I don’t read as many romance novels as I did a few years ago, but I never fully stop reading them. And a heavy dose of literary fiction almost demands some palate cleansers, in my case mysteries and romance with the occasional SFF novel thrown in. I usually turn to auto-buy authors or something in the TBR that’s been recommended by someone whose tastes align with me. This time it was Sarah Morgan, one of my favorite authors, who is now writing women’s fiction, and Kate Hewitt, who writes UK-set and UK-style romantic novels. They’re both still recognizably romances, but they have a larger cast of characters, fewer pages devoted to sex scenes without being necessarily closed-door, and characters who are older or at least not usually on their first relationship.
The Christmas Sisters by Sarah Morgan
I’m always a sucker for Christmas stories from Morgan, and this one is set during the holidays in a remote village in Scotland. Three sisters gather at their parents’ house, two coming from New York and the third from down the road (she never left home). All three have family and relationship issues to deal with, as well as a shared trauma in their past that they’ve never really resolved. The trauma resurfaces in an unexpected way, shaping their interactions with each other as well as their romantic choices. This is an intergenerational story, with the parents’ history and contemporary circumstances getting equal billing with their adult childrens’ concerns.
Many romance readers haven’t been thrilled with the shift to women’s fiction, but I haven’t minded it. I’ve always enjoyed books that straddle that boundary, and in the case of UK writers, the books remind me of the types of romantic novels that don’t always make it across the water. There is still enough focus on romance for me to enjoy the stories for that element, but there’s also more going on, and you can have lots of characters without feeling like they’re being set up for their own installments in a multi-volume series.
This novel has plenty of moments of sweetness and Christmas cheer and very likeable characters. The sisters and their husbands/love interests and the parents were nicely differentiated and the moppets were cute and well integrated. But the plot turns felt a bit forced at times and the important moments weren’t always clearly grounded and motivated. And the village and its people were barely there, which was a disappointment because for me is one of the big attractions of Morgan’s holiday stories is the context. Morgan is always worth reading, but for whatever reason, this didn’t click as well for me as her previous novel How To Keep A Secret.
Meet Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt
I found this an enjoyable timepass novel, but I had a few niggles. The story focuses on single mom Ellie and her daughter Abby, who move from Manchester to a village in the Cotswolds when Ellie gets a job as an an office assistant in an Oxford History department. They both need a change of scene, Ellie because she feels trapped by her loving but judgmental family and Abby because she’s being bullied by the mean girls at her school. Ellie winds up being temporarily assigned to secretarial duties for Oliver, a stereotypically absent-minded and emotionally repressed historian who is finishing a monograph on childhood in the Victorian era. Fortuitously, however, Oliver has a sister and a nephew the same age as Abby and both need support and friendship.
Ellie and Oliver have a rough start but then hit it off in an opposites-attract way, and the plot is mostly them overcoming their limited structural conflicts to find their way to an HEA. Abby’s deadbeat but charming dad hovers in the background but is never a real threat, just a plot-threat. Abby makes friends at school and at Willoughby Close and Ellie doesn’t really make friends but the book isn’t about that, except in passing. She has Oliver to focus on.
My niggles: Ellie works for Oliver but this is never an issue. The book was written before #metoo, but given the structural imbalance, it would have been nice for the text to acknowledge that Oliver has enormous control over Ellie’s livelihood. People (including them) barely notice and no one cares. Really? Because women who are in precarious economic and work positions shouldn’t have to depend on their bosses choosing to be decent to feel secure.
Another niggle: So many mean girls. The yummy mummies are all awful (except for one who may be OK but only because she may have lost her social and economic status). Look, I am not a mummy (yummy or otherwise), I think Range Rovers are a waste of money, and I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing an Apple Watch. But that doesn’t make me a Good Person, any more than having/being those things would make me a Bad Person. Oliver’s wealthy gentry parents are uniformly awful (the owner of Willoughby Close is titled and not awful, to be fair, but there is a definite Affluent People Bad vibe in the book). It’s just lazy context and characterization and it’s not necessary. Mean girls can be mean without reflexively hating on gamer nerds, especially in today, when so much of fandom and popular culture is dominated by them.
Despite these annoyances, I did enjoy the book. The conflict isn’t really enough to propel the story, but Ellie and Abby’s relationship is warm and believable, and Oliver is kind of sweet and not as stereotypical once we get to know him. I enjoyed Ellie and Oliver’s discussions about his work a lot, and I liked that her work environment was supportive and friendly.
This is #2 in a series but I haven’t read the first one and didn’t have any trouble following the storyline and characters.