by Connie Brockway, contemporary (2008)
Onyx, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-451-41244-7
Skinny Dipping is marketed as a "novel" and not "contemporary romance" on the spine for a good reason: while the romantic element is strong in this story, its structure is more of that of a women's fiction than a typical genre romance. The emphasis is, one can argue, more on the respective coming of age of the heroine and the hero instead of their romance with each other as well as their relationships with various secondary characters in this story.
It is hard to give a comprehensive synopsis of this story without giving everything away because it is about a journey, where events happen to the hero and the heroine that keep bringing them together whenever they are convinced that they aren't meant for each other. The back blurb actually describes events that take place in the late third or so of this story, mind you. So, the best I can say here is that this story revolves around two people, Mignonette "Mimi" Charbonneau Olson and Joe Tierney. She's 41 and he's 44.
These two characters can't be any more different on the surface. He's an overachieving and very successful corporate fellow while she's a determined slacker who does not want to shoulder any responsibility in life at all. He builds or dismantles companies for a living, she works at the "we communicate with dead people for you" hotline service. He has no family member other his estranged son Prescott and he also does not want to have another relationship after the death of his wife. You see, he believes that because he was always away all over the world on business trips, his marriage and his relationship with his son suffered. Now, he wants to settle down again only when he feels that he is ready to commit all his time and attention to the relationship. Mimi, on the other hand, remains cordial with her overachieving side of the family (her mother, her mother's second husband, and Mimi's half-sisters) but she is very close to her father's side of the family, the more easygoing and even bohemian Olsons.
Mimi and Joe would probably have never met were not for Prescott building a house for himself by one of the lakes close to the Olsons' holiday reunion point, Chez Ducky. Joe drives up to this alien rustic Minnesota territory in his annual attempt to patch things up with Prescott when he stumbles upon the naked Mimi fresh from skinny dipping and missing her towel. That's just a starting point of an unexpected relationship that takes place over a pretty long period of time if we want to look at this book as a romance novel, with the two characters slowly and gradually realizing that they are actually more similar than they would like to believe.
After all, both are loners who have run away from the things that they fear most. Joe is only starting to stop running in this story when he finally faces his own insecurities about having failed his son and his late wife to mend the rift with Prescott. Unfortunately, he doesn't know of any feel-good sitcom magic spell to do this. Mimi, on the other hand, keeps running until she finally can't run anymore late in the story because she learns that she has opened her heart to love and with this comes all kinds of responsibilities that she is no longer too afraid to shoulder. Both characters are not perfect and because Mimi comes to her epiphany so much later than Joe, readers may have to exercise some patience with these characters, especially Mimi. But I personally feel that these characters come off very real indeed due to Ms Brockway's sensitive handling of her characters. Even Prescott, as silly as he can be at times, is a well-depicted character. Take it from someone who has lived this long and still have some leftover issues with her own father - I can vouch that much of Prescott's character is real enough for me to relate to.
Now, I love many things about Skinny Dipping, the very real characters, especially. I have a good laugh over how Prescott and Joe find themselves in similar painful situations over the same woman that caused them to reevaluate the other person - that one is funny and yet unexpectedly poignant. But the middle portion of the story tends to drag. I can't put my finger as to why I feel this way, but the momentum built up during the first quarter or so of the story dissipates apart from a few moments here and there, such as Mimi getting along with her mother's mother-in-law that terrifies even Mimi's mother. It is only when Mimi, Prescott, and Joe all end up together in the late third or so of the story that I feel the zest and energy initially present in the story coming back again.
By the way, I have to point out that the scenery in this story is amazing. I've never felt this much transported into a location in a story since the last time I read a book by Deborah Smith. There is a very powerfully described scene that I especially remember, where Mimi looks over the lake and remembers her last summer with her grandfather (the man died before the following summer arrived). I actually find a tear in my eye as I read the evocatively described scene. It is as if I can actually see the whole scene before my eyes, and ouch, I feel my heart break along with Mimi's as a result. The last few chapters are definitely skirting too close to Hallmark sap territory, but what the heck, look at me, I'm smiling like a silly twit when everyone is so happy in the story.
Oh the whole, Skinny Dipping is a most enjoyable story with characters that resonate with me keenly. Were not for the middle portion of the story that makes me feel restless and impatient for the story to keep moving... somewhere... this one would easily be a keeper.
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