Just Between Friends
by Sandra Steffen, contemporary (2005)
Zebra, $6.50, ISBN 0-8217-7556-1


Sandra Steffen's latest contemporary smalltown romance Just Between Friends has very heavy leanings towards mainstream women's fiction without sacrificing fundamental romantic elements. While the whole "three childhood best friends reunited over love and heartbreak issues" premise is nothing new, the fact that this book deals with issues unusually heavy for a romance novel without going over-the-top sentimental may make it appealing to readers looking for a little extra emotional punch in their smalltown romances.

The three friends - the cheerleader, the prom queen, and the hat maker - in question are Brooke Valentine (our main heroine), Sara Kemper, and Claudia Reynolds. Best friends when they were living in Alcott, New Hampshire, they went their separate ways after high school, although they do keep contact with each other. Brooke, the sensible one, eventually married Colin, a handsome and successful number-cruncher, and they live the high life in Philadelphia with their daughter Sophie. Claudia, the fun-loving one, heads out for adventures and starts a successful company dealing with hats. Sara never left Alcott - she has the unhappiest home of all three women and she married a man who seemed like a dream come true, until Ron started beating her, that is.

Brooke managed to forgive Colin when she discovered his infidelity two years ago - it wasn't easy but she managed to forgive him - but when she discovers his latest affair, she seizes a wedding invitation from her sister back in Alcott to take Sophie with her as she gets away from Colin and try to decide what she should do now with her life. There, she catches up with Sara, who has left Ron and devotes her life to her fifteen-year old son Seth, although Ron is still trying to give her and Seth problems. Brooke meets Mackenzie Elliot, a newcomer who is in Alcott to take care of his dying father Archie. Both are attracted to each other, which is natural, I suppose, given that Mac is a shrink. Colin shows up to complicate matters because he is not willing to lose Brooke. Finally, Claudia breezes into town, supposedly to attend the wedding as well, but she actually returns because she is afraid that her younger English lover Julian Bartholomew has gotten under her skin when other men have tried and failed. Julian naturally follows her to Alcott, much to her dismay, because he wants to marry her. Yes, he loves her.

While the storylines by nature are nothing new, what makes this book stand out is the effort the author puts into making the characters' emotional dilemmas real and relatable without turning her characters into victims. Sara can be the weakest link of the three, given that it seems inexplicable that everyone knows that Ron beat her up when they were married but Ron is still allowed to go near Sara and threaten her whenever he wants, but in the end Sara's fears and insecurities are well-drawn enough to make her a sympathetic woman to root for. Brooke's feelings about Colin are also well-developed. She is no victim - she has forgiven him once and now she cannot trust him anymore to take him back. Her relationship with Mac simmers slowly. What I love about this relationship is how the author takes the trouble to build the relationship so that it doesn't come off like a rebound affair. There are little things in the relationship that make it clear how good those two are together - such as how Mac and Brooke can laugh at the same things when no one else can - as well as big things like how Mac calls up Brooke - yes, Mac's the shrink - to talk about nothing and everything until she hangs up because they both know that he isn't going to.

The story of Claudia and Julian is short but it is a purely delicious fantasy nonetheless because Julian is young, virile, handsome, dashing, speaks in a cultured English accent, and so in love with Claudia. There is a moral, I'm sure, in how the happy-go-lucky teenaged girl ends up being the happiest and most baggage-free adult of the three. These two make a perfect and often silly foil to Brooke and Mac's sweeter and more emotionally raw relationship. Oh, and Julian and Claudia have one of the funniest, most romantic scenes of public declaration of love that I've ever read!

While romance and happy endings are present in abundance in Just Between Friends, Ms Steffen often inserts some realism in her story to make it resonate harder with me. Colin, for example, is obviously a slimeball but he is also a master manipulator who isn't above using guilt and subtle backhanded compliments as as weapon. Brooke will have nothing of him now as she is wise to his tricks, but the fact that Colin comes off as a realistically likeable man with a cold reptilian personality hiding underneath his pleasant veneer makes it easy to understand why Brooke fell for and married Colin. There is no easy way out for Mac and his estranged father, just as there is none for Sara and her mother. Don't expect unrealistic changes of attitude for the sake of happy endings because, as is often the case in real life, sometimes there are too much hurt that even blood ties cannot overcome.

Unfortunately, this book's strengths are also its weakness in the sense that only Brooke's story gets the proper development it deserves in the 319 pages of this story. The stories of Claudia and Sara have to fight for the remaining space not allocated to Brooke and Sara, especially, deserves to have more of her story told as she is the most emotionally vulnerable of the three and also the most in need of healing. It frustrates me that Sara's coming to terms with herself is rushed especially towards late in the story. Mac and his father also have a turbulent backstory that Ms Steffen only hints at and I find myself wanting to know more about these two.

Rich with humor and emotional richness, Just Between Friends is one of the better examples of stories of friendship between women as well as romances that I've read in a while. Ultimately I am as frustrated by how this book is too short to do justice to all three women as I have a great time reading this book. I don't usually wish for a book to be longer - usually it's the other way around if the book is anything like some of the romance novels that I have read recently - but in this case, I find myself wanting the story to never end. How utterly silly of me, I know, but there you have it.

Rating: 89


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