Desert Isle Keeper
For Better or Worse
I assign all my books a #hashtag to organize them and a book’s tag normally changes and evolves as I read. The story might feel like an #originalpremise in the beginning but fade to #forgettablebutgood when suddenly it ends as a #didnotseethatcoming. But sometimes a book earns its tag within the first few chapters and never waivers. This normally is either a disastrous or a glorious experience. Disasters happen when the book is a wall banger and a #didnotfinish. Glory reigns when reading karma gives me a #oneofmyfavorite, and I knew Lauren Layne’s For Better or Worse was just that during Chapter 2. I felt like Ms. Layne fed me a happy pill at the 10% mark and my euphoria lasted through the last page. For Better or Worse is a comical battle of the sexes with hilarious character dialogue wrapped in a complex story that explores the emotional effects of cancer.
Heather Fowler is a small town Michigan girl who has dreamed of becoming a wedding planner and living in New York City since she was eight years old. At twenty-seven, she resides in Manhattan and works as an assistant for one of the most successful wedding planning firms on the East Coast, Wedding Belles. With her residency goal achieved, Heather is just one wedding away from fulfilling her other childhood ambition by removing the ‘assistant’ from her job title. All Heather must do is successfully plan and produce the wedding of a Kardashian-like celebrity and socialite, Danica Robinson. Danica’s wedding promises to be financially lucrative to the Belles, and the potential media hype could catapult the firm’s reputation to bi-coastal fame. The potential roadblock to Heather’s imminent success is, unfortunately, the bride who couldn’t care less about her wedding and refuses to provide the necessary input for Heather to create a dream wedding. Danica is ambivalent, bordering on apathetic, and acts very un-bride-like by not even showing up to cake tastings or dress fittings. Heather decides to work harder and clings to her fading optimism, but her determination is further challenged when she is kept awake night after night by her next-door neighbor, Josh Tanner, whose band likes to practice at all hours of the night.
Josh is a thirty-three year old man who appears to be living his life like he is a twenty-three year old college student. He wears silly theme t-shirts and has no notable responsibilities except for his part-time garage band. Heather tries to avoid starting a neighbor war but cannot tolerate any more sleepless nights. She confronts Josh and – pardon the cliché – the sparks fly and they are instantly attracted to each other but also repelled by the other’s lifestyle choices. Heather does not understand Josh’s juvenile behavior and lack of ambition, and Josh believes Heather works too much and takes herself too seriously.
They fight their attraction by clinging to their shallow, preconceived notions of the other and begin a dance of antagonism by trading sarcastic, sexually charged and witty barbs. They each have reasons to avoid starting a relationship. Heather is simply too busy and too stressed to deal with an immature man-child, but Josh’s motivation to avoid intimacy is far more complicated. His current lack of responsibilities is a conscious choice made five years ago after battling and surviving cancer, and his lifestyle serves as both an emotional shield and as a way for him to stay focused on living. Before his diagnosis, Josh worked long hours as a high profile hedge fund manager where his only goal was to make a lot of money, and he surrounded himself with relationships whose only purpose was to advance his narcissist goals. His illness forced him to reflect and reprioritize, but after five years his carefree lifestyle is now also an avoidance tactic. Josh’s type of cancer has a high probability of recurrence, and while he is not necessarily afraid of his own death, he worries how another bout of serious illness will affect his loved ones. Josh cannot imagine starting any kind relationship with a woman who might have to care for him through another cancer diagnosis.
Heather and Josh’s shared wall forces constant proximity and the two continually butt heads trying to resist their powerful attraction while a friendship slowly sneaks up on them. Their antics chip away at their defenses and they evolve from frenemies to lovers, but Josh never tells Heather about his cancer. She believes he is goalless and silly, although she sees glimpses of a more thoughtful man beneath his façade. With time, Josh’s emotional scars and their repercussions are exposed, and Heather starts to consider achieving a better work-life balance. I admit Heather tolerates Josh’s immature behavior far longer than any reasonable mature woman would, especially one as driven and goal-oriented as she is, but it is hard for me to consider it an issue with the plot, because I am biased towards Josh and a little in love with him I know why he acts this way. Furthermore, Josh is adorable with his over-the-top cute and flirty comments; I cannot honestly claim I would not have put up with his shenanigans too.
I loved these two complex and charismatic people, and they are off the charts fabulous when they are together. Their dialogue is laugh out loud funny as their sarcastic quips volley back and forth. I imagine any dialogue, especially witty dialogue, must be one of the most difficult things to write, and Ms. Layne has an exceptional talent for creating it. I miss when Josh and Heather are not together in scenes, and I anticipated their next interactions. I still giggle when I replay their exchanges from memory.
I appreciate that For Better or Worse features a lead character dealing with cancer. Serious illness is a difficult subject for any novel but has the potential to fail epically considering the reader’s expectations of the romance genre. Ms. Layne writes the storyline beautifully and with empathy while not shying away from the reality of Josh’s potential relapse. She respects all of the families experiencing life-threatening illness and creates a story that is emotionally charged and complex.
Speaking of families, both Heather and Josh’s mothers are secondary characters in the book, and both are wonderful additions. I am rarely enamored with secondary characters because they are normally forgettable, but these women enrich For Better or Worse and add another layer to the story. Josh’s mother is particularly endearing as we witness her struggle to heal from the experience of watching and caring for a child fighting cancer while attempting not to smother and baby him now that he is in remission.
Obviously, I loved this book and can easily recommend you add it to your #needtoread. I am smiling like a lunatic while writing this and remembering Heather and Josh’s journey. I laughed, cheered, cried, sighed and almost swooned while reading For Better or Worse, and any book that can make me feel this wide spectrum of emotions is a book that qualifies as one of my favorite reads. I did assign an additional label after finishing it – #desertislekeeper.
For Better or Worse is the second book in the Wedding Belles series but they are stand-alone novels and do not need to be read in order. At the risk of turning from respectful admirer to extreme fan girl, I want to applaud Ms. Layne for spacing the release dates of her books within one month of each other. It is so much easier to enjoy a series when the books can be read close together!