Kate Hewitt’s Willoughby Close series is more women’s fiction than romance and yet, even though Miss Bates is no fan of women’s fiction, she embraced Hewitt’s little English-village-life novels. They’re written with a poignant, gentle touch. Their protagonists are often people with difficult pasts. They’re squarely focussed on the heroine’s growth and POV, but contain heroes no less likeable, sexy, and burdened with their own compelling baggage.
Kiss Me At Willoughby Close opens with the will-reading of Ava Mitchell’s older, moneyed husband and the news that David left Ava only 10 000 pounds, his vast fortune going to his grown, rapacious children by his first wife. Ava is genuinely grief-stricken over her husband. She may not have been in love with him. Five years ago, she was urged by poverty and lack of opportunity and education to marry him for the creature comforts and ease he could provide; nevertheless, she cared for and about him and been content in his company. Now, Emma and Simon are staring her down coldly and informing her she must leave the only home she’s ever known in a week’s time, with only her clothes and David’s “generous” gift of a mini Austin only. As Ava quips, “For being a trophy wife, she didn’t possess that many trophies.” She moves into Willoughby Close, following the heroines of Hewitt’s previous novels in the series, who become neighbours and, eventually, friends.
Awaiting Ava’s arrival at Willoughby Close is groundskeeper and general handyman, Jace Tucker. When Ava realizes she doesn’t have any furniture, Jace offers her what they have on hand in the estate barns. While Ava and Jace’s initial meetings are less than amicable, Ava recognizes in Jace ” … the laughing eyes of a man who clearly knew just how good-looking he was. Ava could tell because she knew how good-looking she was.” Miss Bates liked how Hewitt made her protagonists good looks a point of mutual understanding; more importantly, however, a jumping-off point for Ava to realize some truths. Ava exploited her looks, she certainly did to marry David, and yet, Hewitt, and the reader to follow, can’t condemn her. Looks may have helped Ava live a life of what she calls “deliberate decadence,” but also handicapped her, making them her fall-back position and left her, when they’re no longer how she wants to live her life, without resources.
While the first half of Hewitt’s novel moves at a good clip of Ava getting to know her neighbours, realizing what “dead-end” jobs are open to her, and having a few delicious Jace encounters, Hewitt does a great job of showing Ava’s loss, grief, and sense of root- and purposelessness. Ava is depressed; she may not mourn David’s loss as the love of her life, she does miss someone she cared for and comes to the difficult realization that, for him, she was, at best, ornamental: “She’d enjoyed all the luxury, believed David was spoiling her. But now that he was dead she couldn’t keep doubts from creeping in. Fears that she had been chained, even if the bonds had been gilded.” Hewitt elicits sympathy for her “trophy-wife” heroine. Ava is smart, but her life has been narrowed by her choices: “She was trapped in the endless circling of her own thoughts, the narrowness of her life, and she had no idea how to break out of either.” With this realization, and while Ava’s grey despair dogs her, Hewitt also shows Ava’s slow awakening to different choices, healthier possibilities.
First, Ava realizes that her gilded-David-cage left her friendless. Hewitt seems to stand not for confident striking-out-on-one’s-own independence, but community and conviviality. First, her heroine opens herself up to friends: “Long ago she’d told herself friends were overrated. They turned on her, they left her down, or they were too much work. She operated better as an independent agent. Solitary. Strong.” Ava’s default, as Ava realizes, has left her lonely and sad. But Hewitt poignantly shows us how difficult it is for someone grown defensive by life’s blows, its petty betrayals and emotional privations, to be open to friends. Miss Bates loved Harriet and Ellie’s appearance at Ava’s door, offering fellowship: ” ‘Harriet and I could help.’ ‘Well … ‘ Ava hesitated. she was so unused to this, the camaraderie, the kindness. She felt suspicious, the urge in her to back away still strong, but she’d been backing away her whole life. Maybe it was time to do something different.” Hewitt is so good at these small moments of revelation and change. They make the reader care so deeply about Ava.
Miss Bates loved that Hewitt didn’t sugarcoat and cover in fairy dust how difficult life is without money. While David’s gilded cage was shallow, it was comfortable. Ava’s life’s financial precariousness, pre-David, and post-David, is hard. At her lowest points, the relentless omnipresence of poverty is Ava’s lot: “It was tiring to think of money all the time, to worry about it, to wonder if she’d be able to get a job.” Simple and true. But hope comes in the form of “soldiering on” as best one can, in community with others: living modestly, working hard, and giving and requesting help. (It’s so interesting that Hewitt starts all her heroines’ stories at a financially difficult point in their lives.)
What of love? What about that smoulder-producing man-machine, Jace Tucker? Hewitt gives us banter, mediated by affection and truth-telling, especially on Ava’s part: ” ‘Every time I see you you’re giving me your school teacher impression or you’re trying to get away as fast as you can. Makes me wonder.’ ‘Then you can keep wondering,’ Ava snapped. ‘Doesn’t all that indignation get tiresome, after a while?’ Ava let out a long, weary breath. ‘What am I scared of, is that what you asked?’ Everything,’ she said quietly.” Miss Bates thought this a wonderful, heart-wrenching exchange and the moment when our heroine lets her mask fall (as she does earlier to forge female friendships) to jump-start her heart, to feel and long for someone. But there be compelling complications: Ava is not the only one with a past. Jace’s past is shocking and his telling of it, in Ava’s reaction, moving. But Hewitt is a writer who is very good at developping characters who, step by incremental step, can be better than their past, no matter how difficult, overwhelming, or crippling: “She had some hard history and so did Jace. That didn’t have to make a difference to anything.”
Miss Bates hopes she hasn’t make Hewitt’s novel sound plodding because it’s not. There’s laughter, fun, maybe yes, a lot of tears, but necessary, healing tears. Though love-scene-lite, the entire story culminating in a more-meaningful-than-many-a-love-scene KISS, there’s also this glorious moment of connection: “It was nothing, and yet it felt like everything, because she had never been touched like this before. She, the woman who gave her body too many times because she’d had nothing else to give, who used sex and beauty as bargaining chips, who had been tossed or discarded too many times to count … felt like a fresh-eyed innocent, discovering the wondrous joys of desire and love.” Miss Bates couldn’t help but think of the Biblical woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery, the repentant sinner who anoints. What makes this particular moment significant and beautiful is that Jace is no less and maybe a great sinner than Ava, a repentant like Ava. The “harlot” and the … redeemed and given an HEA. Miss Bates, with Miss Austen’s hovering presence, loved Kiss Me At Willoughby Close and says of it, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Kate Hewitt’s Kiss Me At Willoughby Close is published by Tule Publishing. It was released on May 25, 2017 and may be procured from your preferred vendor. Miss Bates received an e-ARC from Tule Publishing, via Netgalley.