Judith Arnold tells stories that focus on real people living regular lives. When I pick up one of her books, I know not to expect high drama and nonstop excitement. Instead, I’ll likely find believable characters, relatable situations, and a sweet love story. The Fixer Upper is quintessential Arnold, delivering all of the above.
Libby Kimmelman is the Director of Admissions at the Hudson School, one of the finest private schools in Manhattan. Parents will do anything to get their children into Hudson. During admissions season, Libby finds herself inundated with gifts, flattering notes, and applications that grossly exaggerate each child’s talents and abilities. After dealing with so many pushy parents, it comes as a relief to find Eric Donovan’s application in the massive pile of submissions. The ten-year-old wrote his own essay – an unusual touch – and describes his unhappiness in his overcrowded public school. In a sea of over-the-top applications, his sincerity shines through and immediately strikes Libby’s interest.
Ned Donovan didn’t even know his son had applied to Hudson. He and Eric recently moved to the city from Vermont to start over after the death of his wife. They’ve made the transition to city life reasonably well, except that Eric isn’t happy in his new school. Hudson seems like paradise in comparison, and the boy has set his hopes on going there. The titular fixer upper, Ned works restoring old buildings, and while they’re not poor, he can’t afford $35,000 a year for private school. But once he learns that Eric applied, he’s determined to do whatever he can to make sure his son gets into the school. He goes to meet with Libby to ask about the admissions process and financial aid.
Libby can’t help but notice how rugged and charismatic Ned Donovan is, but of course she can’t get involved with the parent of an applicant. But almost before she knows it, Ned becomes a part of her life, first because of his interest in her apartment’s marble fireplace, then because of his interest in her.
This is the kind of story Arnold specializes in, a low-key, completely character-driven read told with a great deal of warmth. There’s not much in the way of a plot or external action and no real drama. What makes a book like this work is the characters, and the ones Arnold gathers here are all very engaging. I liked both Libby and Ned, particularly the latter. One thing that I appreciated about them is that they come across like good parents, especially Ned, who seems like a very good father. Despite all the kids flooding romancedom, it’s not often that romance characters strike me as realistic parents. More often than not, the kids seem like props and any parenting the hero and heroine have to do is dictated by the requirements of the plot. That’s not the case here, and Libby and Ned’s believability really worked for me. Beyond that, they’re just real people dealing with the same complications of everyday life we all face. As in the real world (and unlike most romances), Ned and Libby have a lot going on day to day and can’t just drop everything to concentrate on their love lives. As a result, the love story between Ned and Libby isn’t the main focus, but one of several unfolding storylines in the book.
Ned deals with hassles on his latest job site. Libby’s teenage daughter Reva becomes more rebellious, and Libby tries to cope with the changes in her child. Meanwhile, Libby receives notice from the owners of her building that she’ll either have to buy her apartment or move out. There’s no way she can afford the quarter-million dollar price, but she doesn’t want to leave the only home her daughter’s ever known. She may have no choice but to ask her ex-husband Harry, a successful attorney, to help her out, no matter how much she would hate to do so.
This is a leisurely read that smoothly navigates through all the various storylines. As with most books with so many story threads, some are stronger than others. I have to admit my eyes glazed over every time the focus moved to Reva, her crush on a street musician she discovers in Central Park, and all her tedious adolescent crises. But Arnold writes with a great deal of warmth that keeps this a smooth, enjoyable read. There’s a certain generosity of spirit to her writing. There’s not an unsympathetic character in the book. Characters who might be painted negatively in most authors’ books, like the ex-husband, aren’t so simplistic here. Reva isn’t a brat, but an ordinary teenage girl. All the characters are more nuanced like that. In addition, the New York setting and the people who live there are captured perfectly, giving the story an unmistakable sense of place. It’s not the slick, glossy Manhattan of all those books trying to emulate Sex and the City. While the characters inhabit a somewhat rarified world, they’re just normal people.
At times, the story is a little too nice, to the point where it strains credibility in some moments. My only real reservation though was the ease with which Libby and Ned enter into their relationship despite the clear conflict of interest given Libby’s job. Instead of having the characters deal with it head-on, the author mostly glosses over the implications until late in the book, when she uses it to try and dredge up some conflict in a story that otherwise has none. As a result, when it does come up, it feels forced and nearly derails the whole story. Without getting into spoilers, not only does it make one of the characters look foolish, it’s overcome so easily it amounts to little more than a lame misunderstanding.
The Fixer Upper isn’t a gripping page-turner, nor is it meant to be. But for readers looking for stories about real, likable characters, that’s precisely its appeal. It’s light without being fluffy, making for a nicely enjoyable read.