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Blackjack
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Beauty and the Mustache, Penny Reid (A) Although Beauty and the Mustache does not displace Dating-ish as my favorite book in the Knitting in the City series, it is right up there. It’s also quite different from the others in tone and setting, but like all the others, Reid constructs an organic story that feels unique and perfectly suited for the two main characters here.

Ashley Winston has built a very nice life for herself as a pediatric nurse in Chicago that includes close friends who have become her chosen family after having abandoned her biological family in Tennessee many years early. As the story begins, Ashley is reluctantly arriving back in her small hometown to see her mother after learning that she has been suddenly hospitalized. She receives a lukewarm reception from her six brothers who, we quickly learn, have missed her but have also felt hurt by her failure to return for visits over the years. Very early into the novel, Ashley discovers that her mother is dying of cervical cancer. The fact that she is only 47 was a particularly sobering moment for me. Much of the first half of the novel revolves around her mother’s dying and Ashley’s caretaking, and having lost my mother at a young age, I admit to tearing up frequently. The mother-daughter bonding scenes are poignant and lovely and terribly sad to read. Despite their physical separation over the past ten years, it turns out that Ashley and her mother spoke daily on the phone, and very importantly to the plot of this novel, that the mother extolled her pride in her “Ash” by talking her up frequently to a beloved family friend, Drew Runous. Much to Drew’s chagrin, he has become caught up in the stories of the wonderful “Ash” without ever once realizing that this person is actually a woman. The realization for him provides some early funny moments, but they also provide some deeply romantic ones as Drew struggles to temper his long-held admiration and respect for this missing figure in his life with his strong attraction to the young beauty. “Ash” as an imaginary man was an enigmatic figure who Drew just knew would become an instant friend and important person in his life, therefore the return of Ash, the former beauty queen, is enormously unsettling for him. I have to admit that I really liked this particular storyline because it creates much complexity to the instant love/attraction more typical in romances. It also bemuses Ashley that Drew seems to know her and understand her despite having just met her.

Drew is, I think, meant to be another eccentric Reid character, but he felt very clear to me. He is on the surface a grumpy hero, which I tend to love. Underneath his quietness and at times persnickety-ness, as Ashley calls it, he is quite deep. He’s highly educated and prone to being a deep reader and thinker. He eschews casual sex and superficiality of all kinds in life, but he also decides very early that he needs to keep his feelings for Ashley somewhat submerged. It’s impossible to read this story without appreciating greatly just how worthy Drew is for his selflessness and willingness to be there for Ashley in any way that she needs. He understands fully that the loss of her mother is devastating and he decides quickly that he will be her rock.

Drew’s much-needed strength and support for Ashley leads to the other emotional storyline that turned me into quite a teary reader. Ashley has debilitating self-esteem issues from her childhood in a small town where she is the daughter of a low-life rake. Her father abandoned the entire family when she was a teenager, but not before wreaking havoc on all of them in different ways. With Ashley, the havoc is of a sexual nature and some of the scenes where Ashley is recalling how much she has allowed herself to accept views of herself as a “pretty face” and “disposable piece of ass” for men really affected me. So many young women imbibe sexist images and perspectives, and Ashley’s childhood stories hit a nerve.

The romance here is a lovely one. I could find small details that didn’t work as well as I wanted, but I’m not going to bother because the overall story here is a powerful one and I loved it. Added bonus for the introduction of the Winston bros and their separate and wonderful series of books.