Oct 7 2013
Dear Kristan Higgins:
I saw this book on Netgalley and was like, “I’ve heard of that author! This book sounds good!”, so I requested it. In an attempt to be servicey to DA readers, I am always on the lookout for new books from popular authors to read and review, rather than my usual motley assortment of reading choices (authored the obscure or the long dead, often).
Alas, I discovered partway through reading The Next Best Thing that it was published in early 2010. No wonder it sounded vaguely familiar. But! If you, like me, missed it the first time around, you might want to give it a try – it’s really pretty good.
Lucy Lang is a 30-year-old widow working at the family business, Bunny’s Hungarian Bakery, on tiny Mackerly Island in Rhode Island. Collectively, she, her mother and two aunts are referred to as “the Black Widows” (the elder ladies’ maiden name is Black, and like Lucy they were all widowed relatively young).
Lucy met Jimmy Mirabelli, a chef at his family’s Italian restaurant, when she was 24, and it was more or less love at first sight. Life was blissful until Jimmy died in a car crash in their first year of marriage, fulfilling what Lucy and others see as the family curse. (Lucy’s sister, Corinne, is happily married, but her neurotic controlling ways that are intended to make sure that she doesn’t become one of the Black Widows end up alienating her husband and causing friction in the marriage later in the book.)
After Corinne gives birth to her first child, a daughter named Emma, Lucy decides she needs to get her butt in gear and find a man. Not a once-in-a-lifetime love like Jimmy – she doesn’t expect or even want that – but a reliable, safe, even boring guy with whom she can build a life and have children. First, though, she needs to end her friends-with-benefits relationship with Jimmy’s younger brother, Ethan.
Ethan met Lucy first; they attended the same cooking school in Providence. They were nothing more than pals – at least that’s what Lucy thought (Ethan is a couple of years younger than her). Lucy leaned on Ethan heavily after Jimmy died; their shared grief brought them even closer together and eventually they ended up with condos in the same building, one floor apart. One drunken and distraught (on Lucy’s part) hookup leads to a regular thing, but Lucy never thinks of her and Ethan as being in a relationship, and she keeps their non-platonic activities a secret. To do anything else would dishonor Jimmy’s memory and shock both their families, she thinks.
Lucy trained as a pastry chef in Providence, at a prestigious culinary school. Desserts are her first love, but she doesn’t get an opportunity to practice her craft at Bunny’s. Her mother and especially her aunts are very set in their ways (rather irritatingly so, at times), and they think that the same stale, uninspired fare that the bakery has offered for decades is good enough for their customers. Lucy is relegated to baking bread that’s sold at the bakery and to area restaurants. She indulges her passion for baking creatively on her own time, but hasn’t been able to enjoy any of the fruits of her labor since Jimmy died – it’s all tasteless to her, so she gives her creations away. It’s rather poignant that Lucy instead ends up eating crappy junk food like Ring Dings and SnoBalls.
Ethan Mirabelli is a good guy; he works at a national food service conglomerate, a profession that his father seems to take as a person affront (and perhaps it’s meant as one, at least a little bit; the family restaurant is very much an old-fashioned labor-of-love enterprise). He travels a lot for his job, which helps to explain how he and Lucy are able to keep up the FWB relationship for years without things coming to a head before they actually do. Ethan has a 4-year-old son, Nicky, the result of a youthful fling.
Parker, Nicky’s mother, has moved to Mackerly Island so her son can grow up with his father around. She writes a sickly sweet children’s book series called The Holy Rollers, which I imagined as some sort of unholy mish-mash of The Berenstain Bears and VeggieTales. (Parker hates her own books, but they’re so successful that writing them is worthwhile, I guess). Parker and Lucy have become good friends and she’s the only person that appears to know about Ethan and Lucy’s sexual relationship. That could have been awkward, given her own past with Ethan, but the way it’s handled makes it seem very natural and realistic. (I liked Parker a lot; I should see if she has her own book. She seems like perfect sequel bait!)
Parker is just one of a number of secondary characters that I liked (or at least found entertaining) – there’s the teenage girl neighbor who Lucy hangs out with, the old man who comes to the bakery every day and always gets the same thing (after carefully perusing all the offerings), the local softball team and even Lucy’s old school nemesis, who now runs the nearby Starbucks (which takes business away from Bunny’s with their coffee and comfortable seating, fancy notions the Black Widows won’t even consider). Higgins creates a small town setting that doesn’t read to me as claustrophobic or sanctimonious, a rarity in my experiences with small-town romances. I really liked the unusual Rhode Island setting.
The familial relationships in The Next Best Thing were well done, as well. Lucy’s aunts are broadly drawn, as kvetching (often funny) old ladies, but Lucy’s mother is a bit different. She’s an elegant and stylish dresser (a bit of detail I really liked), somewhat younger than her sisters, and has always been just slightly cool as a maternal figure. This isn’t portrayed as a trauma in Lucy’s life that has to be resolved or fixed; it’s just the way Daisy is, and Lucy pretty much accepts it. Similarly, it’s clear that there is some resentment on Ethan’s part about Jimmy being the golden boy with his parents (and then later with Lucy), but it’s all just very REAL – there ends up being a resolution that I think probably helps heal some of that resentment, but it’s not talked out overtly or analyzed to death.
I also really liked the way the character of Jimmy was handled. He was a great guy with a very compelling, large personality – everybody loved Jimmy. Of course, the book is told from Lucy’s perspective, but it feels like an authentic perspective, not an excessively biased one. Jimmy is never diminished or shown to not be as handsome, charismatic or terrific as Lucy thinks he was, in order to show Ethan in a better light. Ethan was and is in Jimmy’s shadow, in a very real way, with both Lucy and with his parents. I get tired of books where the heroine (or hero, for that matter) idealizes a lost love and only is able to let go by realizing that the love was rotten, faithless, etc. There is a sort of subtle revelation late in the book about Jimmy and Ethan’s relationship, but it wasn’t anything that blackened Jimmy’s character significantly.
I did start to lose patience with Lucy late in the book as she remained determinedly clueless about Ethan’s obvious feelings for her. I also felt a little ambivalent about Ethan, who was mostly the nicest, most good-natured hero you could find. Still, it made me a little uncomfortable when he cooled towards Lucy after she ended the sexual relationship. Reading the book from Lucy’s POV, it felt punitive and…just kind of mean. Like, he wouldn’t waste his time on her if she wasn’t giving him sex. Now, Lucy doesn’t ever think that, but she is hurt and bewildered by the loss of Ethan’s warmth, which she has always thought of as separate from their sexual activities. Of course, looking at it from Ethan’s POV, he’s simply protecting himself emotionally – as long as they had both the sexual relationship and the close friendship, he could make himself believe that Lucy would see the light. Of course, he could have been clearer with her, but on the other hand, by the middle of the book it’s pretty clear that Lucy is deep in denial, rather than just simply unaware of Ethan’s feelings.
I liked the little details that gave the book a feeling of realness – Lucy avoids the cemetery where Jimmy is buried even though it’s attached to the park in the center of town, and to go around it means she often has to go far out of her way while trying to get somewhere. She has a habit of spending money on nice clothes that she never wears – another poignant sign of her neurosis and grief.
At times aspects of The Next Best Thing reminded me of the Stephanie Plum series; there’s the Hungarian connection plus the no-filter relatives (her aunt Iris always refers to her daughter as “my daughter, the lesbian doctor”) and the sense of being part of a small community where everyone knows everyone. Also, the Black Widows enjoy a good funeral almost as much as Grandma Mazur. But generally the humor is not too broad or slapsticky.
This was the first book I’ve read by Kristan Higgans, but it won’t be the last. My grade for The Next Best Thing is a B+.