I like Wendy’s even more flexible prompts for the 2020 TBR Challenge. This month’s is “Friends” and I was tempted to read one of several books in my TBR with “Enemy” in the title. Just to be contrary. Instead I doubled down with a Harlequin Superromance by Abby Gaines, Her Best Friend’s Wedding, which is part of a series called “More than Friends.” I think I picked it up because I’d read and enjoyed an earlier Gaines book, Married by Mistake, when it was a Harlequin freebie. Overall, I enjoyed this one too, but it was an uneven reading experience. Here’s the good, and . . . well, the ugly:
The late-lamented Superromance was one of my favorite Harlequin lines for its relatively realistic settings and storylines (more middle-class than billionaire). They can be angsty, but this one is pretty light and at times comic, which suited my mood.
Our heroine, Sadie, is excited to introduce the guy she’s just met to her friends and family. But Daniel, who didn’t think he and Sadie had a spark or were dating, falls for her best friend Meg at first sight, and it’s Meg, not Sadie, who brings him home to the small town where their parents live next door to each other. Sadie takes comfort in the fact that Meg’s romances are short-lived, and is determined to show Daniel that Meg’s not right for him. But Meg’s brother Trey is just as determined to thwart her plans.
This plot has the potential for disaster and a lot of stupid and ugly behavior. In fact, I nearly DNFed early on when Trey catches Sadie peeking through his mom’s dining room window. I’m pretty fed up with “funny” plots that humiliate the heroine and/or where she doesn’t act like a mature woman. Luckily, this one moved past that pretty quickly. No one betrays a friendship, and Sadie’s heart ends up in the right place–with Trey, of course.
There’s a lot going on in this story, as all four of these characters have issues to resolve. Sadie feels like an outsider in her family, because she’s the super-smart one they sent off to boarding school where she could flourish. (She’s now a seed biologist working on finding ways to increase the protein content in wheat, and her love of her work, though we don’t see a lot of it, was one of my favorite things about the book). Trey set his football scholarship aside when his father and brother were killed in an accident, and came home to run the family garden center. Over the past decade, he’s built it into a successful chain, but he doesn’t love the work and is tired of putting his life on hold for his family, and of feeling like he’s second-best to his late brother. Meg is a flight attendant whose family sees her as flighty–and she does have trouble with some adult responsibilities. And Daniel is a perfectionist who may not be able to accept flaws in the woman he loves.
In the way of category romance, these conflicts are wrapped up too quickly to be really convincing. But although they’re simplified, they did feel like real issues people struggle with in their family and personal lives. Gaines made me care about these characters and whether they could work things out. Sadie and Trey’s bickering and bantering is often fun and kept the book moving briskly. I sailed through the second half and finished it feeling satisfied. But.
There’s another woman Meg and Sadie knew in high school, Lexie, who is described as “slutty” and of course referred to as “Sexy Lexie.” Sadie and Meg have both had relationships (Meg, it seems, more than Sadie), so why is Lexie the slut with notches in her belt? Mainly to show that Sadie feels jealous over Lexie’s interest in Trey, I think, and what an old, tired trope that is. Especially as Lexie mostly gets over her high-school stereotyping of Sadie as a boring geek. Why can’t Sadie return the favor? She calls Lexie “slutty but nice” even near the book’s end, so we’re pretty much asked to endorse this judgment.
Worse than that, while this book is set in and around Memphis, it felt like it could have been set anywhere. The novel’s scope is more like Austen’s “three or four families in a country village.” And when the characters make a wedding-planning visit to “The Confederacy Inn,” I was brought up short. Why that name? I googled, thinking maybe Gaines was name-dropping a real place. If so, I couldn’t find it online. What I did learn was that in 2013, two years after this book was published, Memphis re-named all its parks that had honored Confederates, including Confederate Park, as well as removing monuments. And that Memphis’ population is 65% Black. The book’s characters are all white. And . . . surely when this book being written, the naming of the parks was already a live political issue. The naming of the inn, which crops up just once in the book (the planned wedding isn’t depicted), seems so deliberate and after that I couldn’t stop thinking about the book’s oh-so-whiteness and why the author dropped that name in, why her characters would be comfortable holding their wedding at a place with that name. I don’t know why, because the name was not, in this book, worthy of notice or remark. It was just a bit of local color (the inn also has a “jazz-themed lounge bar” called Blue Mood, after the Duke Ellington song, presumably).
The book’s whiteness and casual reference to the Confederacy didn’t completely spoil my enjoyment of it, I admit. Like the characters, I could look past it–only the reference to the Confederacy, I’m ashamed to say, made the whiteness visible to me, although that might have been different if I were more familiar with Memphis. But whiteness is an issue I wrestle with more generally as I dip into my romance TBR: because I haven’t been buying much romance in the past few years, these are books I acquired when I was reading less inclusively. Discussions of inclusive romance were much less prevalent in the places I was getting my recommendations from, although they were certainly there. I have mixed feelings about my TBR stash and what it says about me and the genre, just as I have mixed feelings about Her Best Friend’s Wedding.