REVIEW: Mrs. Nash’s Ashes by Sarah Adler
A starry-eyed romantic, a cynical writer, and (the ashes of) an elderly woman take the road trip of a lifetime that just might upend everything they believe about true love.
Millicent Watts-Cohen is on a mission. When she promised her elderly best friend that she’d reunite her with the woman she fell in love with nearly eighty years ago, she never imagined that would mean traveling from D.C. to Key West with three tablespoons of Mrs. Nash’s remains in her backpack. But Millie’s determined to give her friend a symbolic happily-ever-after, before it’s (really) too late—and hopefully reassure herself of love’s lasting power in the process.
She just didn’t expect to have a living travel companion.
After a computer glitch grounds flights, Millie is forced to catch a ride with Hollis Hollenbeck, an also-stranded acquaintance from her ex’s MFA program. Hollis certainly does not believe in happily-ever-afters—symbolic or otherwise—and makes it quite clear that he can’t fathom Millie’s plan ending well for anyone.
But as they contend with peculiar bed-and-breakfasts, unusual small-town festivals, and deer with a death wish, Millie begins to suspect that her reluctant travel partner might enjoy her company more than he lets on. Because for someone who supposedly doesn’t share her views on romance, Hollis sure is becoming invested in the success of their journey. And the closer they get to their destination, the more Millie has to admit that maybe this trip isn’t just about Mrs. Nash’s love story after all—maybe it’s also about her own.
CW/TW from the book –
Dear Ms. Adler,
Grumpy/sunshine romances aren’t usually my thing but something about the mission that sunshine Millicent is on to try and “reunite” her best friend with that friend’s lost WWII love to give them their “HEA” struck a chord, and I happily took the chance to read it. It’s got a strong start with acerbic banter between Millie and Hollis, some amusing road incidents, and delves into character growth, then hit me with an ending I wasn’t quite expecting but which worked anyway. I do have a few reservations about Millie and Hollis’s various “making ups” though.
“Millie,” she said with a sense of urgency in her voice that sent a jolt of panic up my spine. I was relieved—albeit momentarily confused—when she continued, “I would like to tell you about the love of my life. We met during the war. Her name was Elsie.”
Told in first person, present tense this is a road romance with grumpy/sunshine MCs and forced proximity as they set out (reluctantly for hero Hollis) for Key West on a mission to reunite two women who fell in love during their time in Key West when they served in the Navy (as a nurse and in the WAVES). The catch? Mrs. Rose Nash is dead and her friend and former roommate Millie is taking 3 tablespoons of her ashes with her as she desperately tries to make it to Key West where Elsie Brown is in hospice care. Fun, banter, snarking, 80s music (Yes!) olive oil spills, a late-night road encounter with a deer, a room with over 20 paint-by-number paintings of Jesus (yeah, I want to see the Jesus in space one, too, Millie), a red notebook, and facing that some things won’t happen while others will ensue.
I can see why Mrs. Nash became friends with Millie, the former D-list TV star of an oughts show that still brings Millie attention when she’s recognized in public but which also caused Millie a lot of anxiety about her changing body and the attention that got. Millie is fun, considerate, devoted to her friend even if almost 70 years of age separated them, and bound and determined to get to Key West on Memorial Day weekend that gets even more SNAFU’d when a computer glitch grounds all planes. Hollis initially refuses to admit that he knows Millie, freezes out her attempts to be friendly after he saves her from an obnoxious fan but then (we quickly discover) refuses to let Millie go with anyone else.
Millie thinks the best of people while Hollis is sure that her naivete (as he sees it) will get her murdered and dismembered. Millie does make sure to text her cousin regarding her plans and cousin Dani cheers Millie on (about sex) and promises to kick ass (during the romance conflict). Hollis doesn’t want Millie driving his car because of insurance so of course we know What’s Going to Happen which lands them in a small S.C town staying in a B&B (in the Mustard Seed room) celebrating their annual Broccoli Festival. Mingled in with all this are scenes of Rose and Elsie meeting on Boca Chica beach, becoming friends, worrying about what the other is feeling, finding and then losing love.
“You look like you want to punch me,” Hollis says, glancing over.
The thought honestly hadn’t crossed my mind. But now that he mentions it, I do. I really do. “Well, you’d probably deserve it.”
“Probably. But keep your weapons holstered while I’m driving. We’ll have to stop for gas at the next exit. You can take a swing at me then if you want.”
We also discover what is behind Millie’s past breakup with an asshole and why this will bring on a final act conflict with Hollis. Plus Hollis’s reasons for not believing in love much less a love that lasts a lifetime. Millie’s choice of music (I heartily approve) is 70s/80s rock but I draw the line at Millie’s favorite Pee-Wee Herman movies.
There are some lovely moments of Millie “seat dancing” to her playlist, a wonderful dinner at a Mexican/Italian fusion restaurant, some kind B&B owners who aren’t mocked (much but then that many Jesus paintings staring at you while you’re making hot love would be a bit much) for their religion, a conscientious highway patrolman, a wonderful husband for Rose who Understood, and an ending to the 40s love story I wasn’t expecting and to be honest initially had me saying “No!” as Millie did but when I think about it, I can live with it.
I walk in and am immediately met by dozens of eyes. The room’s golden-yellow walls are covered in paintings of . . . Jesus. That’s definitely Jesus. White Jesus. Black Jesus. Brown Jesus. And he’s doing all sorts of stuff. Holding a sleeping child. Pledging allegiance to the flag. Rescuing a drowning man. Building a table. Cuddling a corgi. And those are just the ones above the bed.
“Wow,” I say.
“Yes. Wow is . . .‘wow’ is a good description of this room,” Hollis says. “The art particularly is . . . wow.”
My lips part to ask her where she found a paint-by-numbers Jesus in space, but Hollis subtly shakes his head. He’s probably right. I don’t exactly* need* a space Jesus painting in my apartment. But boy, do I *want* it. I mean, he’s *in space* and also cupping *the entire galaxy* in his hands!
But then the Last Conflict arrives and it’s one I guessed was coming but hoped I’d be proved wrong. Nope – I called it. It’s intense and as bad for Millie as the Reason Hollis resisted love. And it’s something that I have doubts can be dealt with quite as easily as the scene on Boca Chica Beach seems to make it appear that it can. I do end up believing in these two but for that resolution … I just needed more and definitely more time. This is an insta-love romance (even if
As for character growth – we have it, lots of it. Millie feels she needs to discover that long lasting, true love exists so that she can believe that she might one day find it. She also needs to figure out and act on another reason that is propelling her to make this journey. Hollis is initially not just the “cinnamon roll with a burnt toast coating” that Millie keeps trying to prove he is. There’s a Reason (and it’s actually a good one) for his disdain for twue wuv. We see their slow progress through actions rather than just being told. Hollis’s way of helping Millie with her restaurant ordering issue, the way they work out The Rules about sex (consent, safety, and communication), the way Hollis de-escalates an argument and keeps it from becoming a simmering Big Mis, Hollis revealing that he really doesn’t hate Millie’s music as much as he claims, and how Hollis affirms Millie.
That’s what I like best about Hollis: He makes me feel like there’s nothing wrong with me. For all his fussing about my perhaps worryingly high tolerance for risk, he makes me feel like I can trust myself. And maybe I didn’t realize it until he made me start again, but that’s something I haven’t been doing nearly as often in the last few months.
His face changes, as if the last answer has come to him and the puzzle is complete. “I’m starting to realize that you’re inevitable, Millicent. It’s like you tied my shoelaces together the moment we met and the knot’s only getting tighter the longer I try to outrun you. It’s just . . . I have no idea what to do with all of this intensity, this longing, this . . . sort of painful thing in my heart that feels like hope and fear and need. The muscles to carry these sorts of big feelings atrophied a long time ago, and the weight of it is crushing me.”
But for all the issues I have with it, “Mrs. Nash’s Ashe’s” made me smile a lot. There’s enough funny, raunchy, and bittersweet to make it a very nice debut book. B