The Next Always, by Nora Roberts

>> Sunday, May 05, 2013

TITLE: The Next Always
AUTHOR: Nora Roberts

PAGES: 352
PUBLISHER: Berkley trade

SETTING: Contemporary US
TYPE: Romance
SERIES: Starts the Inn BoonsBoro trilogy

The historic hotel in BoonsBoro, Maryland, has endured war and peace, changing hands, even rumored hauntings. Now it's getting a major facelift from the Montgomery brothers and their eccentric mother. As the architect of the family, Beckett's social life consists mostly of talking shop over pizza and beer. But there's another project he's got his eye on: the girl he's been waiting to kiss since he was fifteen...

Roberts' latest trilogy, called Inn BoonsBoro, is centred around 3 brothers who are refurbishing a run-down former inn and turning into a literary-themed luxury B&B. This first entry focuses on Beckett Montgomery, the easygoing, cheerful brother, and Clare, the owner of the town's independent bookstore. Beckett has always had a big crush on Clare, ever since they were teens. Unfortunately for him, Clare fell in love young and married her high-school boyfriend. They moved away when he joined the military, but a few years (and three kids) later, Clare was widowed and decided to return home. Beckett has been cautiously circling her ever since then, waiting for the right time to do something about it.

This is a series that has received very lukewarm reviews, with several people whose opinions I respect even characterising it as plotless 'house porn'. Understandably, then, I wasn't particularly excited to read it. In the end, I picked it up mainly motivated by the same type of inertia that keeps me reading JAK's books.

And at first, I thought it was exactly what I was expecting. There was A LOT of detail on the inn's renovation, and though it did sound gorgeous, it got old very quickly. All the inn stuff completely overshadowed the romance, too. Not that the romance was, at first, much to call home about. It was a boring one, as it felt like there was no tension at all, no conflict or obstacles.

And then, sneakily, the romance started to grow on me. Beckett and Clare became fun, and Clare, especially, started to behave in ways I wasn't expecting. She felt a bit wet at the beginning, and I thought she was going to be all reluctant about getting involved with someone else, because she didn't want to risk being hurt again / betray her dead husband / introduce her kids to someone new, just in case (take your pick. I've read all sorts of combinations of these in romance novels with widowed heroines). She wasn't. While she clearly loved her late husband deeply, and she was a great mother and devoted to the boys, she didn't have any such hangups, and went for what she wanted. It was refreshing. I really liked her and Beckett together.

Their relationship is not just about the romance, but about Beckett and Clare's three little ones. I'll be honest: Clare’s life would be hell on earth for me. I read about the little day-to-day details; getting three rambunctious boys ready for school every single morning, knowing that dates might well be cut short if anything happens to any of the children, etc., etc., and shivered. But she clearly loves it, and so does Beckett, so reading about him carving a place in this routine, creating a relationship with the kids as well as with Clare, was lovely. It was also very funny and sweet. It's weird; I could go all awww and melt a little inside at things like the scene where Beckett and the boys have a Men’s Night, even while knowing it's not a life that would suit me.

I've said it before about NR's trilogies, but to me, they feel like a long book where the focus shifts from one couple to the other in each third. Clare and Beckett are clearly the main characters here, but their relationships with others (including the protagonists of the two upcoming books) are big parts of the story. I liked the relationship between the 3 female friends (Clare, Avery, who runs the pizza place across the street, and Hope, who moves to town to take over the running of the Inn). Roberts does female friendship well. They are supportive and good for each other, but not some sort of idealised perfection. And the Mongomery brothers feel like real brothers, although I did think it was interesting that there is no element of order of birth in the brothers’ relationship. In fact, I’m not sure which of the 3 is the oldest. I find that refreshing. Authors too often rely on this as a sort of shorthand -he’s like this because he’s the oldest, etc., when that’s not always necessarily the case (as my younger sister well knows!).

Another thing that Roberts' trilogies have in common is that there is always some kind of overarching storyline. Here it's partly the inn's renovation (which I admit is over-the-top detailed, but as I wasn't listening to the audiobook, it was easy enough to skim), but also the existence of a ghost who lives in it and who wants something. It's not the most exciting storyline ever (the ghost's pretty harmless, and there's no real tension -they’ve all accepted that there’s a ghost), but I'm interested in finding out more.

So, all in all, a surprisingly satisfying book, very much a comfort read.



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