By Sarah Mayberry
Release Date: August 7, 2012
Angela Bartlett and Billie Young have been friends since they were young girls at boarding school. The effervescent Billie and the contained Angie are very different personalities, but they balance one another, and they are true sister-friends. Of course, Angie is there to celebrate Billie’s thirty-second birthday with her, her husband Michael, their children—five-year-old Eva and baby Charlie—and assorted friends and neighbors. But the unthinkable happens: Billie, vital and vibrant at the beginning of the celebration, is dead of an undiagnosed heart problem before the evening’s end.
Ten months later Angie returns from a trip to New York where she’s been training with an American jewelry designer and finds a gaunt Michael merely going through the motions of living, surrounded by clutter and dust and two children whom he loves desperately but with whom he’s hardly connecting. It’s another blow to Angie’s heart to see what has happened to Billie’s family. Determined to help in any way she can, she offers practical help with the house and the children, but she offers tough love as well, telling Michael that he has become a zombie living in a cave and suggesting that he change his plan to take a year off and return to his work and to life.
Michael, at first angry about Angie’s comments, is forced to reconsider when his daughter reminds him of broken promises to her. Michael recognizes that he owes it to his children to move out of the shadows into the light. He apologizes to Angie and accepts her advice about work. Over the next months, Angie spends a great deal of time with Michael and the children, picking Eva up after school, sharing meals, and developing a real friendship with Michael as an individual and not just as her friend’s husband.
As the friendship between Angie and Michael deepens, an awareness of one another shifts to desire. For both of them, the desire is mixed with guilt. Angie still thinks of Michael as belonging to Billie, and Michael still thinks of himself as married to Billie. They can’t build a future together until each of them can come to terms with what once was and accept with joy what can be.
I’ve been a Sarah Mayberry fan since I read Home for the Holidays and loved it back in 2009. I glommed her backlist and have eagerly awaited subsequent books, all of which I’ve enjoyed. But I think Within Reach is the best she’s written. Mayberry’s characters always seem real; they behave like adults who know what it is to hurt, to dream, to grow. And Mayberry has the knack for giving her readers romances with plenty of sizzle without making the characters appear to have the libidos of adolescent males. But Within Reach goes beyond her usual excellent romance to present a powerful and moving look at grief and recovery.
Because the reader meets and likes Billie Young in the prologue and sees her interacting with her best friend as well as her husband and children, the empathy evoked for both Angie and Michael has a dimension it would lack had Billie been merely a name. The unrequited love for a best friend’s spouse or lover that blossoms into mutual love after the death of the friend is standard fare in romance fiction, and it has been handled skillfully by some authors, disastrously by others. But what Mayberry does is different, and I think more difficult. Before Billie’s death, Angie and Michael’s relationship is solely through Billie. They like one another, but they define one another in terms of Billie. Angie sees Michael as Billie’s husband; Michael sees Angie as Billie’s best friend. This removes any sleaze factor from what happens later, and it allows Mayberry to show their relationship develop gradually with the emotional connection strengthening as the sexual tension increases.
The intimacy between them grows naturally from the time they spend together, their mutual commitment to Eva and Charlie, the honest conversations they have, and their concern about each other’s well being. And Mayberry never oversimplifies the process. The relationship, emotional and physical, is a series of advances and retreats, and both Angie and Michael struggle with feelings of guilt and disloyalty each step of the way.
Angie’s relationship with Eva and Charlie is separate from her feelings about Michael. She is a beloved figure in their lives before Billie’s death, and her love and concern for them never diminishes. Even when she thinks she and Michael can have no future, she knows that somehow that she will continue to be a part of the lives of these children. They are paramount for Michael. It is his realization of what his hopelessness is doing to them that pushes him to take the first moves beyond grief. Mayberry also makes readers see the children as individuals. Eva is smart and funny and very much her mother’s daughter in her joy in life. Even young Charlie has a definite personality.
Finally, Mayberry never diminishes the love both Angie and Michael have for Billie. Each understands the loss the other suffered. When Angie sees Michael upon her return from New York, she thinks, “He’d loved Billie so much. She’d been the center of his world and she’d died far, far too young. Was it any wonder that he was finding it so hard to pull himself together and move on?”
Even when Michael is angered by what Angie says to him about moving out of his cave, he recognizes what she shared with Billie: “She and Billie had been more like sisters than friends. They had finished each other’s sentences, said the honest thing when it needed to be said and been each other’s best cheerleaders.” The love they had for Billie will go on. It is part of them, and the love they share is neither greater nor lesser than the one Michael shared with Billie. It is equal—and different because grief has made these two people different from the persons they once were.
I would like to have seen another chapter, or perhaps an epilogue. I came to care about these characters so much that I wanted to see more of the HEA. I applaud their recognition that the life ahead of them will doubtless hold problems, but I longed to bask in their happiness see a bit of their future with the children. But maybe that’s the sign of a great read—the reader just doesn’t want to let go of the characters.
It’s probably redundant to add this, but I highly recommend Within Reach. I’ve added it to my best of 2012 list.
What’s the last book you read that left you reluctant to say goodbye to the characters? Do you think this reluctance explains the popularity of series?
I loved this book so much that I want to share it. I’ll give a copy to one randomly selected commenter (from among U. S readers).