resistance. Drew's come-on lines and attempts to flirt with Lucy are shockingly bad and corny and I initially assume they are meant to be that way because Lucy's initial reaction towards Drew is that he is a player who isn't being fair to his girlfriend. But Lucy soon melts away into fangirl mode when it comes to Drew. Without everyone so willing to kiss Drew's toes and declare them the best toes ever in existence, I suppose it's a wonder that Drew even wants to change as a person. Because everyone in Red Duck is determined to portray Drew as an angelic saint who can't do anything wrong, I'm less invested in Drew's story than I should be because nobody really challenges him to change or to grow.
On the other hand, Lucy disappoints me because this is another story where the besieged divorcée's problems become magically solved the moment she meets the right man and all that man has to do is to spread a few good words and she will never have to worry about money or job ever again. The few baby steps Lucy makes on her own make me cringe in embarrassment for her, such as when she runs to the local Sheriff and his buddies while they are at the bar to complain that the local caterer is "slandering" her by telling his clients not to hire her. Predictably, she's laughed out of the bar. How Lucy Gets Her Life Back? By hooking up with a rich guy. I don't know what to say.
Jacquie could have been a very interesting character because she's everything Lucy isn't: tough, career-oriented, sexual, and willing to go after what she wants. Of course, she wants Drew and she can't have Drew because let's face it, we are talking about women's fiction here. You think the man will choose a woman with a booming career over a woman who cooks, cleans the house, and slaves after the kids? Unfortunately, Jacquie is stuck in a plot full of heavy-handed anvil messages involving her getting all kinds of advice by old but safe Spin. I like Spin, another interesting character who was the first female lawyer in that area back in 1924. Unfortunately, both women are trapped in thankless roles as the teacher and the student in this story. The message is sensible: respect yourself, find a man who respects you as much as love you, et cetera. Unfortunately, this sees Jacquie making decisions like not having sex while Spin mentions that she has never had sex or relationships with other men since the death of her husband decades ago. Now, it makes sense to abstain from sex while trying to figure yourself out, but a part of me wonders why Drew can have sex all he wants while trying to figure himself out but apparently Jacquie can't. Is it because of her gender? While I can see what Ms Holm is trying to preach via the Jacquie-Spin subplot, there is a double standard in this subplot that I am not particularly comfortable with. I also really wish Spin isn't so much of an obvious plot device and a placeholder for the author's being on the soapbox when it comes to relationships between men and women because Spin, as an interesting character, deserves to be more than an obvious plot cipher.
The weakest links of this story are the teenagers though, which is odd because Ms Holm has created realistic teenage characters in the past. For example, we have sixteen-year old Jason who can smoke pot but tells himself that he can't imagine what having sex with a girl would be like or why he should even try. Unless he's a sexually confused fellow who needs to clean out his closet one of these days, Jason at sixteen being so curiously uninterested with sex with a girl is a prime "Are you kidding me?" example of an unrealistic teenage character.
On the whole, Lucy Gets Her Life Back is like Pleasantville, where everything turns up rosy and nice at the end of the day, only, like a typical wholesome fare from the 1950s, there are some very obvious patronizing elements woven into the "wholesomeness" of the story that come off as... well, something from the 1950s, if I'm making any sense here. This story is well-written and some characters like Drew, Jacquie, and Spin are very vividly drawn and deserve a less preachy story, but at the same time the story doesn't just feel like a family values pamphlet of the 1950s, it also pushes forth the values of those bygone days that may not go down well with some readers. Normally this won't be too much of an issue but the preachiness of this story makes it an issue since there is no escaping the blatant messages in this story.
Therefore, if you don't really go for the whole right-leaning conservative "Big Guy, Little Woman" thing, take a deep breath and steel yourself before opening this book. As I've said earlier, this book is well-written and some of the characters are very interesting, so readers can do worse than picking this book up. Conversely, I feel that readers can also do better. And so can Ms Holm, I'm sure.
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