In On Second Thought Kristan Higgins returns to the fictional town of Cambry-on-Hudson, the setting of her recent book If You Only Knew, to tell the story of two half-sisters. I tend to shy away from women’s fiction, preferring more traditional romances, and was nervous when I learned this book leans heavily in that direction. While each sister eventually gets a happy ending, they go through a lot of sorrow along the way and it wasn’t immediately apparent who their heroes would be. But none of that mattered, because from the opening pages I was completely captivated.
Kate and Ainsley’s lives are quite different. Kate – a photographer -- recently married Nathan, a successful architect. For Kate, who is 39, meeting and then marrying Nathan after twenty years of being single was completely unexpected. Before they married, Kate had been happy with the life and friends she had in Brooklyn, and her new married life living in Cambry-on-Hudson seems almost surreal. But with the exception of her struggles to get pregnant, everything else about her life seems ideal.
Ainsley’s life is a different story. She had a successful career in television until a scandal left her unemployed. She now works for a regional magazine in Cambry, a real come-down from her previous work, and to top things off, her grumpy boss seems determined to fire her.
Ainsley has been in love and lived with her boyfriend Eric since college, and has ordered her life around him. Recently she nursed him through his cancer treatments and set up a blog for him through her magazine so that he could share his experiences with others. It’s not quite so obvious what – if anything – Eric does for Ainsley. He’s been promising for years they would get married, but he never actually proposes. When Ainsley finds an engagement ring hidden in their home she’s positive he’s finally going to ask her to marry him.
Ms. Higgins opens her book with Kate describing a specific day and, by the end of the first chapter, the reader knows knows Nathan is going to die that night. It’s heartbreaking to see how Kate might have done things differently if only she’d known what was going to happen. And one thing she definitely wouldn’t have done was go to the party Eric is throwing for himself that evening to celebrate his cancer-free state.
Both Kate and Ainsley’s lives change forever after the party. Kate is suddenly a widow, and Ainsley isn’t engaged. In fact, Eric dumps her soon afterwards. I know, this all sounds depressing, and yes, parts of it are very sad. But Kate and Ainsley grow and change as a result of their losses in ways that are uplifting, and, at times, very funny.
This is a rich book. Kate and Ainsley are fully-developed, complex characters, although I’ll admit I initially liked Kate more than I liked her sister. I questioned Ainsley’s love for Eric because he was so obviously self-centered, but as Ainsley stepped up for Kate and did so much to help Kate get through the loss of her husband, I came to admire Ainsley equally. The use of alternating PoVs between the sisters is particularly effective, especially when it reveals that each sister was jealous of the other for reasons that often proved not to be true, their perceptions of each other often distorted.
Normally I would mention the hero – or in this case heroes – early on in the review. But this isn’t that type of book. We meet each sister’s eventual new love interest relatively early, but it isn’t clear for quite some time that they will even become involved, and if they do, which sister will get which man.
And as to the men, it’s fair to say that neither Daniel the Hot Firefighter from Brooklyn nor Jonathan Kent, the wealthy magazine publisher is initially what he seems. Just as the sisters had misunderstood each other, both sisters also misunderstand these men.
While this should work well as a standalone, fans of If You Only Knew will be happy to learn that Leo and Jenny make brief appearances. As for me, I’ve read and liked many of Ms. Higgins’ previous books so asking to review this seemed like a safe bet. What I didn’t expect was that I would love – yes love – this book!
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