Puppy_ChristmasI anticipated Lucy Gilmore’s second Forever Home romance, Puppy Christmas, from the moment I turned the last page on the first, Puppy LoveI’m sorry it took me this long to read the former. Equally laugh-out-loud funny, heart-wrenching, and rawr-sexy, it would have made a hellacious work month so much better. Lesson learned: I’ve settled into my romance reading (thirteen years since I picked up a copy of Garwood’s Shadow Music at the local Costco and reignited my love for the genre) with the knowledge that romance is the best respite from daily stress, an oasis of happy in a desert of demands. Gilmore’s series, including this latest (as I anticipate the third, Puppy Kisses!), deserves a spot in the happy-reader Hall of Fame. Continuing with her initial premise, three sisters running a service-dog non-profit, “Puppy Promise,” Puppy Christmas focusses on the eldest, 31-year-old Lila Vasquez, as she works to build the confidence of six-year-old, hearing-impaired Emily Ford with the help of cockapoo Jeeves, while falling in love with Emily’s father, ridiculously-named Ford Ford. Gilmore’s second Forever Home romance is plot-light, but character-deep and chock full of lovely anecdotes, including a funny meet-cute, first date set in a snow maze, Elsa-allusions, cocked-puppy-head adorableness, and hot phone sex.

Gilmore does here what romance does best: starts the narrative with diminished protagonists and builds them up to self-actualization, love, and commitment. I loved Lila’s and Ford’s personalities, potential, and their initial place of less-thans. Lila is emerging from a break-up (I’m glad Gilmore, with several ex cameos, makes him a decent guy in the end) where her ex accused her of being a cold fish, or as Ford calls himself in regards to his daughter, a “fun sponge”. Lila is the organizer, the keeper of spreadsheets, the driving force of Puppy Promise, but she isn’t the cute and cuddly. She takes on the task of training Emily and Jeeves with the hang-dog notion that she’s not good with children, with people, definitely not as good as her sisters with puppies. In Ford’s eyes, she is everything caring (dressing as a princess for weeks to ensure Emily is comfortable, safe, and happy) and beautiful. Ford, in turn, is a harried, devoted, minivan-bucket-driving single dad with a work-from-home job as an instruction-manual illustrator who hasn’t had s-e-x in years (it was a hoot how Ford and Lila constantly spell out inappropriate language in Emily’s presence). Ford is charming, funny, good-looking, and exhausted, but keeps everyone at bay with his humour and don’t-take-me-seriously ‘tude. Except Lila can see what a wonderful man he is, a dedicated, loving father and neighbour, caring, affectionate. He’s the real deal, true-blue.

At first, Gilmore plays on the opposites-attract trope, as Lila thinks she ” … was the cold one. Ford was everything attractive and happy and warm.” And, given her writing talent, and humor-skills, she could have gone with this for the duration. Instead, we have a more engaging, complex narrative than the cutesy cover implies. Gilmore shows us how Ford’s and Lila’s flaws are sometimes ways with which they can hide their vulnerabilities. She also shows us how “opposites-attract”, if there is friendship, affection and, in time, love, will make for a compatible, complementary couple. Never once, however, does she take her foot off the light-hearted, but no less heart-felt pedal.

Lastly, I loved Gilmore’s gender-stereotype role reversal and her desire to make a feminist point about single parents and how social gender expectations can weigh people down. Again, nothing is heavy-handed; all is funny and poignant. To start, there’s a wonderful scene of Ford falling asleep when he sits on his living-room floor with Lila. Usually, the exhausted single mum finds peaceful, secure slumber with capable alpha-man. In this case, exhausted single-dad finds rest with alpha-woman. It’s endearing and fun. There’s also Ford’s celibacy to Lila’s sexual experience; Lila asking and organizing their first date; Ford’s request for flex-time from his employer to care for this daughter; Lila’s aspirations to Ford’s lackadaisical approach to work, his contentment with being a dad and homebody. Ford suffers, wondering if he has enough to offer Lila and Lila, in turn, yearns to be a part of Ford and Emily’s modest home and life. While the surface of Gilmore’s sure hand is feather-light and comedic, her deeper purposes strike touching notes. I adored Puppy Christmas with equal affection to Puppy Love. With Miss Austen, we say in it, you’ll find “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.

Lucy Gilmore’s Puppy Christmas is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca. It was released in September 2019 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I receive an e-galley from Sourcebooks Casablanca, via Netgalley.

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