I didn’t think a romance writer could pull off a romance narrative without a betrayal. I’ve thought, until now, the romance narrative needed a tearing-asunder moment to work (executed with varied degrees of success depending on the author’s control of craft). Cara Bastone proved me wrong and her début romance, Just A Heartbeat Away, tossed my assumptions about the romance narrative out the window and bade me reevaluate its elements. Oh, there’s plenty of conflict (without a betrayal, or tearing-apart moment). Bastone replaces betrayal with doubt and misunderstanding with insecurity. She has her hero and heroine indulge much inner-lusting, my preferred form of lusting, and smooshes several love scenes, usually peppered throughout the narrative, into one extended scene as close to the end without making it The End. As a result, a fresh, engaging romance narrative, as original as true to the genre and a new auto-buy author for yours truly. It’s a romance novel like Just a Heartbeat Away that renews my faith in the genre and reminds me why I fell in love with it to begin with.
It is a narrative at first deceptive in its simplicity, typical in set-up and standardized in the oft-appearing hero and heroine types. But there was something special about the opening scene, something new and fresh. Beset by grief, newly-widowed Sebastian Dorner is meeting with Matty’s, his four-year-old son’s, teacher, Miss Via DeRosa. With tact and sensitivity, she tells Sebastian how Matty shows signs of neglect: unwashed, clothes askew, dubious lunches. Via hands Seb a checklist, with simple suggestions, like what to put in Matty’s lunch. Seb is humiliated, ashamed, embarrassed, and grateful. From that day forth, with Via’s lifeline checklist, he changes how he parents Matty and makes his son the centre and priority of his life.
Two years later, Seb, a new man, and Matty, a happy, secure, well-adjusted boy, run into Miss DeRosa at the neighbourhood farmer’s market. Seb is attracted to her and near-blurts out a dinner invitation, if only to thank her for what she did two years ago. The Boyfriend appears and dinner invitation and Seb’s first stirrings of desire eat dirt. But Via and Seb are thrown together when Via, a newly minted, post-grad guidance counsellor, is assigned to PS 128, where Matty is now in grade two and Seb acts as lunch monitor. It sounds so ordinary and ho-hum-another-teacher-widower-small-town-contemporary romance. (Except this isn’t a small-town, it’s Brooklyn; another strength to Bastone’s narrative, the engagingly-rendered setting.) The remainder of the narrative is made of Seb and Via spending appropriate time together when they’re on the school softball team, run into each other at staff meetings, go to colleagues’ TGIF happy hour. Ordinary stuff for two ordinary people in an extraordinary romance.
Seb and Via’s conflicts are inner and those keep them apart in the outer. Most romances, with this premise, is about the insta-lust; that cheap romance trick is not Bastone. She conveys what it is to be attracted to another person, to yearn for another person when everything on the “inside” says this cannot be. For Seb, there is the The Boyfriend obstacle and, for Via, the obstacle of The Boyfriend, a practical immovable obstacle for Seb, for Via, something else entirely. Evan, the BF, is what Via is supposed to want, handsome, young, a nice guy … BUT, he lacks personality, is shiftless and bland. We learn something of what makes Via stay with Evan. She lost her parents at twelve, passed around the foster system, learned to keep her head down and hope for security and stability. She was blessed to finally have a great foster mother, Jetty, and today, even with Jetty gone, Via and Jetty’s niece, Fin (from Serafine) are best friends. Via has trouble deviating from anything; her life must be ordered, calm, and Seb rocks her boat’s equilibrium, not because he’s a wild and woolly guy, because he isn’t. I loved this.
Seb is 42 to her 28 and a dad through and through. For Seb, it’s about their age difference. He feels old and out of sync and not terribly adept at this new world of dating and attraction. What links Seb and Via is a capacity for friendship and understanding, an underlying sadness and loneliness. What makes their exchanges joyous (and this is a sad and joyous romance) is their humour, kindness, shyness around this HUGE ELEPHANT OF ATTRACTION AND LIKING that besets them, and how very much they get along, are compatible in personality and temperament. The Boyfriend obstacle is resolved in a believable fashion and the slow dance of like and want and “saucy doubts and fears” is enacted page by page and chapter by chapter in ordinary time of happy hour, brunch, dinner, movie, and softball.
It’s difficult to convey how utterly compelling and wonderful this romance is when all I can do is describe it. Maybe Bastone’s fine writing may help to convey it better. At the initial Seb-Via meeting, when Seb is in a fog of grief, he thinks:
Sebastian was too raw for this. He was too nothing. Too nowhere. Too no one.
And when it sinks in, what Via is saying about Matty:
Neglect. The word was out of the jar and it was so big, looming and leering, that he knew he’d never get it back in. That word was, apparently, his new asshole of a best friend. He life partner now. and he fucking deserved it.
As it dawns on Seb how much he likes and is attracted to Via:
Her age had nothing to do with it, Seb told himself. Her life was too young for his. And his life was too old for hers.
This lovely realization as Seb and Via share a meal for the first time:
You never could tell who someone really was unless you broke bread with them, actually stopped to listen to what they were trying to tell you.
The sheer joy Seb feels when Via is free and there might be something between them, something wonderful and fulfilling:
She was here. He was about to go over there. He felt like there was a wolf in his chest, sniffling the air for a mate. He finally understood why they howled at the moon. Because flirting was so fucking fun.
Chapters and chapters later, when difficult conversations have been had and flirting has been indulged and enjoyed, and love avowals declared, there’s only:
But then he found that he didn’t really have anything left to say. Anything left was for their bodies to do.
Bastone’s Seb and Via and the story of how they reach their HEA is earthy and serious, heart-wrenching and heart-warming, fresh and funny. Seb and Via matter to the reader and that is the key to a great romance: the importance of seeing love grow and blossom for two deserving protagonists. I waited too long to read Bastone, but I’m going to make my way to the next two books in the series with greater alacrity. Miss Austen would look beyond the occasional f-bombs to the pulsing, lovable heart of Just a Heartbeat Away and say within it, “there is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,” Emma.
Cara Bastone’s Just A Heartbeat Away is published by HQN. It was released in June of 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendors (get it now, read it pronto!). I received an e-galley from HQN, via Netgalley.