Saturday, August 31, 2013

Saturday Review: The Next Best Thing

The Next Best Thing
By Kristan Higgins
Publisher: Harlequin HQN
Release Date: August 27, 2013
(reissue of February 2010 release)

Lucy Lang is the youngest widow in a family in which being widowed young has become a family tradition. Her grandmother was widowed young, and her mother and two aunts, Rose and Iris, are known in Mackerly, Rhode Island, as the Black Widows, a nickname that plays on their maiden name (Hungarian Fekete translated into English as Black) and references the fact that they were all widowed before they turned fifty. Lucy’s husband, Jimmy Mirabelli, died in an automobile accident before they celebrated their first anniversary. More than five years later, Lucy still has not really moved on with her life. She has the training and the talent to make her one-time dream of becoming an award-winning pastry chef a reality, but she has given up that dream to become the bread expert in Bunny’s, the family bakery where her mother and aunts work. She creates desserts for classes she teaches and for friends and family, but she can’t eat them herself because they taste like ashes.

Ethan Mirabelli is the younger brother of Jimmy. He and Lucy are long-time friends. In fact, it was he who introduced Lucy to Jimmy. In the months following Jimmy’s death, Ethan was her rock, the only one who seemed to understand the intensity of Lucy’s grief. A couple of years earlier, the friendship that had sustained Lucy through her most difficult days added another dimension. Lucy and Ethan became lovers. She trusts Ethan to understand that their friendship with benefits doesn’t change her feelings for Jimmy. In fact, it doesn’t even slow down the frequency of her re-viewing her wedding video or enable her to visit Jimmy’s grave. Ethan, who has been in love with Lucy forever, is endlessly patient and nurturing, trusting that in time Lucy will let go of her grief and realize what the two of them share.

When Lucy’s younger sister Corinne gives birth to a daughter, Lucy is made aware of how much she longs for children of her own. So great is this longing that Lucy decides she will reject the family pattern of remaining a widow and look for a second husband. Her primary criterion is that he be a nice guy for whom she will feel a tepid affection but who will not inspire the kind of all-encompassing love that she felt for Jimmy. Such a relationship will provide a father for her children but will not affect Jimmy’s status as her One True Love or put her heart at risk for another shattering. Her new plan requited that she end the benefits stage of her friendship with Ethan, but she is unprepared for how great the loss will be when Ethan accepts her decision by distancing himself from her or for how troubling she finds the idea of Ethan with another woman.

Like all of Kristan Higgins’s books, The Next Best Thing is eminently readable with characters who are believable and generally likeable, family dynamics that are charged with loyalties, friction, twists, and quirks, and humor balanced with some darker emotions. The ethnic references to Lucy’s Hungarian ancestry and to the Mirabelli’s Italian heritage add color and seasoning to the mix. Her trademark animal companion plays a less prominent role than is sometimes the case, but Fat Mickey, the curmudgeonly cat who was a gift to Lucy from Ethan, will surely have his admirers. Lucy’s desserts are so scrumptious that I’m persuaded the descriptions alone sent my scale edging up several pounds.

Despite all these reasons for liking The Next Best Thing, it is still not one of my favorites among Kristan Higgins books. I reread it with the hope that returning to it after seeing Lucy and Ethan’s HEA in process in the second Mackerly book, Somebody to Love (2012), would give me a greater appreciation for it. It didn’t. Lucy still impresses me as neurotic, her epiphany about Ethan’s role in her life still seems too late, and I still worry that Ethan deserves more. I remain an ardent Kristan Higgins fan, but I will reserve my unreserved raves for other Higgins books. Stay tuned for bells and balloons when I review her October release, The Perfect Match, in a few weeks.

Are you ever disappointed in a book from a favorite author? I make a distinction between a disappointing book, one in which I see clear strengths but that still fails to reach the standard I expect from the author, and a book that is either a failure or a Did Not Finish. Do you make such a distinction?

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