The Key to Happily Ever After
The Key to Happily Ever After is the story of adversarial sisters and their romantic interests. Tif Marcelo has a keen understanding of the relationship space of sisters, how birth order affects that space, and how personal and professional emotions overlap when you have to work with your relatives.
Filipino-American sisters Marisol, Janelyn, and Pearl de la Rosa are co-owners of a preeminent wedding boutique, Rings & Roses, in Old Town Alexandria near Washington DC. The shop had been their mother’s baby, but upon retirement, she settled a third on each of her daughters. With the safety net of their mother’s experience and expertise whisked away, the sisters are now on their own.
Mari is the CEO, Jane is in charge of the finances, and Pearl is in charge of social media and marketing, but they all pitch in to support each other during the planning stages and, especially, during the execution of the wedding day. Mari likes to be in charge, and with her formidable organizing skills, is the main planner of their top clients’ weddings. As the logical, even-keeled middle sister, Jane has to always keep the peace between Mari and Pearl in their tempestuous relationship.
Pearl – a dreamy girl who goes with her gut instinct on things and doesn’t always dot all the Is and cross all the Ts – feels unappreciated and overlooked in their business partnership. She is ready to take on the role of head planner for a top client, but Mari always resists the idea, saying that it is too much of a risk, Pearl won’t be able to keep up with all the details and meticulously manage them, and Pearl needs more mentoring.
Ate Mari (big sister) has a typical older sister syndrome; she’s exacting, overbearing, and controlling. However, for a brief period in her twenties, she lived an unsafe, dangerous life, and her actions caused trauma to Pearl when she was only fifteen. Mari’s guilt and attempt to course-correct by expecting perfection from herself and Pearl has blighted their personal relationship and is having a deep impact on their work as well.
How badly will Mari and Pearl’s adversarial relationship affect their ability to work together for the best of Rings & Roses in terms of financial success and marketing success as the wedding planner in the greater DC area? And what is in store for all three of these women individually and together?
The romances in the novel are well done. They are the perfect moments of grace in the book and stand out as a contrast from the acrimony between the sisters. The tender moments allow both sisters to show a side of their personalities that had been hitherto hidden from the reader. Marcelo deftly weaves the soft and tough complexities of both women into the narrative of the story.
There is no growth arc for Pearl or Mari for most of the book and thus, the story does not have a forward drive and seemed mired in an eddy of discontent. The two women weren’t learning from their mistakes with each other, and even when their relationship was in jeopardy, rapprochement seemed antithetical to them. Even when their sisterhood could be irrevocably broken, they were adamant in their self-righteous positions, and this lack of progress in their relationship really sank my grade for the book.
While Marcelo keeps the tension of ‘can-they-would-they’ beautifully taut through the narrative, ultimately, it felt counterproductive. Relationships are built and solidified by scaffolding positive interactions and compromises, which then become resilient to setbacks. Pearl and Mari’s familial bond only seemed to have setbacks with no self-reflection on their part other than to ruminate on their entrenched viewpoints. I cannot get behind a story where the characters lack the willingness to put in the hard work to right the wrongs. While there is some resolution towards the end, it was a case of too little too late and not completely believable.
Overall, while The Key to Happily Ever After did not completely work for me, the characterization is complex and the interactions between the sisters are done with finesse and a steady guiding hand. I have a qualified recommendation for the story.