Jill Shalvis gives readers what they want and expect. Her style, content, and way of perceiving and presenting the world are signature, which translates to predictable after reading a few of her books. They’re also good in the same way every time, pithily written, with wit and energy; they are humourous. Her hero is big and tough and sexy. Her heroine is independent, giddily messed up, and gives as good as she gets. People change for the better and HEAs are worked out and made possible because her hero and heroine alter their ways of thinking and relating. Families, especially how parents’ mistakes bear on the adult lives of the hero and heroine, figure prominently. Always On My Mind, Lucky Harbor #8, runs to type and delivers what the reader seeks in a small-town Shalvis romance. Miss Bates has enjoyed, if not loved or been enthralled by, every Shalvis romance she’s read and Always On My Mind did not fail her overall; however, it foundered where no Shalvis romance ever has, at least in Miss Bates’s experience. There is also something in the sameness of it all that disappoints. There is a blandness to the recent Lucky Harbor books that left Miss Bates restless through the first half of book eight … BUT, in typical Shalvis fashion, like her impossible-not-to-love animal characters, it picked up in the second half. Miss Bates has damned Always On My Mind with faint praise, yes, but she’d still like to wax loquacious about it.
Shalvis’s strength lies in writing a sexy romance, without being crude, between two flawed, believable characters. Even when the characters are far-fetched, as in Miss Bates’s favourite Lucky Harbor romance, Head Over Heels, with the asthmatic, free-spirited Chloe and sternly and deliciously domineering Sheriff Sawyer Thompson, the romance is spot-on. Here’s where Always On My Mind lost her: this romance is not believable; this couple is not convincing. The reasons they end up together are flimsy and the reader cannot help but feel that they needed to move on … from each other. And because Shalvis insists on bringing and keeping them together, the romance suffers and the narrative lags. Miss Bates knew there was something wrong when she realized that the hero’s relationship with his dog … Kevin, he’s adorable … is more interesting than the one he shares with the heroine!
Always On My Mind had a promising premise: one of Miss Bates’s favourites, bringing friends together as lovers. Certainly, this one had a solid, if typical start. Leah Sullivan has returned to Lucky Harbor to nurse her ailing grandmother, Elsie, and take care of the family business, a bakery, during Elsie’s convalescence. Leah is a world-class pastry chef, though she’s been demoralized by an incident, to which we are not privy until the very end, when it proves thoroughly anti-climactic, on a reality chef show.
Once in Lucky Harbor, she’s re-united with her childhood friend, “hero,” and “protector,” Lieutenant Jack Harper, head of Fire Station #24. One of Shalvis’s talents, and this is evident in the first chapter, is her ability to fill in the background that serves as her characters’ neuroses, blocking their HEA, even while painting an entertaining scene. Thus, we are introduced to Leah and Jack at the Firefighter’s Charity Breakfast, where secondary characters, such as Leah’s friends, Ali and Aubrey, and old standbys like the town gossip who posts Lucky Harbor’s bachelors on Facebook, provide comic relief. And we need relief, as’ll be evident, from the relentless daddy issues of our hero and heroine.
One of Shalvis’s problems is a weak conflict … so much so that she has to run another one parallel to the internal conflicts that keep hero and heroine apart. It starts with Jack’s mother, Dee, and her weakened state from fighting breast cancer. Moreover, Dee’s inability to let go of her husband’s death, a firefighter and Jack’s hero role model, has left her unable to move on with her life. She is afraid that her stalled state has resulted in Jack’s reticence to have a serious relationship. Leah, struggling with her own self-esteem issues from a verbally abusive father, and loving Dee and Jack, blurts out/fibs that she and Jack are in a relationship. This serves as a kind of Freudian slip that sets the friendship on an amorous course.
Jack and Leah maintain the appearance of a relationship in order to protect and care for Dee, because it gives her hope, makes her happy, and stimulates her feeble appetite. But the “pretend” relationship turns into friends-with-benefits. The various games, texting banter, and busy-ness of work, fighting fires or baking up a storm, prevent Leah and Jack from spending time together. Talk about a weak romance when the Kindle had to hit the 41% point before hero and heroine are even in the same room together … and not for very long either. They think about each other … a lot … about how they don’t belong together, even though the feelings, the need, the desire, are overwhelming at times.
Jack is afraid of the rejection he experienced after Leah skipped town when they were just past high school and they’d agreed to be more-than-friends. And Leah struggles with not being “good enough” for Jack, a legacy left by her father’s cruel jibes. By the time Shalvis brings them together and then keeps them in a push-away -pull-together mode, the only thing they seem to do is fall into lust-inspired beds … and piers … and bakeries, etc. Even though they’re supposed to be friends, they never talk or share confidences, spend time together other than to be intimate … or even enjoy a pizza and film together. This romance is devoid of wooing, courtship, or even the intense antagonism that a good row brings. There’s no banter; correct that, there is, but Shalvis is so enamoured of her secondary characters (and they are fresh and interesting) that the banter they share is heaps better than the hero and heroine’s meagre conversations.
As a result of the feeble romance, Shalvis develops two other conflicts/dramas to ratchet up the action and keep these two apart. One is that something has gone terrible wrong with Leah’s performance on Sweet Wars, the reality pastry chef show, that will prove how she’s a screw-up once more, thereby affirming her father’s opinion of her. And there’s an arsonist loose … which keeps Jack busy and away from Leah. While these two are kept apart physically, except in lust-full moments, they are introspective about themselves and their incipient relationship. Their “introspections” are negative, doubtful, but still flat, except for some vivid memories of growing up together. When one considers those, it is evident they ought to have moved on from each other. And the people they were, especially Jack, are weakly linked to who they are as adults. When they do finally admit to at least a powerful physical attraction, Miss Bates was left shaking her head. At least they were in the same room, though the arsonist plot thread interrupts that. In the last third or so of the novel, some spark was evident, some narrative impetus to inspire interest in the reader. And Shalvis is an able writer, smooth and effortless, and as Miss Bates has already said, pithy. It just seemed to Miss Bates that the romance, the hero, and the heroine didn’t rise to the writing talent.
This is a novel where our hero and heroine are closed and cautious people. Their only connection is amorous. They’re blind to how they feel about each other. When something finally seems to break through, some honesty, some raw emotion … well, Shalvis makes their HEA conditional and then has to tack on an epilogue-like chapter to fulfill it. Because, once again, these two re-establish a physical and emotional distance. Maybe the argument here was “reculez pour mieux sauter” but the re-union looks, from Miss Bates’s perspective, that it’s more fun for the town than hero and heroine. There’s no grovel, no grand gesture … and maybe, dear reader, you’ll like that, the more realistic perspective. Miss Bates was just happy they were going to be in the same room … fully clothed … for a happily-ever-after. Shalvis’s latest Lucky Harbor romance will provide “tolerable comfort” Mansfield Park.
Always On My Mind was released on Sept. 24 by Grand Central Publishing. Miss Bates is grateful to them for a DGE that she received via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review. You may purchase Always On My Mind in the usual places and formats.
There are many qualities that we may speak of when we speak of romance novels, but there’s nothing like damning with faint praise. A spectacularly bad book is a lot of fun to discuss, as much as a stupendous one, but the ones that fall in the middle? Not so much. And it is that much more difficult to articulate what may have gone wrong with them. What’s the last bland book you read: take-it-or-leave-it, it-was-okay, meh … ?