Dear Ms. Stacey:
There has been a good deal of buzz around your upcoming release, Exclusively Yours, which is also one of the titles included in the Carina Press launch. Curious on both counts and always looking for a good contemporary Romance, I was anxious to read Exclusively Yours. And while I didn’t love, love, love it, I enjoyed most of its key elements and would recommend it with a few reservations about the nature and resolution of the romantic conflict.
Keri Daniels and Joe Kowalski were the kind of high school sweethearts everyone – especially Joe – assumed would marry quickly out of school and be together forever. But Keri did not want to have her life defined by who her parents were or whom she was married to; she wanted to pursue her own dreams in California, leaving her family, Joe, and Joe’s family behind in New Hampshire. While she always missed Joe, her grief was nowhere near that her spurned boyfriend, who promptly retreated into a case of beer and seemed well on his way to becoming a reclusive, drunken great American horror novelist. Keri, in the meantime, worked her way up the ladder at Spotlight, a celebrity-focused magazine whose editor has long coveted an exclusive interview with the publicity-phobic Joe Kowalski. Her hunger has become downright obsessive in the wake of a confidential settlement between Joe and erstwhile fiancée, Lauren Huckins, who got a lot of publicity when she sued Joe for emotional distress. So when Keri’s editor, Tina, receives photos that clearly reveal Keri’s past relationship with Joe, she lets her soon-to-be star reporter that her career at Spotlight depends on gaining an exclusive and probing interview with her old boyfriend.
As soon as Keri arrives back in their hometown looking for him, Joe realizes she must be on the hunt for an interview, understanding very well the predatory interest her Spotlight editor has harbored for him. It’s been eighteen years since he saw Keri, and to say he was curious would be an understatement. But he was also still hurting over her long-ago abandonment and is hoping for a little payback. So he invites her to dinner and offers her a rather unappetizing bargain: he will grant her an interview – one question a day with both his family and Lauren off-limits – if she accompanies him on the annual Kowalski camping and ATV-ing vacation. In the woods. With no cell phone service but plenty of bugs, mud, and Joe’s twin sister Terry, who is still carrying her own grudge against Keri for the rift in their friendship Keri’s high school popularity catalyzed.
Anyone who has ever read a Romance novel knows what happens when Joe and Keri spend a week together in a cozy cabin amongst Joe’s raucous but loving extended family, and largely free of electronic tethers to the rest of the world. But the fun of Exclusively Yours is in how Joe and Keri become close again within the context of the Kowalski family vacation. In a number of ways Exclusively Yours reminded me of the Jill Shalvis Wilder Brothers books – the outdoor adventures, the strong family presence, the focus on relationships as opposed to externally manufactured drama – although the narrative voice in Stacey’s book is a bit more sarcastic and perhaps a little slapstick at points:
“Don’t the RVs have bathrooms?” she asked, feeling some pressure to fill the conversational pothole.
Both women laughed, but it was Lisa who said, “I’ll take your lifeguard duty at the pool for three days if you can have sex with a Kowalski man in that shower without knocking the camper right off its levelers.”
“I’ll hide your bug spray if you even try to have sex with my brother in the RV – or anywhere else for that matter,” Terry said, and the way Lisa gasped made Keri think it was a dire threat indeed. “Go ahead, Keri, laugh at me. But once the sun starts going down you’d duct tape your own thighs closed for a bottle of Deep Woods OFF! Trust me.”
“Since she’d be the only woman for ten miles not reeking of DEET, she’d have guys trying to gnaw their way through the duct tape within minutes,” Lisa countered.
Too often in romantic comedies, family can play an annoying, artificial role as “obstacle to True Love,” but here the family presence helps build context and continuity for Joe and Keri’s relationship, as well as filling out what would otherwise be a relatively narrow romantic storyline. Joe’s parents clearly view Keri’s presence as indication that she and Joe are working on a reunion, although they are not sentimentally deluded about it. Terry doesn’t want them back together, not so much because of her relationship fallout with Keri, but because of the pain her leaving the first time caused Joe. Kevin, Joe’s youngest brother and obvious sequel bait, is happy to tease Joe about filling-in for him with Keri anytime, and Mike, who is married to Lisa and father to “four rambunctious boys,” is too involved in his own problems to care much what Joe and Keri do. For the time Keri spends with the family, she is both Joe’s high school girlfriend enjoying the raucous comfort of his family and an outsider struggling for the sense of identity and accomplishment she has fought so hard to attain:
She couldn’t remember how old she was when she realized her mother had no identity of her own. More than likely it was a long-growing awareness rather than a single moment.
Keri’s mom. Ed’s wife. Mrs. Daniels. Her dad called her hon and Keri called her mom. She never heard anybody call her Janie. Oh, logically she knew people must have-‘Mrs. Kowalski, for one. They were friends so one could assume first names had come into play.
For a while, Keri had even listened for it. And maybe that’s why, as they were filing into the gymnasium to “Pomp and Circumstance,” she’d been horrified to overhear a woman whisper, “That’s the valedictorian’s girlfriend.”
“Oh, that’s right,” her companion had responded. “I’d heard Ed’s daughter was Joe’s girl now.”
She’d made the rest of that long, slow walk cataloguing the ways she’d been referred to lately. Ed’s daughter. The Daniels girl. Doll (her father’s pet name for her) and Peach (her mother’s). Joe’s girl. Babe.
The index card taped to her folding metal chair read K. DANIELS.
“Keri,” she had whispered to herself. And as she smoothed her gown and adjusted the mortar perched atop her big hair, she’d wondered if her mother had ever done the same.
Keri wanted to see her name in lights. On a marquee. Or in an entertainment column. She’d made up her mind before Joe even started his speech-‘the world would see the name Keri Daniels somewhere.
Now she was this close to seeing it on the masthead of a major weekly magazine.
But in order to do that, she will have to deliver a juicy interview to Tina, a revealing, intrusive piece of celebrity journalism that will betray everything she has shared with and felt for Joe, as well as the mundane secrets and dignity of his family. Besides the fact that she is starting to wonder, if “Maybe, when she’d been sitting there so confused in her white cap and gown with the tassel tickling her cheek, she’d made the wrong choice.” Maybe she should have stayed in New Hampshire with Joe, settled down and centered her life on family and children. That’s definitely what Joe wanted:
He wanted to keep her. It was that simple. He’d stupidly thought he’d drag her up here and spend a couple of weeks together-‘some of it horizontal-‘for old time’s sake, then send her on her way with a kiss on the cheek and a slap on the ass.
Instead he was getting slapped upside the head with the growing certainty he’d been right the night almost twenty years ago when he told his mother she was wrong-‘he’d never get over Keri Daniels.
There were several times in Exclusively Yours where I was afraid at how these two intersecting conflicts – Keri’s career-making, relationship busting interview and Joe’s inability to get past his desire to have Keri move back to New Hampshire and marry him – would play out. Was Keri going to convince herself she’d made a mistake by moving to California and building her career? Would Joe’s unwillingness to consider moving to California be enough to convince Keri to give up her career for love? If Joe started drinking again after Keri left, would she rush to his rescue and stay to take care of him?
Happily, my worst fears were not realized, and I was not disappointed by the way these conflicts were resolved. These are two mature, intelligent, successful people who appear to manage their lives with competence and self-respect. They talk, albeit gingerly, about their feelings and their expectations. I don’t think there was a central character in the book I disliked, including the insecure control-freak Terry.
However, the very nature of the romantic conflicts between Joe and Keri introduced a number of issues that diminished my ability to completely suspend disbelief and embrace fully the romantic trajectory of their relationship. For one thing, as much as I appreciated Joe’s emotional sentimentality, I found the whole, “he wrote four books drunk out of grief for losing his high school sweetheart’ unconvincingly melodramatic. Melodrama is hardly uncommon in high school, of course, but Joe and Keri had been broken up for almost 20 years, and I think I would have found the pining more convincing if they had been college sweethearts.
I was also acutely aware of the way in which Joe could so easily desire marriage and a family since it would never occur to him that he would have to give up his career for that goal. In fact, his belief that Keri should remain in New Hampshire frustrated me throughout the book, and I wondered at it, as well, especially with his robust financial status and the abundant frequency of cross-country flights. That part of the conflict struck me as artificial, even illusory.
Further, the “emotional distress” claim of his ex-girlfriend was a very tough sell for me, since emotional distress requires conduct that the average person would find truly outrageous and unacceptable in society. If you can believe a guy like Joe would do something that outrageous, he’s hardly hero material, and if Lauren’s lawyer told the story of what happened, I don’t know how a lawyer could, in good faith and professional ethics, take her case. In the end I found that plot point more annoying than helpful to the story or Keri and Joe’s relationship.
Then there were the marital issues both Terry and Mike faced in the course of the novel, both of which were resolved during the book, despite one being represented as quite serious. That it provided an opportunity for Keri to build a bridge to a certain member of the Kowalski family made it feel a bit like a plot device, even though the issue itself added interesting dimension to the complicated relationships within the family.
All that said, however, I enjoyed the fact that Keri and Joe were the kind of people who talked about things and that Joe was not the knuckle-dragging Neanderthal guy who rashly assumed Keri was going to sell him out. I was grateful that a heroine as independent and ambitious as Keri did not have one of those epiphanies that her “true ambition” was to raise and home school fifteen kids while tending to the animals on the country farm. Not that there’s anything wrong with that goal – but it had not been Keri’s, and she was not portrayed as the kind of woman who would be happy shucking certain benefits of her citified lifestyle.
One last thing: because I have not read any books by Shannon Stacey before, it took me a little time to adjust to her writing style, which felt a bit overworked to me at times, both in terms of the humor and the emotional insights. The camping and ATVing aspects of the novel felt authentic, but there was also more than a little predictable ‘city girl in the woods’ humor. I understand the particular subjectivity of a stylistic comment like this, so I do not present it as a criticism, but rather as another factor that influenced by overall enjoyment of the text. As engaged as I was in the story, for a number of chapters I was re-reading and rearranging words and sentences as I read. The first two-thirds of the book were a solid B read for me – very engaging but not rapturous – but my frustration with the hurried resolution to one of the secondary stories and the artificiality around Joe and Keri’s own romantic conflicts ultimately made Exclusively Yours a B- read for me.