Note: This is a discussion, not a review. There WILL be spoilers.
The threaded comment system on free WordPress blogs is not great for long comment threads. It’s probably best not to use “reply” and we’ll hope it doesn’t get too confusing. Sorry!
I enjoyed a lot about Back to the Good Fortune Diner, but there were things I found frustrating or disappointing, too. Because a lot of the frustration came at/from the ending, it retrospectively colored my feelings about the book, but writing about it reminded me of how much I loved.
I like my romance on the realistic side. I appreciated the slow, in-depth character development. Some were types (especially Tiffany’s grandmother and Chris’s dad) but not stereotypes; they’re types in the way that alpha heroes are, familiar but with individual characteristics.
This realism showed in little ways, too, like names. Lots of romance protagonists have names that seem designed to be “sexy” or are plucked from top-ten lists for today’s babies. Tiffany, Daniel and Chris are names thirty-something people with their backgrounds might actually have. I liked the reference to Tiffany and Daniel’s Chinese names, which only their grandmother uses. That’s true of many of my students, who have a Chinese name on the class list but prefer to use an English one.
They also seemed like real people with real problems. There are plenty of early-thirty-somethings whose career trajectories don’t match their degrees or their dreams, and who are trying to figure out what to do next. One of the best things about the book is that because Chris and Tiffany are struggling with similar family conflicts and self-doubts, these aren’t presented as “Chinese” issues. Tiffany’s ethnic background is part of who she is, but doesn’t make her alien or exotic; it’s an issue in the romance but not the issue. Essex’s book reminded me of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls, with its upstate New York diner and its reflection on how family responsibilities trap us, burden us, reward us, and make us who we are. Books like Good Fortune Diner put paid to the idea that genre fiction can’t or doesn’t explore the “important” issues literary fiction can.
There are some fun, flirty interactions between Chris and Tiffany, like the double-entendre discussion of kittens (“Can I come over and play? I just can’t stop stroking him,” etc.). There are movingly awkward ones too, like the first “date.” Chris and Tiffany haven’t seen each other since high school (when she had a huge crush on him) and both live with their parents. Of course it’s tricky for them to figure out an adult relationship. I also liked that Tiffany the uptight nerd was not shy when it came sex. When she finally got that longtime crush naked, she went right for the blowjob. (I was surprised, because this line isn’t always so forward). It’s great when heroines are active in their admiration of their men and enjoy giving as well as receiving pleasure.
Molly O’Keefe did an interesting interview with Essex where she asks about the new (or revert to classic) longer page count for Superromance. Essex said:
I discovered the magic of secondary plots. . . . I got to approach the conflicts my main characters, Tiffany and Chris, faced from a different angle through Tiffany’s brother, Daniel. I actually enjoy secondary plots for that reason. You can explore different aspects of a theme through other characters’ perspectives.
I loved Daniel’s subplot, but it got short-changed. I would have liked to see it finished in a sequel where he takes center-stage (as O’Keefe has done in some of her own Superromances). Sadly Daniel, like other “unconventional” heroes/heroines such as Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s older lovers, is probably confined to the secondary plot: a Chinese-American hero who decides to work in a restaurant instead of using his MBA, and might stay home to raise future kids? I’d love that, but suspect it’s a hard sell.
The flip side of the slow, realistic development in the first two-thirds of the book was that the resolution was way too quick and way too neat (except for things left hanging, like Tiffany’s family situation). I expect category romance to take some plot and characterization short cuts, but when you’ve got a realistic sour old racist, I’m not going to buy that one conversation turns him around.
There also wasn’t enough romance. I wanted more time with Tiffany and Chris and their developing feelings. For people their age, with their baggage, the quick “I love you,” or at least quick “let’s get married” was extra unconvincing. This ties into romance’s Small Town Idealization Problem, which was on show here if not fully endorsed. I would believe Tiffany deciding her dream job didn’t turn out to be her so dreamy, just what she thought she “should” want, and that she’d decide to move back to her home town. But those changes weren’t well-prepared for. And one can make those decisions without demonizing cities, which can have a sense of community and be perfectly fine places to raise kids (here again I felt Essex was relying on romance shortcuts that didn’t fit the tone or plot of the majority of the book). Tiffany sacrificed everything; it didn’t seem even. With more space at the end, there would have been time for them to fall in love more slowly and find a solution that gave them both something–this was kind of hinted at for the future, but not explored.
Finally: points to Harlequin for a nice cover image with models who actually look like the characters. Points off for wonky formatting; when ePub is all you sell at your site, you should be able to get it right. Courtney Milan’s self-published books, which I read on either side of this, were miles better.
I feel like I’ve barely touched on my thoughts about this book. Now it’s your turn! Here are reviews I’ve found from online friends. Feel free to link more in the comments.
Sunita (at Dear Author)
Willaful (at Karen Knows Best)
Meoskop (at It’s My Genre, Baby)
Kaetrin (at Kaetrin’s Musings)
Natalie (at Radish Reviews)