The Return features an enjoyable writing style and generally likable characters. Generally likable, that is, aside from main character Ashley Chambers, who was problematic for me, so problematic that the book is not one I can recommend.
The Return is a sequel to Allen’s 1999 book, For Molly, where Ashley’s story began, and takes place some 11 years or so after that one left off. During the intervening years, Ashley married Jack Chambers, and together they are raising her daughter, Molly, and running the pharmacy she inherited from her father. But Jack’s having a mid-life crisis and he continues to be the ladies’ man. And while Ashley loves her husband, she frequently pines for the one she let get away – not once, but twice.
Doug Fairchild is now a state Senator, up for re-election. There is not a great deal of contact between Ashley and him, since she avoids him whenever he revisits their hometown of Pineville, Louisiana. The second time she sent him away was into the arms of a prominent politician’s daughter who could ease his way into a political career, but seeing him is painful and dangerous to Ashley’s resolve.
It was pretty obvious to me by the time I was ten pages in to this story that it would involve the reappearance of Ashley’s abusive ex-husband, Rick LeNoir (not exactly a subtle moniker, is it?). I also figured that this would end up being a love story between Ashley and Doug (the tip-off was probably the dedication page, which included “For … fans of Doug everywhere”). And although I liked the entertaining glimpse of small-town life, the realistic rhythms of workdays and holiday parties and commemorations among people who have lived side-by-side for generations, my annoyance with Ashley’s character pretty much neutralized whatever enjoyment I might have otherwise derived from this book.
In a nutshell, she is TSTL times two; a too-stupid-to-love heroine who engages in too-stupid-to-live behavior on more than one occasion. Had she not been so utterly clueless, this book would not have even been necessary, because she would have acted like a reasonably sentient being at the end of the last one and married Doug instead of sending him away. Further, having experienced the depth of her ex-husband’s insanity, she would have shown the good sense to at least give the appearance of docility when she fell into his grasp once again, rather than continually tweaking the tiger’s tail.
I read For Molly back when it was first published. I didn’t remember it, but references to Ashley’s final scene with Doug, before she sent him off to marry the aforementioned politician’s daughter, kept nagging at my memory, until I did a search through some old reviews I had written for another site and found one I had written on that story. Based on my review, I liked the book, and although I probably wasn’t too happy with how it ended, I took into account that it was fiction, not romance. My sense, from reading the dedication in The Return, is that fans wanted Doug’s story, and wanted him back with Ashley. It’s only a guess, of course. For whatever reason, I don’t think this sequel was a wise choice on Allen’s part. Not only did I feel emotionally manipulated by this book (and not in the good way that I experience with a satisfying love story), but it cast a pall over whatever positive memories my subconscious may have harbored about the previous one.
Ashley is a nice enough person, but after awhile she seemed relentlessly whiny and obtuse, especially considering that she was simply experiencing the inevitable consequences of her perpetually poor choices. I kept asking myself, “Why does this woman not want to be happy?” Jack is no ogre; in fact, he’s a charming rogue, the life of the party, everyone loves him. He’s a great guy to have as a friend – and absolutely lousy husband material. And, of course, Ashley knew when she chose him over Doug that he was a ladies’ man, with one failed marriage on the books and a determination never to be domesticated. In Ashley’s “world,” Jack qualified as the right choice. And I might have bought that; in fact I apparently did buy the notion, when I closed the final page on For Molly, that Jack was an acceptable alternative when the man she really loved was meant for bigger things than small-town marital bliss. Having to wade through 294 pages of Ashley ruminating on and valiantly “suffering” for that choice, and dragging the entire community of Pineville, Louisiana, along to comfort and console her through the traumatic events she and Molly have to endure so that she can finally “see the light,” did nothing to endear her to me.
Maybe I just don’t “get” Ashley. As charming as Jack is, the fact remains that he’s overly flirtatious with every woman he meets, he may have had an affair (he claims he met her for dinner in New Orleans but did not sleep with her, other people suggest that he slept not only with her but with numerous others) and even when he’s begging her for another chance, it’s with the rationalization that, “I can’t help myself, Ashley. It’s a sickness.” Of course, the trump card he plays, agreeing to give Ashley the baby she’s been badgering him for over the past 11 years, makes perfect sense to her: Got a troubled marriage? Have a baby! In Ashley’s “world,” it may entice him to stay home once in awhile instead of abandoning her every weekend to hunt, fish and play with friends. And if it doesn’t turn out to be the magic answer to her marital woes, oh well, “it certainly couldn’t hurt.” The woman needs a keeper.
It’s the psychotic ex-husband, Rick, who gets the task of setting Ashley on the path she missed so many years before, even though he doesn’t actually make an appearance till some 180 pages into the story. Up till then, he’s merely the anonymous watcher with a demented laugh in the prologue, and while the reader may rightly conclude that certain intervening events are his handiwork, Ashley never suspects he’s anywhere near her. Why would she? She had divorced him and run away with Molly some fifteen years before. Personally, I have a difficult time buying into the idea that he would still be obsessed enough to come after her; but that scenario is not nearly as hard to swallow as the revelation that he’d been hanging around watching her, an unnoticed and benign presence, all that time.
The author does make an attempt to explain Ashley’s poor romantic choices, sort of. Her high school sweetheart, the first love of her life (and she apparently has many), died in a tragic accident. Throughout this story, Ashley presents various explanations for how that loss affected her: that she no longer believes in true love, that sometimes love is not a head-over-heels giddy feeling but “about being with someone special” and that she’s more jaded and worldly than that teenaged girl, “sure of what she wants and what she’s willing to put up with to have it, knowing that a certain amount of misery is to be expected when one makes the mistake of falling in love.” Well, I didn’t “get” it, but if this makes any kind of sense to you, you may enjoy The Return far better than I did.