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REVIEW: The Next Best Thing by Kristan Higgins

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).

The Next Best Thing by Kristan HigginsAlas, 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+.

Best regards,

 

Jennie

 

 

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

11 Comments

  1. Faye
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 12:22:27

    I’ve read Parker’s book and loved it, and kept meaning to look this one up! Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Amanda
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 13:20:01

    I do like the idea of a friends-with-benefits relationship turning into love when the woman trys to end it (there was another recent book with a similer theme that I wanted to try but can’t remember the name). I might try this one.

  3. Diana Silva
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 13:58:55

    Love Kristan Higgins! This one is still on my “to-read” list but I will push it up now!

  4. Ani Gonzalez
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 14:59:39

    I read this a couple of weeks ago. It had a different (prettier, maybe newer) cover. The setting was fabulous and I loved the Hungarian bakery and the crazy aunts. A very pleasant read.

  5. Lada
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 15:53:58

    This was my first by Kristan Higgens and my favorite of hers though I was more irritated with Lucy’s cluelessness and lack of ambition more than you were. I haven’t really loved any Higgens though because her heroines always tend towards the passive and are generally Mary Sue-ish. I’ve always been afraid to try Parker’s book for fear she’d take away her joie de vivre.

  6. Jennie
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 19:18:39

    @Faye: Oh, good – so Parker does have a book! Off to look for it!

  7. Jennie
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 19:26:37

    @Lada: I may not have emphasized it enough but I really did get fed up with Lucy’s cluelessness, which seemed largely to be deliberate (if subconscious). She really wanted to have her cake and eat it too with Ethan, and while I gave her a lot of slack (being that she’d been so sadly widowed, and also that she was an appealing first-person protagonist, which is a detail that’s always more likely to make me sympathetic to a character), at a certain point it became wearisome. You make a good point about her passivity and lack of ambition; I got annoyed with how determined the Black Widows were to keep the bakery the same and not do anything to improve, but Lucy put up with the situation far longer than she should have.

  8. JJPP
    Oct 07, 2013 @ 21:01:54

    I remember reading several of kristin Higgins’s books a few years back and enjoying them. Until I didn’t. I actually think this was the one that put me over the edge, though i think it was cumulative rather than that this book was specifically annoying to me.

    While reading this review I couldn’t remember why I got tired of them, but I think you gals n the comments hit the nail on the head… It was combination of Mary Sue heroines (who felt the same in all the books I read back-to-back), and what I felt like was an authorial subtext about what a Real Woman should want and be rewarded for (which felt anti-feminist to me).

    That said, for a little while I really enjoyed them. I thought they were well-written and entertaining.

  9. SonomaLass
    Oct 08, 2013 @ 01:59:24

    I was really frustrated with this book. I was really bothered by the scene involving the wedding video; I felt manipulated, and it made me unsettled about the “happy” ending.

    There was a good discussion on Read, React, Review a few years ago, where Jessica argued that Higgins isn’t really writing romance, but more chick lit or women’s fiction. In many of her books, because of the dominant heroine POV, it’s tough to feel certain that the resolution is right for the hero, too. I definitely had that problem here. This isn’t the book that made me break up with Higgins (that was a later book), but I wouldn’t have graded it as high as you did. (here’s the link to the RRR post: http://readreactreview.com/2010/09/01/does-kristan-higgins-write-romance-novels-im-thinking-no/ )

  10. Jennie
    Oct 08, 2013 @ 17:51:15

    @JJPP: Hmm, I’m getting the feeling from some of the comments that Higgins is enjoyable for the first few books but starts to pall after a while. I’m not sure I got the anti-feminist sense from this book, but maybe it’s a subtle thing that is clearer over the course of several books. I really didn’t get a Mary Sue vibe from Lucy, primarily because her self-image was a little too bumbling, and others didn’t react to her with uniform approval or love. I could see Parker being more of a Mary Sue heroine, maybe.

  11. Jennie
    Oct 08, 2013 @ 18:31:06

    @SonomaLass: I see your point about the wedding video; it felt a bit convenient and trite, and I think Lucy could’ve had her epiphany without it.

    Thanks for the link to the RRR post; I can see the validity of some of the points made, even though I’ve only read the one Higgins book. I didn’t have an issue believing the HEA in TNBT, though; if anything, it was more believable to me than the average HEA. Ethan and Lucy were friends; they were attracted to each other. We know he loved her; I believe she loved him, though maybe in a different way than she loved Jimmy. That might not seem romantic to some readers, but the way I saw it, Lucy was getting what she wanted and needed, what would make her happy.

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