By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
The more I read by Mary Ann Rivers, the more I love her. I didn't like this second full-length novel in the Burnside series quite as well as I liked the first, Live (which I loved), but I liked it a whole helluva lot more than almost anything else I've read lately. Rivers has a voice that is heavily influenced by her close friend and writing mentor, Ruthie Knox, but is a little bit more angsty and bittersweet than Ruthie's work. Everything I've read by Rivers has a common theme: people falling in love, surprised by love, totally caught up and swept away by love, even as they wrestle with the messy tangle of other heartbreaks, disappointments, and setbacks in their lives.
Laugh's protagonists, Nina and Sam, fall neatly within this pattern. Both have "loss all over them" (as Nina puts it): Sam is reeling from the recent death of his father, his sister's rocky recovery from a near-fatal bike accident, his youngest sister's sudden defection to Europe with a new lover, a strained relationship with his baby brother, and tons of work-stress as he tries to open a new low-income health clinic in his neighborhood. Nina, the daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico, lost her husband in Afghanistan. Because they had been childhood sweethearts whose parents farm together, she lost her connection with her parents and in-laws, too, when she left Seattle to start a new life as an urban farmer in Ohio. Now, her best friend and business partner has just been diagnosed with cervical cancer, and Nina is terrified that she will have to face another loss. As always, Rivers manages to capture the giddy, anxious, beautiful, terrible euphoria of falling in love against the backdrop of her characters' messy lives, and the juxtaposition of love and grief and everything in between will give the reader All. The. Feels.
There were a few things I loved about this book. First, Sam's ADHD. Rivers did an amazeballs job of portraying this way-too-common disability in a sensitive, realistic way. Readers get a sense of not just the obvious inconvenience of the diagnosis--the messy house, the missed deadlines, the impulse control issues--but also the professional and interpersonal costs. His medical license is suspended and the fate of the clinic is jeopardized because he loses some paperwork. He tries to control and micromanage his world and the people in it in a vain attempt to juggle everything on his plate. When that juggling act falters, his frustration quickly turns to anger, and he lashes out at siblings, friends, and lovers, souring almost all the relationships he's ever had. Yet for all of the costs of his disability, Rivers makes it so clear that Sam is unbelievably intelligent and loving and capable. Anyone who loves someone with an attention deficit should read this book, if for no other reason than that Rivers offers such a wonderful, nuanced portrayal of Sam as a whole person with so much more to offer than just his diagnosis.
Second, even more so than in Live, Rivers does a wonderful job exploring her protagonists' relationships with others, not just their lover. Sam has important relationships with his siblings, his business partner at the clinic, and his childhood best friend. Nina has wonderful friendships with her business partners: Rachel, the chef at the farm-to-table cafe where much of Nina's produce goes, and Tay, Nina's farm manager. So many romance novels focus in on the main couple and include secondary characters only as sequel bait or as poorly-developed stock characters brought in only to advance the plot, but Rivers' characters fall in love without sacrificing the social connections that shape and color their lives. Learning how to weave a new love into that pre-existing social fabric is an integral part of the story.
Third, Nina and Sam have a gloriously, hilariously bad first date that goes wrong in just about every possible way, and it is so funny, I'd recommend this book just for those chapters alone.
However, I do have a few quibbles. On the technical side, I read this ebook as an ARC from NetGalley, and it could use a few more editing passes both for basic typos and for more substantive stuff like run-on sentences and sentence fragments. I also found myself losing track of who was talking sometimes during dialogue, because Rivers tends not to use a lot of dialogue tags.
Two other things reduced this from a five-star read to four, for me. The characters' internal monologues, especially Nina's, sometimes got too introspective and abstract. A certain amount of navel-gazing is necessary in a story as emotionally rich as this one, but sometimes I got lost in the noise going on in Nina's and Sam's heads. (Maybe in Sam's case that was intentional; sometimes Sam gets lost in the noise in his head.)
Second--(and I can't believe I'm saying this, since most of my old high school and college era paperback romance novels open right to the smexy parts when you pull them off the shelf)--the sex was just this side of too much. Rivers writes very explicit, very detailed sex scenes, and there are a lot of them. While they're well done--(which is of course a matter of taste, but from my perspective, 'well done' = the characters stay in character and don't become random sex robots, no purple prose or weird euphemisms, the sex blends with the story, etc.)--the sex scenes were just too frequent and too long, and I found myself skimming to get back to the forward momentum of the plot. But, I'm sure a lot of people find the sexy bits to be the best part, so maybe this complaint is just a matter of taste.
Anyway, I liked this book a lot, and while it isn't Mary Ann Rivers' strongest work, it's still very, very good.
***I received an ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.***