Rexanne Becnel becomes the latest historical romance author to try her hand at contemporary women’s fiction with Old Boyfriends. Part of the new Harlequin Next series fiction line for “older women” (older than 35 that is), it’s a decent read, if a little too uneven for me to recommend wholeheartedly.
M.J., Bitsey, and Cat are three longtime friends in their forties. Though they now live in Bakersfield, California, they’re proud of the fact that they’re Grits (“Girls raised in the South”). They each come from very different backgrounds. M.J. spent her youth as a beauty queen before becoming the trophy wife of an older man. Bitsey was a debutante who became a housewife dedicated to her husband and three daughters. Now her children are all gone, the passion has gone out of her marriage, and she finds herself bouncing from diet to diet in an unending battle against her constantly expanding waistline. Cat grew up as self-described “trailer trash,” with a painfully dysfunctional family. Now twice divorced, she still finds herself falling into bed with ex-husband number two, a habit she can’t quite seem to break.
As the story begins, M.J.’s husband keels over while being serviced by a transvestite in a trashy massage parlor. It turns out he left her nothing, forcing her to flee their extravagant home with whatever she can carry and the prized Jag she has no intention of turning over to his greedy kids. At the same time, Bitsey’s high school reunion is fast approaching. The three friends decide the time is right for a road trip, and take off across the country in the Jag.
Once in New Orleans, each of the women decides to look up the old boyfriends she remembers fondly. M.J.’s is exactly the dreamboat she remembers, but she finds herself drawn to a standoffish wheelchair-using mechanic instead. Cat’s old boyfriend is now a small-town sheriff raising a teenage son. As she reconnects with him, she also comes to terms with her family. Meanwhile, Bitsey reunites with her old flame, now a crusading attorney, and flirts with infidelity. Torn between her unsatisfying marriage and her old feelings, she also has to deal with her elderly father’s unexpectedly active love life and her adult daughter’s aimlessness.
This is fairly typical women’s fiction fare that should seem familiar to fans of the genre. The main characters are three recognizable types: the overweight housewife, the beauty too often judged by her looks, and the sarcastic one hiding deep wounds behind her mouthiness. While they never quite manage to transcend the archetypes, they’re likable and engaging. Becnel has an easy style that made for smooth reading. Unfortunately, the story she’s telling is an uneven one. There were times I would find myself unexpectedly caught up in a scene, completely involved in the characters and what was happening. Then there were times when it was all I could do to keep turning the pages.
The book gets off to a shaky beginning. Initially, Bitsey was the only character I cared about. Her frustrations with her weight and her marriage were easy to empathize with. On the other hand, M.J. and Cat were nowhere near as vivid. The book is narrated in first-person, but not always in the manner you’d expect, and the technique didn’t really work at first, since the wrong character sometimes narrated. For instance, the book opens by detailing M.J.’s difficulties, but instead of M.J. describing her own life, Cat is the narrator. The characters’ first stop on their road trip is to visit Bitsey’s daughter Margaret in Arizona. There, they discover Margaret has a black eye, given to her by her dirtbag boyfriend. It would make the most sense to see this from Bitsey’s perspective, so the reader can experience a mother’s dismay at her daughter’s life through her eyes. Instead, this is all narrated by M.J., who doesn’t have anywhere near the same investment in Margaret’s life. As a result, there’s a sense of detachment with the proceedings, and the sequence doesn’t have the impact it should.
The story improves once the characters arrive in New Orleans and M.J.’s and Cat’s individual plotlines take off. From then on, the scenes are narrated by the relevant characters. Cat’s struggle with her family is the strongest storyline. There are a number of potent scenes as she comes face-to-face with her cantankerous mother, her alcoholic brother, and the sister she gave up on long ago. Cat discovers that even the people she thought she knew most could surprise her, and there are some very nice moments when she reconnects with her mother and sister in particular. This was the plot where I found myself getting caught up in the proceedings most often. Both Cat’s and M.J.’s love stories are nicely done, especially M.J.’s, as she works past the defenses of a man who refuses to be pitied or taken for anything less than who he is. There are some effectively romantic moments as they learn just how right they are together.
Oddly enough, at the same time, Bitsey, the only character I empathized with at the start, soon began to get on my nerves. She becomes increasingly childish once back in her father’s house, and one moment when she walks in on him having sex with his girlfriend is so inane it’s painful. Frankly, an adult who walks into their parent’s bedroom without knocking deserves exactly what she finds inside as far as I’m concerned. When she learns Margaret got a tattoo, she reacts with a level of horror and dismay – “A tattoo. On my precious child’s precious skin? I had to remind myself to keep breathing.” (emphasis added) – that would seem more in line if Margaret had murdered someone. Her story also has the least satisfying ending. It feels too easy. Without getting into details, the choices are largely taken out of Bitsey’s hands. Unlike in the other stories, the ending seems to happen to her instead of because of anything she does. One aspect of the resolution in particular seems like a copout.
Old Boyfriends has entertaining moments, but it’s an uneven read. I’d say it’s worth a look for readers who enjoy women’s fiction, but had there been more consistency throughout, it would have been a stronger book.