The One Real Thing
In The One Real Thing, Ms. Young introduces readers to the shore town of Hartwell, Delaware and the business owners of Hart’s Boardwalk. Our heroine is Jessica, a brilliant doctor who is in desperate need of a fresh start. Bar owner Cooper is happy to be her guide. As they find their happily ever after together, readers become acquainted with this sprawling cast of characters, setting up future stories.
When we meet Jessica Huntington, she’s working as a doctor in a women’s prison in Delaware. I got the immediate impression that she keeps herself and her life small. The author establishes that the job is not really a great fit for her (it’s not medically challenging nor socially stimulating), but her co-workers express gratitude that she’s there. She seems a quiet person, someone who is determined to get through life making as few waves as possible, staying tight into herself and herself alone.
While going through some old books in the prison library, she discovers love letters written by an inmate to a man in a nearby coastal town. Feeling a stronger connection to those letters than anything else in her life, she takes a much overdue vacation and sets out for Hartwell.
Upon arrival in town, she stumbles into Cooper Lawson’s pub. Cooper’s family has owned the boardwalk booze palace for generations and he is desperate to keep it that way. He’s got a drama-llama of an ex-wife and a wealthy family preying on his financial weaknesses, both of which have led him to an emotional posture of withdrawal. Jessica’s appearance changes that immediately.
As the story progresses, Jessica meets Cooper’s friends and family, getting drawn further and further into the community. In Hartwell, the author has created a small town which many romance readers will find familiar. There’s history between these people and there are futures which will exist even if readers never encounter them. The world is small but rich; I could smell the sea air as I read.
As Jessica and Cooper try to build a life together, they have to deal with conflicts large and small. The ex-wife is a presence, Jessica is still determined to get to the bottom of the letters, the financial precariousness of seasonal businesses is a frequent issue, as well as interpersonal dynamics between residents. These events serve to cement Cooper and Jessica as a couple, and also to firmly fix this fictional world as one rich enough to explore in future books.
I adored Ms. Young’s previous On Dublin Street series and was eager to read this new one. In that series, she specialized in sprawling tribes of friends who are more family than acquaintances and in creating senses of place that centered the evolving relationships. I was pleased to see that those skills have continued here. As a Scottish author who previously wrote about Scotland, I was a little dubious she’d be able to enliven an American location. While I think there is some room for growth in this new world, it’s one I’m ready to revisit.
I hope some of Hartwell’s connections to the rest of the state and area are explored in further works. Loyalty to shore towns is something many folks feel strongly about (my family has been connected to the same one for several generations and to suggest we should go elsewhere is blasphemy), and I love to know who comes to Hartwell and how the vacationers effect the locals. I hope to read more about some of the transplants (there’s a mysterious bookshop owner I’m particularly curious about) and why they chose to make Hartwell home.
As for the people, I think that sense of ‘framily’, as I call it, is strong here. I’m excited to get to know everyone a little better and to see how their stories play off each other as the series progresses. Loss and trauma and choice are themes Ms. Young plays with frequently, so I’m sure they will continue to make an appearance in these books.
Where The One Real Thing was a little bit of a slog for me was in all of Jessica’s inner monologues. I found some of her motivations and fears a touch unconvincing and I never really enjoyed spending time with her. I can see how she’s perfect for Cooper and I definitely rooted for them, but I didn’t ever really root for her. That smallness of self that I referenced earlier gave off a Disney-princess-wounded-bird vibe I never really connected with.
Overall, I really liked the book. It’s a promising set-up for a new series I hope to return to again and again. The story up next, about Bailey the hotel owner, is already pre-ordered. I think anyone who likes realistic contemporaries where the emotional connections are explored as deeply as the physical ones will find a lot to love in this novel.