Avon, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-06-267290-2
Contemporary Romance, 2018
Hi, everyone, this website is cancelled. I’m getting married to Gabe Caldera. Why not? He’s an easy-going man’s man, a former Navy SEAL who still retains all that beefcake in his larder, and he is a natural with kids. Oh, and he has a big house, and while he isn’t a millionaire, he doesn’t seem to be in debts. He has no insufferable parents or creepy fans who will drag him off to crawl pubs and leer at teenage girls, so really, I’m going to marry him every single day from now on, and there will be no time left to update this website. So that’s it, wish me great joy, and go spend more time on Twitter instead.
What’s that? Oh come on, please don’t spoil my delusion. Oh, alright – Julie Anne Long’s The First Time at Firelight Falls is the first book in her Hellcat Canyon series that makes me want to do something silly like taking off my shoes and go running in the grass or something. It makes me so happy by the time I reach the last page, I’d feel silly if I also weren’t feeling so… well, happy. It’s sad that I have to say this, but this is one story that is all about falling in love. Sure, there are sequel baits here, but they know their place – they don’t indulge in gratuitous appearances just to advertise themselves; instead, they have their roles to play in accentuating the positives in the hero and the heroine.
Gabe is a dream. Or maybe it’s just me – show me a guy who has an innate way with kids and is so glad to be a mentor and father figure to these kids, and I don’t care if he looks like Steve Buscemi – I’ll take five of him. Our hero is the principal of the Hellcat Canyon Elementary and while he isn’t above using his looks and charms to placate annoying moms on the PTA when they create unnecessary drama, he has eyes only for Eden Harwood, a single mother whose attitude and parenting of her daughter Annelise often raise the ire of the more conservative parents of other students. He finally gets his chance at really asking Eden out when they discover that he is a friend of her BFF’s recently acquired beau, so they will be seeing more of one another.
Eden is the rather familiar heroine who devotes all her free time to her daughter, and I have to give the author plenty of love here: she pulls off the dreaded “I’m too busy for anything” trope here beautifully. Instead of rolling up my eyes and going, “Ugh, cliché!” I choke up a bit when Eden talks about how Annelise is the best thing to ever happen to her that she often feels that she doesn’t want to miss out on even one second in being in her daughter’s life. I can relate to that, actually, as I’m sure most parents do when they think back on how it felt like just yesterday when they first held that cute-ugly brat in their arms only to realize, damn, that same cute-ugly brat is now grown up and asking them to help pitch in now and then in raising the kid’s own cute-ugly brats. Really, where did all that time go? Such a realization sometimes creates this sense of urgency of wanting to be a better parent, to give more of one’s time to the kid. The author through Eden encapsulates these feels very well, and as a result, I can relate to Eden very easily. Thus, the author has sneakily made me accept and even enjoy a trope that I would otherwise roll up my eyes at.
That’s it for the plot, mostly. There are ripples in the pond, so to speak, such as Annelise starting to ask about her father and Eden trying to keep that man’s identity from everyone because the plot demands thus. However, everyone and everything turns out okay in the end, and I float down from the clouds like Oprah to scream at everyone, “You get four oogies! You get four oogies!”
The First Time at Firelight Falls works because everything is so refreshingly normal and ordinary here. No billionaires, no crazy exes, no murder attempts – just everyone behaving like real people (albeit in idealized forms, of course), doing normal things and falling in love. It is the chemistry and the emotions that make this story feel larger than life, which at the end of the day is what a romance novel should be all about. Love, people, is glorious; it makes ordinary people look and feel like superstars. When these people are being sweet, it’s like all the feels come with a heavenly orchestral score in the background… but then again, Julie Anne Long is always good at writing romantic scenes and she is on point here. When these people are being immature, it’s still okay because they do so in a believable, relatable manner.
That kid has some annoying cutesy moments, but when I look at that eight-year old currently ruling the house, I have to concede that the author has Annelise done right too as a mostly believable ten-year old.
Still, I have to deduct one oogie at the end of the day because while the feels are real, there are many instances where the characters’ conversations come off as a bit too try-hard with all the pop culture name-dropping. Perhaps the author is trying to pull an Amy Sherman-Palladino here, but my issue isn’t in the pop culture references itself – although all that So You Think You Can Dance thing is already dated by the time I read this book, and the pop culture references are going to be as hip as a bingo party at a retirement home come next year – but the fact that there is a stylized way to the author’s delivery and punchlines, one that is replicated by most of the main cast here. As a result, there is a hive-mind feel to the whole story every time these people want to remind me that they are auditioning for a sitcom. Like I’ve mentioned, the feels are real, but there are moments in this story that feel unnecessarily too staged and contrived.
Nonetheless, this is a small issue where I am concerned; it doesn’t prevent me from mangling that annoying Maroon 5 song under my breath when I’m done with it: girls like me run ’round with books like this, yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah… oh god, what a book.