Miss Bates has read much lauding of Stacey’s Kowalskis and she enjoyed Snowbound With the Ceo, an unrelated novella. When the chance to read the latest in the series came up, Miss Bates broke her personal code regarding family-linked or small-town contemporary romances: they dry up after the third. When #4 appears, run for the hills. This was not a “run for the hills” read, though #7, but it wasn’t satisfying either, pressing painfully on many of Miss Bates’ annoyance buttons. There are things to enjoy about Love A Little Sideways, but overall, Miss Bates would say it suffers from the bane of the long-running series: a litany of past couples in the initial chapters and an abrupt and pat conclusion. These can be overlooked, possibly, if the focus is on a compelling hero and heroine. Alas for Love A Little Sideways, while apart these two are somewhat likeable, they’re not so hot together … and they’re not even that hot! That is a serious breach in a genre which emphasizes the courtship and union of a couple. While the writing is competent, even witty and interesting in places, a hero and heroine who aren’t much fun together is a romance-killer.
Love A Little Sideways opens with an amusing incident that hooks the reader’s attention: Liz Kowalski, returning home to Whitford, Maine, after a ten-year stint in New Mexico, drives her jalopy and worldly possessions contained therein into a tree. Police chief Drew Miller is called to the scene. We learn that Drew is Mitch’s best friend, Liz’s older brother; we also learn that, at Mitch’s wedding to Paige, Liz, fresh from a break-up, and Drew, fresh from a divorce, had a quickie before the cake-cutting. Liz left for New Mexico and the two didn’t speak of this amorous interlude, or see each other … until this accident. Nevertheless, we’re told that they were never far from each others’ thoughts. What follows in the next few chapters is too tedious to be re-told in any detail: suffice to say that we are introduced, or re-introduced if you’ve followed the series, to the many many incarnations and spouses of Kowalskis that Stacey has concocted. After a while, Miss B. just gave up trying to figure out who was who and who was married to whom. All she knew was that a re-meet-cute was ruined by a plethora of names and back-stories. When the immediate family machinates a family camping trip, conveniently throwing Drew and Liz together, more cousins and babies show up, OOT Kowalski siblings and their families. Miss Bates carried on flashing the Kindle pages and hoped for the best.
Stacey creates a romance between a hero and heroine at cross purposes in their lives: Liz is ready to start anew, find a meaningful career, and re-build her life in her hometown; Drew, on the other hand, is ready to settle down, marry, and have children. They spend a lot of time thinking about how wrong they are for each other, and as responsible adults ought to, acknowledge they are at different points in their lives and a relationship is not feasible. Drew thinks:
They were both starting over, but they were going in different directions. Liz wanted to have fun and figure out her new direction in life. Drew already knew what direction he was going in. He wanted children, so he was looking for a wife who wanted the same and he was tired of waiting.
On her part, Liz echoes his thoughts:
She knew they wanted different things right now. From what she’d heard, he was looking to be on the fast track to marriage and babies, and she was still hovering at the start line, wondering if that was a path she was willing to take.
You’d think with such clear-thinking realizations, these two would go their merry ways … away from each other. No, Stacey seems to say, lust will bring them together and, after only two weeks of boinking without even venturing out on a date, they’re in love and ready to make babies. Miss Bates figures Drew won. Well he should, dour and pushy though he is, because Liz is immature and whiny; she’s returned to a small town, barely glanced at school brochures, is working at her sister-in-law’s diner … and keeps saying that she wants to do something with her life. Other than falling into bed with Drew, she never actually does anything to find out what that is, nor does she seem to have any passion for anything … other than Drew. Lust will keep you together, even when you’re at cross-purposes, or drifting.
Because the doubt-and-boink pattern is insufficient as a conflict, Stacey also, and more adeptly Miss Bates might add, sets up a pretty cool bromance between Drew and Mitch, Liz’s oldest brother, and Drew’s best friend. These two have shared a long friendship. Their relationship seems more genuine and interesting than Drew and Liz’s. Tension is created when Drew withholds his … um … feelings for Liz from Mitch, who reacts in a chest-pounding-you’re-doing-what-with-my-baby-sister manner. In and of itself, Miss Bates has never bought, nor enjoyed, the best friend’s sister romance. It’s tedious and, especially in contemporary romance, not terribly convincing. Miss Bates thinks most bros would rejoice at this: your sister is with someone you know and like and it looks like no one is going to come between you and your “bro.” But what does Miss Bates know, she’s an only child (if you’ve read your Emma, you’d know this). Nevertheless, the affair blows up in Drew and Liz’s faces and Mitch reacts very very badly, with punches and feelings of betrayal. Confrontations and conversations between Drew and Mitch are great, case in point when Mitch addresses Drew regarding Liz: ” ‘Which would you choose?’ [Me, or Liz?] ‘You … we’ve been friends our whole lives.’ ” Frankly, this avowal between best friends is the best, most genuine and interesting moment in the novel. Miss Bates would take it hands down over the weak and too-easily-arrived-at love-and-babies avowals that conclude it.
Though a weak romance and forgettable read, there was one aspect of this category-length novel that Miss Bates enjoyed: Stacey’s a hand at some cool little metaphors and allusions. The prose is, for the most part, functional rather than inspiring, but once in a while, Miss Bates was delighted. Here are a few of her favourites:
He [Drew] still wasn’t sure who moved first, but the kiss made him feel like that bird that rose out of the ashes …
He [Drew] vaguely remembered, from some high school English class, a story about beautiful women who’d lured sailors in so they smashed their ships on the rocks. That’s how he felt about Liz.
She [Liz] gave him a warm, genuine smile that made him feel like a mini marshmallow dropped into a mug of hot chocolate.
Not bad, thought Miss B., the phoenix, the sirens, and a comforting cup of cocoa, a nice combination of the literate and homey. Not bad at all; too bad, though, that this cleverness wasn’t in the service of a more interesting, more convincing romance.
In reading Shannon Stacey’s Love A Little Sideways, Miss Bates can say she didn’t find reader joy beyond “tolerable comfort,” Mansfield Park.
Stacey’s Love A Little Sideways has been available from Carina Press since December 1st. It may be purchased in e-format from the usual places.
Miss Bates is grateful to Carina Press for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
Have you read any good bromances lately? Let Miss Bates know the details in the comments!