Yours to Keep
Discovering Shannon Stacey’s books was one of my reading highlights for 2010. So I was extremely excited to be able to review her third book about the Kowalski family. Yours to Keep has Ms. Stacey’s trademark humor and great dialogue but with the fairly predictable story arc, the book lost steam for me in the second half.
After completing his tour in Afghanistan and twelve years in the military, Sean Kowalski has just been discharged. Saying he is happy to be back in the United States is an understatement. While he is close to his siblings, he never liked the fact that as a lodge, his family home always has strangers around. Visiting his Aunt Mary, Uncle Leo, and his cousins Joe, Terry, Mike, and Kevin, his second family, seems like the perfect solution to get him out of the lodge. Kevin has offered him the apartment above his bar so his first stop is to stash his belongings and check out his new place. Deciding that the large sofa is perfect for a power nap he dozes off, but is woken by a knock on the door. Upon answering it he comes face to face with a woman with masses of curly dark hair, tall lean body that revs his motor. Her introduction of, “I’m Emma Shaw. . . your fake fiancée” surprises the heck out of him as does his request that he pretend to be her fiancé.
Emma Shaw is a self-sufficient, independent woman, who has her own landscaping business but a worrywart of a grandmother. Her parents died when she was four years old and she was raised by her grandparents. Her grandfather died, and a few years ago Emma convinced her grandmother Cat to move to Florida and enjoy her retirement among friends. While Cat may have moved, she can’t stop obsessing over her granddaughter’s wellbeing and safety especially since Emma lives alone in a large New England farm house. To ease her worry, Emma makes up a boyfriend and then fiancé. Since she is close friends with Lisa, Mike’s wife she is privy to all the Kowalski family’s information about Sean. So when her grandmother asks for details about her boyfriend, Sean’s history just pops out of Emma’s mouth. Now her grandmother is coming to visit, and Emma needs a fake fiancé for the month. How serendipitous that Sean is going to be in town at the same time.
Sean initially turns her down, but after thinking about it, he agrees to play the part, especially since he understands her motivation. In the past, he downplayed an accident to Aunt Mary to keep her from fretting. Forced together by proximity, and their outlandish scheme, Emma and Sean decide there is no reason the relationship has to be platonic since neither have plans for anything long term.
First, let me tell you about all the great things about the book. The family dynamics resonate perfectly with me, so much so that I felt like it had been lifted from my own. The caring, the kidding, the day-to-day activities, and the dialogue all are a slice of contemporary life. Included in the story is a scene with Sean in the grocery store, taking his time looking at every product and driving Emma crazy. When she chides him about this, his retort that he has “only had what Uncle Sam saw fit to issue him, and his care packages from his family” really moved me and brought home the fact that the simple things we take for granted are unavailable to many of our men and women in the military. The humor had me laughing out loud numerous times. Ms. Stacey knows the male psyche. Methodical Emma has a spiral notebook filled with facts about her to assist Sean with the deception, but Sean dismisses that as nonsense, making fun of her manual, saying “I am a guy. I like guy stuff. Steak. Football. Beer. Women.” This backfires on him when Emma’s welcome dinner for her grandmother includes broccoli, a much disliked vegetable.
To buy into the plot, you have to believe that the end justifies the means. Initially I didn’t have a problem with that but in her effort to convince her grandmother of the validity of her boyfriend, Emma, with the help of Lisa, sends photoshopped pictures of Sean to her grandmother. Emma puts the pictures out before her grandmother arrives, and Sean comments on how creepy it makes him feel. While I know that this is written to be funny, it felt more disquieting, the remaking of memories rather than Emma being able to have a heartfelt conversation with the grandmother she loves. That along with a plot device by Emma’s grandmother and Sean’s Aunt Mary tested my willingness to suspend disbelief, especially since the other family interactions seemed so realistic.
The sexual attraction between Sean and Emma is red hot, which is good in one way, but with so much emphasis on this, ultimately I felt that the emotional connection suffered and I couldn’t help wondering at times whether Emma and Sean were infatuated rather than in love. The plot device of a no strings sexual relationship is difficult to pull off since it is understood at the beginning each will go their own way at the end, resulting in minimum conflict. And while I can’t fault Ms. Stacey, lately it just seems like these setups are the plot du jour for contemporary books. While I can’t go into details, Sean’s decision at the end seemed rushed and impulsive.
With a combination of plot devices working and not working for me, it was a little difficult for me to assign a grade. The plot devices that worked for me were extremely well executed and I really like the author’s style, but the ones that didn’t work added up and made the book fairly predictable. I wavered back and forth on grades, but since I did primarily like this one and I suspect readers that like a lot of humor and sizzle will find plenty to like as well, it does deserve a recommendation.