After using every moment of my meagre work-week-reading-time to finish James’s I Want You Back, I turned the final page, exclaiming “I loved this book!” Because I prefer to have a measured response, I “slept on it”, woke up and thought, “Still love it.” And yet, had I not requested this ARC “blind”, had someone described it to me with detail, it would’ve been the kiss of death. Firstly, it’s written in alternating first-person POV, which I hate. Secondly, and this is not a spoiler because we know this from the get-go, the hero was a cheater. But that’s not all: when the heroine was pregnant, he didn’t support her, even though he was rich as Croesus, and he dragged her through the courts for custody for years, AND he didn’t give her sufficient financial support when he was making a mint as a star Blackhawks defenceman and was independently wealthy thanks to being a Lund. How can this be borne, much less forgiven by a romance reader? … and let’s not say anything about the heroine. I did that frustrated hair-tugging thing every reader knows when they embark on a book, knowing that the DNF-fairy is only pages away from sprinkling her special brand of lip-curling fairy dust.
I thought about I Want You Back throughout a day peppered with meetings, classes, crisis-diffusions, and more meetings … “Was my response positive because it satisfied me on some deep romance-need-id-level, or is it that good? Should my initial visceral love of a romance novel be tempered by the light of cool reason? Will it stand up?” I won’t know until I do my final 2019 round-up. For now, in the dimming afternoon light, I still love it. If nothing else, I was reminded of the importance of taking a reading risk every now and then. We romance readers tend to get defensive about our reading choices; conservative too: we like what we like and we won’t try something new because well, we get burned A LOT. (See my recent review of The Takeover Effect as a case in point.)
First, let’s look at what is a fairly simple plot and premise and then, I’ll tell you why James’s romance won me. The novel opens with the announcement of Jaxson “Stonewall” Lund’s retirement from professional hockey. Thereafter, from chapter one, he has returned home to Minneapolis to find his purpose post-hockey and co-parent his eight-year-old daughter, Mimi, with ex-girlfriend Lucy Quade. The rest of the novel proceeds solely on the bases of their co-parenting a smart, precocious, athletically-gifted little girl and coming to terms with their relationship’s unresolved issues and still strong feelings. Jaxson is no longer a jerk. He’s a recovering alcoholic, a man bent on making amends. Lucy is delightfully sharp, funny and, rightly so, mistrustful. The big betrayal moment occurred in the past, plenty of water under that bridge, and Jaxson is the epitome of the twelve steps. He’s funny, sexy, and heart-touchingly vulnerable, guilt-ridden, earnest, and working to make up for hurting and neglecting Lucy, Mimi, and his family.
The alternating Jax-Lucy POV making up the chapters is a familiar narrative structure to romance readers. James adds an interesting structural element: as Lucy-Jax-Mimi move forward, each section also contains, in reverse chronological order from earliest to latest, an account of one of Lucy and Jaxson’s dates. For example, when we meet Lucy and Jax, they are squabbling over parenting and Jax is trying to prove himself to Lucy. But we also flashback to their adorable meet-cute. As Lucy and Jax grow closer and then break apart as the demands of work, family, Mimi, and their own vulnerabilities give that marvelous romance pacing of two-steps-forward-one-step-back, we in turn experience the romance of their courtship, each date organically telling us why these two should be together. But the dark times aren’t glossed over. It’s difficult to convince a romance reader of the rightness of a cheating hero and yet, James does exactly that, damn her. I wanted to hold on to my no-no-cheating edict and couldn’t.
James isn’t the first romance author to don the cheating mantle and succeed. But ’tis a rare covering and kudos to her for dragging me in her wake and making me love every minute of it. She then throws a HUGE romance no-no into the HEA; whoa, I did not see that coming. To discuss it here would demand a spoiler and I won’t do that. But, man, I’m not totally sure it succeeded, and yet I still loved it, and I can only hope (okay, in true romance fashion, I’m grovelling to Miss Bates readers) you read I Want You Back so I’m not alone here, struggling and loving it still.
There’s all manner of stuff in I Want You Back that would send me screaming into the arms of Betty Neels; for that reason, I wanted to think about why this worked for me. The answer came during my morning commute (as so much does, in that cocoon of monastic solitude that is our car): I Want You Back deeply, deeply moved me. Jax’s determination, hockey-heritage work ethic, and humility to be a good man, to be deserving of Lucy and Mimi saw me rooting for someone who’d hurt and cheated and behaved like a first-class scoundrel. James is also clever to use those date-glimpses of Jax at his best: they helped to keep my sympathy entrenched. And Lucy is no cardboard cut-out. She’s fleshy, flawed and wonderful. Mimi is no plot moppet: she’s delightful and an utter horror. They’re real, loveable, and charming; Jax, Lucy, Mimi delighted me and touched my heart (don’t get me started on how great the secondary characters are, starting with Jax’s mother and brother). There’s much to think about in James’s novel and enjoy. I hope you read it, I’d love to chat about it. With Miss Austen, we say that I Want You Back proves “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Lorelei James’s I Want You Back is published by Jove (Berkley Books). It released yesterday, April 2nd, and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-ARC from Jove, via Netgalley.