by Jennifer Greene, contemporary (2003)
Avon, $6.99, ISBN 0-380-81973-2
I am pleasantly thrilled to read Where Is He Now? because cynical old me is half-convinced that a story with hard-hitting life issues portrayed in shades of gray is something that I can only find nowadays on the women's fiction shelf. It is reassuring to still come across such well-written book in the romance genre. Or maybe "well-written" is not an entirely accurate description for Where Is He Now?. This book is very readable and the characters are very real and sympathetic, but the author also introduces rather awkwardly some secondary elements to her story.
Just don't be fooled by the cartoon cover into thinking that this is a fluffy romantic comedy romp. This book isn't a Trauma Porn book where the characters get off on being miserable, but it does have some deep issues the characters have to face before they get their happily ever after.
While in high school, the princess of the ball Jeanne Claire Cassiday had a thing with the bad boy of the ball Nate Donneli. These two are pretty much familiar characters to veteran romance readers and I think we can all guess at the reason why the infatuation didn't exactly translate into a happily ever after (hint: he thinks she is too good for him and leaves without a note the Morning After). Fifteen years later, both of them receive the invitation to their high school reunion.
Nate has never left Ann Arbor. He can't - he became the family breadwinner when he barely graduated from high school and he has to abandon his dreams of college, et cetera, to take care of his large number of siblings. Are those brats grateful? Not exactly. They call his making their decisions for them tyrannical and despotic. Nate runs the garage Donneli Motors but recently he begins to suspect his drunkard brother Daniel of embezzling money from the company. Oops.
On her part, Jeanne is a successful social event organizer but she is still smarting from being dumped by Nate. It hits her one morning that since Nate dumped her, she has been letting everyone in her life use her as their favorite doormat. She decides to wise up, but she needs some closure first. She will return to Ann Arbor and confront Nate and find out why he left her without a word that day fifteen years ago.
Nate has a daughter, but don't cringe, people. This is no "Career Woman Finding Joy In Being All Maternal And Homely" story. Caitlin can be very precocious for a thirteen-year old, but I've met thirteen-year olds like her so she's okay with me. She isn't a rebellious teen stereotype and she doesn't have Mommy issues. Instead, she brings out the paternal side of Nate that provides a nice balance to his issues. Nate's baggages deal with his leftover feelings for Jeanne that never die, his relationships with his siblings, and other down-to-earth issues that I can relate to without having to check my copy of The Trauma Handbook. Likewise, I can empathize with Jeanne and relate to her finding some self-discovery. Heroines often come with unrealistic sexual baggages that make me wonder what planet that they are exiled from, but not Jeanne. She is real. Needless to say, I love these two characters and I am rooting for them to rediscover love and to heal whatever that needs to be healed in their hearts.
A part of me wishes that Ms Greene has shown me more and told me less about the characters' issues though. Sometimes these characters talk so much about their issues and offer each other suggestions to overcome them that I feel as if I'm listening in on some support group meeting. On the other hand, Nate and Jeanne talk to each other as well as listen. Isn't that wonderful? Nonetheless, a little more showing can't hurt. Maybe the next book.
There's plenty of light humor in this book. Nate thinks of a car the way a man could think of a woman in a very crude and often politically incorrect manner. Personally I think this is a hoot, although I do pause and go "Eh?" when Nate gets a chubby while examining a really good antique car. Then again, maybe if Hugh Jackman marries me and hands me a Platinum Amex card and tells me that I can now shop to my heart's content without any limit, I will probably have a sexual rush on the spot too. (If the conditions to get me into a spontaneous sexual rush are much more stringent than Nate's, well, he's a man. What can I say?) Jeanne is a witty sort despite her issues, which only makes her a more likable character.
I wish the author hasn't crammed in some secondary elements in this story. Tamara Whitley, Jeanne's best friend, finds some semblance of a romance with the former class nerd Arnold Grafton, and this one is the annoying "Slutty Woman Finds Contentment After Bonding With Man's Son" story, but most of the romance takes place off-screen. The underdeveloped feel to this subplot serves to distract me from the main relationship. Likewise, Nate's embezzlement subplot fizzles out, again adding to the number of unnecessary and underdeveloped subplots in this book. If the author has cleared away the clutter in her story, Where Is He Know? will be a truly amazing book.
Still, this book is a very good read. The characters are so likable. What wonderfully realistic people they are, with issues and emotions that I can relate to! Where Is He Now? offers a romanticized and idealized happy resolution to life's many issues (not that this is a bad thing in any way) without dumbing them down. Some books tackle heavy issues but offer banal resolutions to these issues - the usual resolution being the heroine saving the hero by taking care of his children, giving up her career to be his housewife, and demonizing abortion, adoption, career, and more in unthinking black-and-white rigidity. Not so in this book. And even better, it's also so romantic in the last few chapters that I sigh somewhat mistily. What more can I ask for? Okay, maybe a little less extraneous subplots and a little more showing instead of telling, but still, this book is more than alright with me.
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