Desert Isle Keeper
House Rules is the third story in the Uptown series by Ruby Lang. Set in some of New York’s original neighbourhoods, the houses and apartments the characters live in are as much a part of the stories as the characters themselves. I loved the first in the series, Playing House, especially the fact that the characters are city planners (my dad’s profession). It’s the first time I’ve seen that career choice in a romance novel. This time the author sets up a second-chance romance for a divorced couple who become roommates and friends again as they navigate their memories, good and bad, and think about the possibilities for the future.
When Simon Mizrahi and Lana Kuo separated and divorced seventeen years earlier, there were hurt feelings and sadness but no bitter recriminations or anger. Lana had felt suffocated in a marriage where Simon had been so sure of everything while she’d been flailing, and leaving him was the only way she knew of to regain her sense of self. Having travelled all over the world and taken some specialty cooking courses, she’s returned to New York City and gotten a temporary position at a local restaurant specializing in Asian cooking as a noodle puller, making homemade noodles in an open kitchen where restaurant diners can admire her skills.
While Lana has been remaking herself, Simon has been content in his career as a music teacher. Truth be told, he’s resisted making any changes, still living in the same rent-controlled apartment they once lived in together even though it’s falling apart and the landlord has been encouraging him to move out (not so subtly, by letting a new neighbour renovate noisily next door). When Lana and Simon run into each other, it’s the first time they’ve had any contact since she moved away. While they’ve thought of each other periodically, they haven’t been pining for each other, having accepted the end of the marriage and moved on, though not finding any permanent partners since. Lana is looking for somewhere to live, tired of couch surfing at her niece’s apartment but unable to afford somewhere on her own. When she comes across the perfect place, a sunny two bedroom apartment, the only person she knows of who might be interested in becoming roommates, and whom she trusts, is Simon. With strict rules, an agreed upon trial period and promises to stay out of each other’s way, Simon can’t refuse. While he’s not looking to rekindle a romantic relationship with Lana, he can’t help wanting to find a way back to being friends. But in close quarters, things inevitably lead to more. While physical intimacy was never their problem, can it lead to a real second chance?
It’s probably unrealistic to think that a couple who divorced and never kept in touch would contemplate living together to save on rent but if I wanted realism I’d stick to women’s fiction. I read romance for the guarantee of an HEA, and if it means giving a couple who loved each other and divorced because they were in different places in their lives a chance to try again, I’m willing to put aside any disbelief and root for their reunion.
I love that the leads are in their forties who are now past the age of having children together and accept that fact without bitterness or regret, and how the author doesn’t gloss over the changes that age has wrought. They get tired, they have body aches and pains, and they accept that they’ve both changed. It’s refreshing to have a couple be truly honest with each other, for them to acknowledge that living together will take an adjustment and that it will be awkward. And it is awkward as they learn to cohabit again. Yet, I never felt uncomfortable reading it. If anything it made me root for them not to give up but to get past those initial stages of discomfort and learn to communicate again.
Simon is in awe of what Lana has accomplished on her own. While they’d both been in music together when they’d been married, Lana can admit now that she was jealous of Simon’s success and always felt that she was in his shadow. Having her own career independent of his gives her the strength to meet him now on equal footing. I love that he tries to show her in her love language of food how he respects her and still cares for her by making her meals, yet doesn’t quite manage to pull off his grand plans successfully. Lana understands what he’s trying to do though, and it goes a long way towards softening her heart towards him.
Since sex was never a problem for them before, it isn’t now either. From keeping separate hours and separate bedrooms to becoming sexual partners and bedmates again, they remember how to please each other, and both put in the effort to make that aspect of their new relationship worthwhile. But they are still wary and cognizant of the end of their trial period approaching.
Fans of pets in their romances will be happy to see the part played by a cat that Lana adopts, one that helps bring Lana and Simon closer together when a rescue is required. And both their families and friends have opinions on the rekindled relationship, having been through the breakup on the periphery and understanding the stakes. Some want to see them reunited, some want them to avoid more heartbreak, but all of their positions are understandably well meaning. In the end it’s up to Lana and Simon to be willing to compromise in the name of a happy ending and the epilogue is sweet and satisfying. Loving someone again comes with risk but can lead to great rewards and Ruby Lang has convinced me with this entertaining and enjoyable romance that it’s worth the effort.