Desert Isle Keeper
Paradise (#28 on our Top 100 Romances List)
An AAR Top 100 Romance
originally published on February 11, 2001
Part of me is always afraid to reread an old favorite, especially if I originally read it in my pre-reviewing days. What if it doesn’t measure up? What if it’s not as good as I remembered? With Paradise, I needn’t have worried. I started it during a week when I had about a million other things to do, but even with countless distractions, all I wanted to do was read this book – even though I already knew what was going to happen! Still, there I was, up till all hours of the night, laughing and crying in the same places I’d laughed and cried the first time.
Paradise is the story of a young man and woman in love who are cruelly parted. It’s also the story of the people they become eleven years later, both of them confident and powerful CEOs. Readers may be tempted to dismiss it as just another book about misunderstandings or millionaires, but that would be a real mistake, because there’s so much more.
McNaught refuses to take shortcuts, and the book begins when Meredith Bancroft is an awkward adolescent. She’s chubby with stick straight hair and horrible clothes that make her look completely unsophisticated. As the only daughter of a man who owns a prestigious Chicago department store, she is more comfortable with adults than kids her own age, and her dream is to follow in her father’s footsteps and run Bancroft’s someday. We glimpse her again four years later as she graduates from high school. She’s outgrown the baby fat, but she’s still chafing against her strict father’s unreasonable demands. He thinks women should confine their activities to charity balls and child rearing, and he wants to send her to a college that’s little more than a finishing school. One night after a particularly upsetting argument, she attends a country club event and meets Matt Farrell. Matt’s background couldn’t be more different. He’s from the wrong side of the tracks, and he put himself through school by working in a steel mill while supporting his family and paying off his deceased mother’s medical bills. But Matt’s got big plans; he’s about to work for one of the country club’s patrons for two years in Venezuela. His goal is to take the $150,000 bonus he will receive and invest it, so that he can increase his wealth.
But one thing leads to another, and Meredith ends up pregnant with Matt’s child. She comes to see him at his family farm in Indiana, and they decide to get married. Matt’s plans didn’t include a wife and child, but he feels himself falling for Meredith, he thinks that it just might work. But when they confront Meredith’s father with the news, he is furious and vows to end the marriage. After he offers Matt money to walk away – which Matt coldly refuses – he appears to consent to the marriage, as long as Meredith stays in America during her pregnancy.
Then comes the misunderstanding to end all misunderstandings, and you can really see it coming. Meredith’s father interferes with their mail, so neither she nor Matt receives all the letters the other has written. Then Meredith’s pregnancy takes a dangerous turn and she loses the baby. As she is lying there, sick with pain and grief, asking every second for Matt, her father sends Matt a telegram telling him Meredith has had an abortion and wants a divorce. When Matt flies home from Venezuela to see her, Meredith’s father has him barred from the hospital. He then handles the quickie divorce, and both Meredith and Matt eventually get on with their lives.
Eleven years later, Matt is the CEO of Intercorp, a huge conglomerate which he founded that buys and sells other companies. Meredith is a vice president at Bancroft’s with her eye on the president’s chair. Their paths cross again when Matt buys a Chicago electronics company, and while both of them have gotten on with their lives, both bear scars from their traumatic marriage. Meredith cuts Matt cold at first, but then her fiancé makes the horrible discovery that her divorce was invalid, and she is still legally married to Matt. Of course the reader can see already that these two are perfect for each other and destined to live happily ever after, but it will take some doing for Matt and Meredith to reach that point. Aside from the years of misunderstanding and bitterness, they have problems involving their respective businesses, families, and relationships. And just when it looks like they are about to overcome their tragic past, they have an eleventh hour crisis that could tear them apart forever.
As I read Paradise this time through, I thought a lot about what makes it so special. One thing I truly appreciated is that McNaught doesn’t skimp on the reader. This book is over seven hundred pages long, and not a page is wasted. We are allowed to see Meredith as an awkward preteen, and we fully experience Matt and Meredith’s early romance. Frankly, I doubt a new author today could get such a long book published. I’m sure she would be told to reveal the early romance in flashback, which would have taken a lot of the power out of it. As it is we become thoroughly attached to Matt and Meredith before their tragic parting, which makes their separation much more poignant.
While most Big Misunderstandings make me grit my teeth in annoyance, Matt and Meredith’s Big Mis is a fundamental strength of the book. So often a misunderstanding is rooted in something truly idiotic, like the hero catching the heroine hugging another man, whom any idiot (except him) can tell is her brother. But the Big Mis here is perpetrated, believably, by Meredith’s controlling father. Matt and Meredith are in love, but they are both naïve, and both fail to understand just how far her father is willing to go to separate them. The three hanky scene in which Meredith miscarries and calls and calls for Matt is utterly heartbreaking. It always reminds me of a similar scene in Gone With the Wind, which, come to think of it, also occurs after a miscarriage. Scarlett calls for Rhett, and nobody hears her; Rhett is in another room wishing and wishing that she would call his name. Every time I read it I want to insert myself in the book somehow and fix things, which is just how I feel with Matt and Meredith. The payoff comes in the incredibly touching scene when Meredith finds out about her father’s deception and tells Matt the truth. The intense emotional power of this moment gets me every time.
But perhaps the real reason this book works so well is that the characters are lovable and real. Yes, they are both stunning, and yes, they are both rich. But both are the kind of people you can root for. They both have to overcome prejudice; Matt has his impoverished past, and Meredith has a controlling father with an unfair gender bias. When Meredith and Matt are together, they truly enjoy each other’s company, even when they are in the midst of their misconceptions about each other. They are flanked by a cast of secondary characters who really add to the story, and their respective business scenes are always interesting.
I’ve enjoyed most of McNaught’s books, but Paradise is my favorite. This is a book that will make you cry buckets, but it will also make you believe in the power of love. Matt and Meredith endure heartbreaking loss, and eventually find joy in each other. Rereading it reminded me of all the things I love about romance. It is truly one of the best the genre has to offer.