Emily Parker is in a transition period. She’s fresh out of a dream-drowning relationship and is filling her time by living with and caring for her sister and niece in Willow Creek, Maryland, while her sister recovers from a car accident. Her niece wants to spend her summer doing the Renaissance Faire, and soon Emily finds herself committing to act as pseudo guardian and tavern wench. She’s not thrilled, but what really gets her goat is the faire’s boss, Simon Graham, English teacher and Renaissance pirate.
Simon is the aloof but bossy ruler of his Shakespearean kingdom (he ‘inherited’ it from his brother) and Emily is not pleased to be dwelling in it. She’s sensitive about her life choices – particularly her decision to not get an education when she had the chance – and is hyper-aware of potential slights. Consequently, she interprets Simon’s disdainful behavior as expressing a personal objection to her. The only time they get along is at the faire, where they share an ongoing storyline that has her tavern wench character and his pirate character falling for each other. It all begins when they get put together in a fake handfasting ceremony, and soon they’re making out without an audience and she’s watching him sword fight, realizing that perhaps the pirate life could be for her after all.
Well Met’s heroine is one of the book’s greatest assets. Emily starts the book saying, “I didn’t choose the wench life. The wench life chose me”, but she is a sort of modern wench – she’s rather foul-mouthed and is, in fact, a former bartender. The thing I liked most about her was her gratitude. Ms. DeLuca could easily have written a character who was grumpy for most of the book, full of derision for the small town she ended up in and consumed with thoughts of how much more she deserved from life. Emily, blessedly, is not that way at all. She’s aware that of all the places she could be, Willow Creek is a good one, and she sees the best in the people she meets and in the peace of small-town life (Maryland never seemed so appealing).
Simon, our hero, is a little less vivid, and this has a lot to do with Ms. DeLuca’s choice to tell the story entirely from Emily’s first person PoV instead of including the first- or third-person narration of both heroine and hero. The overarching impression I had of Simon was of a sweet, rather melancholy man (it should come as no surprise that he’s not 100% Pure Disdain). He has a sad backstory involving his family history that Emily views as a mystery (which is no credit to her intelligence – I figured out the big secret early on). This backstory defines him almost completely and I would have liked to see him portrayed with more depth, but stuck as we are in Emily’s head, we miss out on that opportunity.
The story subverts a few expectations and features some pleasantly original secondary characters that Ms. DeLuca deserves praise for. There’s Mitch, Willow Creek’s brawny gym teacher, who plays the role of a kilted Scot in the faire. He’s a sort of decoy hero, representing the jacked-up, alpha Highland man you can find in many romances (I confess that I am usually far more drawn to those sorts of heroes than I am to beta-male English teachers). Additionally, a key part of Emily’s story is that she dropped out of college and is struggling to figure out where that leaves her professionally. I liked the way Ms. DeLuca resolves that storyline because I felt she does so in a way that isn’t unbelievable for Emily’s character or financial state, nor does it feel like a cheap attempt at writing an ‘empowering’ story.
Then of course there’s the matter of bawdiness. When I think of tavern wenches and tight bodices and the era of Shakespeare, I think of an unapologetic sexiness, and a peerless ability to tell dirty jokes and stuff every conversation with innuendo. Well Met isn’t a heavily erotic book, but it’s sensual, and features a truly superb naughty joke involving emojis (my actual note was ‘OH MY GOD HOW SAUCY’), and the sex scenes are an excellent reflection of the characters – very tender and thoughtful. Simon isn’t the sort of man who tosses a woman onto the bed and growls at her. However – and this is just a personal Pet Peeve – it seems to me that if you’re going to write about a Renaissance Faire and have your two main characters play the roles of tavern wench and pirate, at least one scene with some roleplay in the bedroom wouldn’t go amiss ;)
So, considering all of the above, why do I hesitate to recommend the book? Despite everything about it that is good, I felt a pervasive detachment from Well Met. The best way I can describe the reading experience is that it’s like talking to someone over the dessert table at a social event; you’re relieved when you find they’re articulate and pleasant, and they make the subsequent hour of socialization easier, but you won’t be pursuing a friendship afterwards. Trying to work out why I felt that way, all I can say is that while the book has a lot of strengths, it is not superlative in any way: the writing isn’t especially distinct, the love scenes aren’t terribly fervent, and I never thought to myself that I would just love to end up with a man like Simon. This reality is why I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Well Met. Alas.