“Ilsa, I’m no good at being noble, but it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world” says the inimitable, raspy-voiced Rick in Casablanca. And we in romance-landia think, with that statement, Rick capsized the HEA. World events, ideals and ideologies, peace, order, justice, and equality sitting in every HEA’s background and ensuring it, are imperiled. Then, individual desires for the domestic HEA that completes the romance genre’s narrative cycle, are subsumed by themes greater than those the genre embodies. Miss Bates concurs; recent events make reading fiction, much less romance, difficult. Focus is elusive and the safe spaces we once cocooned in are tottering and toppling. And yet, what greater gift can a free, open, and tolerant country offer its citizens than the safety to make choices, love, live in plenitude and generosity and offer something to the next generation in having or succoring children, plants, animals, knowledge, nature, or art. Embedded in the romance narrative is the conviction that every person has the inner resources, given safety and love, to live without crippling constraints, whether they are internal, or external. Though Miss Bates feels “itchy” and can’t always immerse herself in a romance, she still feels life-affirmation after reading one of its best practitioners. Though she started and dropped it restlessly, she read Sarah Morgan’s Sunset In Central Park, a quiet and lovely romance.
Second in Morgan’s From Manhattan With Love series, Sunset In Central Park tells of the relationship of Matt Walker, overprotective, loving brother to the first book’s heroine, Paige, and one of Paige’s best friends, Francesca “Frankie” Cole. Morgan has set up a lovely urban community feel to her novel by having Paige, Frankie, and friend Eva, share a business and a brownstone with owner Matt and the ever-present male friend bromance, Jake (who is to marry Paige and served as book number one’s hero). Young people make a success of it in Manhattan without losing themselves in the rat race and enjoy each others’ company and the joys of urban living. Central Park is always prominent in the narrative as are drinks on their roof-top garden, pubs where they laugh over brews, walks in the park, and lovely shared meals.
Matt and Frankie have known each other their entire lives, growing up together on Maine’s Puffin Island. Their childhoods, however, were as different as the slow-paced, close-knit island community is from Manhattan’s speedy energy and anonymity. Matt grew up in a loving, happy family while Frankie’s childhood and adolescence were blighted by her father’s infidelity, parents’ divorce, mother’s breakdown and then wild promiscuity. Matt is healthy about receiving and giving love and having a relationship and Frankie is … not.
Sharing the Brooklyn brownstone, Matt and Frankie are in each others’ pockets. Childhood and now adult friends, everything changes when Matt, owner of a successful landscaping business, asks Frankie, a talented horticulturalist, for help with a project. Though Frankie is busy starting a new business with Paige and Eva, an events and concierge company, Urban Genie, she can’t refuse a friend. It’s soon becomes clear, however, that Matt’s motivation to bring Frankie closer, physically and emotionally, isn’t merely dictated by business interest.
Though Sarah Morgan is a lovely writer, with a delicate touch and a great scene-setter, who also writes witty dialogue, the novel’s set-up and initial characterization (except for Claws, Matt’s cat; she’s brilliant) are wonky. Miss Bates didn’t quite understand why Matt went from charming rogue-ish friend to smitten boyfriend. Especially because the only reasoning behind it was his discovery that Frankie deliberately wore glasses she didn’t need to “hide” her prettiness. It was as classic as the 1950s film cliché of the geeky secretary letting her hair down and whipping off the specs to … TARA! KaBOOM! insta-beauty. On Frankie’s part, she obsessed way too much over her inferior appearance to Matt’s hotness.
The novel soared, however, when Frankie agreed to accompany Matt to Puffin Island for a wedding (that of the Puffin Island series’s first hero and heroine in First Time In Forever). What seemed expedient in bringing Matt and Frankie together suddenly took a more compelling, persuasive turn. Frankie’s neuroses, frankly (hardy-har) are deep: her mother and father were dysfunctional and mother continues to be so (her father with ne’er a contact for her since her fourteenth year). Frankie has worked herself up to a “touch me not” state both for fear of being anything like her needy mother and being abandoned. Add some demoralizing sexual experiences and Frankie is as skittish as Matt’s temperamental cat, Claws. Frankie’s fear and cynicism would take a saint to penetrate and that is exactly what Matt is, a rogue-ish, loving, charming saint. He’s loving, supportive, and understanding. Morgan’s written a really nice guy who’s NOT boring.
If you’re looking for a plot-heavy romance, Sunset In Central Park isn’t it. Matt and Frankie date, though reluctantly, at least initially, on Frankie’s part. They have dinner, attend a wedding, take walks, make dinner and breakfast, share a bed, stories, confidences, and work they love. In a nutshell, they’re perfect for each other. Their love’s impediments centre solely on Frankie. Morgan writes a romance about the heroine’s emotional working-out of what stops her from trusting and loving. The hero is her spirit- and sex-guide: he leads her on the paths of pleasure and the heart until Frankie’s fear, when the truth about her feelings for Matt and his for her, becomes too much. Her emotional walls run smack into her heart’s desire. Matt’s all there, all out, and ready to love Frankie, marry Frankie, and have little Matts and Frankies with her, but Frankie … isn’t. Frankie has to overcome her fears, walk through a desert of loneliness, to reach out to Matt … and the scene when she finally does, absolutely one of the best EVER, funny and poignant as heck.
Morgan never disappoints. Sunset In Central Park is funny, heartfelt, and endearing. Matt and Frankie are the stuff that HEAs are made of. With Miss Austen, Miss Bates would say that Sunset In Central Park is evidence of “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma. Sarah Morgan’s Sunset In Central Park is published by HQN Books. It was released in August of 2016 and is available at your preferred vendors. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from HQN Books, via Netgalley.