Better Than
by Leslie Esdaile, contemporary (2008)
Dafina, $6.99, ISBN 978-0-7582-1330-3

Better Than what, you ask? The first paragraph of this story will explain the title of the story.

She was looking for a man who was better than... better than what she'd had before, better than all the nonsense she'd dealt with up till now. Oh, hell yeah, she needed a better than man!

Then there is the song of the same name by sex-on-legs Terrell Carter...

The plot of this story is all about falling in love. At 25, Deborah Lee Jackson feels that there is nowhere else to go but up. She miscarried her baby, discovered shortly after that her husband was cheating on her, and now she finds herself sending water shutoff notices at work to people in no better circumstances than she. Something has to change, she thinks. Something has to give. Despite the fact that she's supposed to be broke, she goes ahead and not only changes her wardrobe but also her diet, switching from Snickers to wholesome, organic, and holistic food. She also signs up for part-time art lessons at the local University Arts Center. I can only conclude that supposedly broke Deborah must have found the money to do all this - is Philadelphia really that cheap a place to live in? - from the same source that all those comely booksellers in TV shows and movies get their money from to pay for those expensive apartments in New York.

She encounters the hot artist Jason Hastings and the next thing she knows, she's falling head over heels in love. As for Jason, he is determined to focus on his art and what not after his break-up with a skanky ho, but not only does the plus-sized Deborah becomes his muse and fires up his creative juices like nobody else can, he also finds himself compelled to carry out some life-changing decisions that he has been postponing for a long time. In other words, she inspires him to make a few much-needed changes in his life as well.

If you want to argue that this story is a sentimental motivational tale for women to take control of their lives back and get their grooves on masquerading as a romance novel, I'd understand why you'd feel that way. The author can get a little heavy handed here with her "take control, sisters, and feel good about your life!" mantra in this story. The later half of the story, especially, sees Ms Esdaile auditioning hard to be Oprah Winfrey's resident agony aunt in her talk show or something. But to me, the heavy handed mantra is actually a big part of the reason why this story works so well for me.

It is always a joy to read about an intelligent woman not afraid to take control of her life to become a better person. Deborah is not a perfect character - she makes mistakes now and then, but that's because she's human. It's how she decides that her life has to change and she will no longer be content to be stuck in a rut that gives this story an appealing and infectious sense of joie d'vivre. I like Deborah a lot and I am cheering for her to succeed, all because Ms Esdaile has effortlessly got me to relate to and adore her lead female character.

One can argue that Jason is the perfect trophy guy for a woman like Deborah, and again, I can understand why you'd feel that way. I actually agree with that assessment. However, I adore Jason. He's an artist, yes, but he's the ideal and attractive version of an artist. You know, the romanticized ideal you have in your head until you've slept with a few artists and realize that, in reality, most of them are self-absorbed jerks who prey on a woman's illusions about the romanticism of their creativity to get into her pants and make her pay for their meals. Not that I am speaking from experience here, mind you. Here, Jason isn't just that poet who speaks like a gallant gentlemen - and I give Ms Esdaile lots of love for not making Jason sleazy in this respect - he also loves the way he throws himself into his art: madly, passionately, irrevocably. He's the man who will run for miles to look for the woman he loves and howls at the moon when he can't find her. His love is an art to him - Deborah inflames his imagination as well as his passions. This guy is unbelievable, yes, but if he's available, I'd like to take three of him home. Two for spare, of course, because you never know when some jealous ho will steal that man from me.

Better Than can get very sentimental, but while I normally wince at heavy-handed melodrama, here I find myself reading every word and sighing silently because the whole story manages to make the acts of falling and being in love so, so beautiful. I find myself wanting to hug Deborah and tell her, "You go, girl!" even as I wish that I'd met a man like Jason when I was in my "Liberal arts kids are so cool!" phase during my college days. Sigh. Maybe that is why I am so susceptible to Better Than, heh.

Put on some smooth grooves in the background, settle down comfortably on one's favorite reading chair, and begin reading this book... I can't think of many things that are better than, well, Better Than.

Rating: 93

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