The second-chance-at-love trope in romance is one of Miss Bates’s favourites. It offers deliciously antagonistic back-story to a reunited couple; it adds depth beyond insta-lust. It may also, however, suffer from deus ex machina-ism, depending on how the romance writer engineers the reunion. One of Miss Bates’s comfort reads is a second-chance-at-love romance classic, Judith McNaught’s Paradise. She also points to another classic, Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Ain’t She Sweet? Miss Bates characterizes Rachel Gibson as a mini-SEP. She’s written several enjoyable second-chance-at-love romances: in particular, her first and last in the Chinooks series, Simply Irresistible and Any Man Of Mine, respectively; the latter possessing gravitas and poignancy the former lacked. In the scheme of second-chance-at-love romances, how does Jessica Gilmore’s début effort stack up? Miss Bates says that there is no greater joy in the romance reader’s love for the genre than to discover a new voice in category romance. Gilmore’s first novel is lovely: the writing is strong; the characters are wonderful; and the handling of the second-chance-at-love for Lawrie Bennett and Jonas Jones, heroine and hero, one of the best she’s read. It’s not perfect, but it echoes one of the finest writing category romance today, Jessica Hart. Indeed, Gilmore gives a nod to Hart in her acknowledgements: a fine, fine professional mentoring if The Return Of Mrs. Jones is the result. A winner is born, folks!
“She hadn’t set foot in the small Cornish village for nine years. Hadn’t seen this man for nine years. But it still mattered.” “She” is Lawrie Bennett, lawyer-heroine, newly returned to Trengarth where she grew up, fell in love, married, and divorced entrepreneur-hotelier-restauranteur-hero, Jonas Jones. She was laid off by her prestigious London firm and dumped by fiancé Hugo. She is a fragile, sad mess. She hasn’t anything beyond the hope of a job possibility in New York and her late grand-mother’s house in Trengarth. Her first night in town finds her hovering outside her ex-husband’s now luxurious café-restaurant-music-venue. His star has risen; hers has fallen. The set-up is complete. And if life has been throwing lemons at Lawrie, it’s not surprising that it’s also her 30th birthday. Jonas invites her into his café, pours her a cup of coffee and puts a slice of carrot cake on a plate. Suddenly, life is looking up, but the emotions roil and moil as Lawrie is reminded of what she gave up and who she used to be: carefree, spontaneous, HAPPY. Thus begins a re-courtship dance that is as pain-filled and regretful as romantic and loving. Lawrie and Jonas, to quote Eliot, “arrive where they first started and know the place for the first time”: their journey is a wonderful read.
” … his eyes … radiated concern. For her. She didn’t need the stab of her conscience to tell her she didn’t deserve his concern.” Jonas Jones is what some term a “beta” hero: loving and forgiving, but not a pushover. He’s handsome and charming, has blue eyes and a surfer’s body. He’s a nice guy, decent. He’s a gentleman and he’s gracious, “Inviting her in had felt like the right thing to do. The mature thing. Maybe he should have left her outside after all.” Proof he’s not a saint, but important to know he’s not a doormat. He’s angry, but still very much in love with his ex-wife. On the night they meet after nine years, he gives Lawrie a birthday present, ” … a silk scarf the colour of the sea below.” How thoughtful. How well-mannered. If Lawrie were less beaten down, less lacking in confidence, the gesture, its beauty and how it conveys how much he remembers and still loves about her, would tell her everything. Lawrie and the reader are taken in by the gentle-manliness, the courtliness; however, beneath that warm-hearted surface, Jonas carries anger and resentment. But his love for Lawrie is bottomless and his basic decency triumphs.
” … the last desperate year of their marriage as he watched her retreat further and further away, her eyes, her focus, firmly fixed on the gleaming spires of Oxford.” Jonas and Lawrie married young; he, 20; and she, 18. They brought serious baggage with them: Lawrie, a mother who abandoned her and cared more for numerous husbands than she ever did about her daughter; Jonas, never good enough for his parents, never good enough for unconditional love. Gilmore does as good a job of depicting how they work things out with their parents, or at least learn to be adult enough to accept their parents’ limitations, as she does with the romance. One wrong note, in Miss Bates’s estimation, was the reason for Jonas’s parents’ neglect: it’s sentimental and not quite believable. Gilmore’s strength, which more than makes up for the bump, is her handling of the working out of what happened to their marriage. They were too young and, as the young are wont to, trying to work out careers and identity at the same time as they committed to each other. Love was easy and deep; commitment, on the other hand, proved too much. Lawrie’s need for success and independence, or rather her need not to be dependent, the result of her mother’s abandonment, led her to pursue a career with single-minded determination. Jonas poured everything he had into their marriage, but was never willing to move beyond his love for Trengarth and need to prove that he could make something of himself on home turf. Now, when they’re beyond the proving themselves place, they talk about what happened. Those conversations are difficult, but cleansing. Here is one pretty wonderful, painful example, “He slanted a glance at her, cold, unreadable. ‘Marriage should be forever. Failing once was bad enough … ‘ ‘We didn’t fail.’ But her words had no conviction. Lawrie tried again. ‘We just wanted different things.’ ‘If that’s the way you want to remember it.’ Now this was familiar. The flush of anger, the ache of frustration as they stood on either side of a very deep chasm.” How Lawrie and Jonas fill the “chasm,” how they work towards understanding to stand fearlessly together in love and with commitment is the pleasure of this lovely little romance. Reconciliation once again takes form in a scarf, a gift freely given without expectation of reciprocity, “A beautiful cashmere scarf. Dark greys, velvety blacks and inky purples combined in a pattern that reminded her irresistibly of a winter’s night in Cornwall.”
(If there’s one caveat that Miss Bates has with the novel, it’s the closed-bedroom door ethos of the category narrative. Copious and gratuitous love scenes are definitely not Miss Bates’s “thing.” But it seems to her that Jonas and Lawrie become lovers too early in the narrative, a narrative that is dismissive of the intimacy and avowals of love-making. Jonas and Lawrie are characters who are serious, monogamous, and come across as people who wouldn’t easily embark on a friends-with-benefits relationship. The intimacy of the bedroom results in a dearth of sexual tension in later scenes, which was done so well in the first third. In turn, when the tension of desire is raised, it feels inauthentic because we know they’re already lovers. Miss Bates would have preferred that Jonas and Lawrie, more in keeping with their personalities, did NOT become lovers, or at least not until very very late in the narrative, but preferably not at all. She’s not certain however, whether this is the author’s fault, or the nature of the particular category. She’d love to see Gilmore write a sexier contemporary, or move to the Heartwarming line. This is niggling, but it interfered with her enjoyment.)
But enjoy it she did and found in Jessica Gilmore’s The Return Of Mrs. Jones evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Jessica Gilmore’s The Return Of Mrs. Jones, published by Harlequin Books, and available since April 1st, can be found in the usual formats and at the usual vendors.
Miss Bates is grateful to the publisher, Harlequin Books, for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.
Here’s the question Miss Bates has been dying to ask you, dear reader: what second-chance-at-love romances have you read and loved and why? Because the TBR can never be high or deep enough!