Anyone But You, by Jennifer Crusie

>> Thursday, February 02, 2006

My favourite Jennifer Crusie novels are three, and they rotate in and out of the first spot depending on my mood. Two of them are the ones that are typically everyone's favourites: Bet Me and Welcome To Temptation, but the third is one that is slightly less well known: Anyone But You ("reissue note from Jenny" and Chapter 1), a category romance published in the Love & Laughter line some 10 years ago. Not that it's completely unknown, of course (it's even just been reissued in HC), but it tends not to be mentioned as frequently as other titles.

Part basset, part beagle, all Cupid . . . can a matchmaking hound fetch a new love for his owner?

For Nina Askew, turning forty means freedom -- from the ex-husband whose career always came first, from their stuffy suburban home. Freedom to have her own apartment in the city, freedom to focus on what she wants for a change. And what she wants is something her ex always vetoed -- a puppy. A bouncy puppy to cheer her up. Instead she gets . . . Fred.

Overweight, smelly and obviously suffering from some kind of doggy depression, Fred is light-years from perky. But for all his faults, he does manage to put Nina face-to-face with Alex Moore, her gorgeous, younger downstairs neighbor.

Alex looks great on paper -- a sexy, seemingly sane, surprisingly single E.R. doctor who shares Fred's abiding love for Oreos -- but a ten-year difference in age, despite his devastating smile, is too wide a gap for Nina to handle. Ignoring her insistent best friend, some interfering do-gooders and the ubiquitous Fred -- not to mention her suddenly raging hormones -- Nina thinks anyone but Alex would be a better bet for a relationship. But with every silver-haired stiff she dates, the more she suspects it's the young dog-loving doctor she wants to sit and stay!
Anyone But You is what series romance can be and almost never is: just as great as a great single title. It's books like this one that prove that just because a book is in category format it doesn't mean that it will be any less satisfying. An A.

Nina Askew married young and married her first lover. But after some 20 years of being the perfect big-shot lawyer's wife, spending her life devoted to the career of a husband who'd become a stranger, she got fed up and left him. A year later, she's living in an old converted Victorian house, has a job as an editor and, though she really likes her life, she's a bit lonely. She thinks the perfect solution to that would be to get a cute, perky, bouncy puppy, so she heads over to the Humane Society. Only instead of that cute puppy, she gets Fred.

I loved, loved, loved Nina and Alex, and I adored Charity, Max, Norma and all that wonderful cast of secondary characters, but I have to admit it: Fred is the true star of the book. Fred is the very opposite of a perky puppy. He's "part basset, part beagle, part manic-depressive". Fat, ugly, old, stinky, he's nonetheless one of the most loveable characters I've ever read. And yes, he very definitely is a full-grown character. He's got more personality in his front right paw than many human characters I've read. He's also the spark of some of the funniest scenes I've ever read.

Er, sorry for going into paroxisms of Fred-love. Back to our scheduled program: Nina brings Fred home, and on his very first day, Fred brings Alex. See, Nina's on the third floor of a building without elevator, so instead of climbing up and down the stairs with Fred, she teaches him to climb down the fire escape to the enclosed back yard (and those scenes had me rolling on the floor with laughter). But Fred has trouble telling one window from another, and goes into the second floor one, where Alex lives.

Alex is 30 years old to Nina's 40 and he's an emergency doctor who's trying to resist family pressure to a) move into another, more lucrative specialty, b) settle down with one of the nice young women he dates, and c) have children. He wants to do neither of the above. Like Nina, Alex enjoys his life, except that he would like to be with a woman who likes him for himself, not because he's a doctor.

When he meets Nina, he's immediately extremely attracted to her, and vice versa. They become friends, and the sexual tension ratchets up like crazy, but the age thing is an issue in both their minds.

This was something I very much liked: that both had issues with the age difference. Nina has the more typical ones (though not for being typical are they any less believable or understandable). She's insecure about her body, she fears that she'll look ridiculous to people and become a joke, the dirty old lady cruising the local high school in a convertible. It didn't become at all annoying, it simply felt natural.

But it was Alex's insecurities about age that made the book so great. For him, age is irrelevant in how he feels about Nina. To him, she's more beautiful and more desirable than any other woman, whatever their age. That's not the problem. Age is relevant, however, in how he fears Nina may see him. He's afraid Nina will feel he's immature, and see him as a kid, that her marriage has made her used to things that he won't be able to give her.

Obviously, both their insecurities are completely unjustified, because they each love the other just as the other is, but they make for a powerful conflict. I wasn't completely satisfied with the resolution of Alex's, however, and that's the only negative the book has. I mean, I loved the direction in which Crusie took the story there, but it needed more space than it got. That final conflict, resulting from Alex's conviction that Nina wants all that Guy could give her, ends up feeling a bit glossed over. I wanted to see events as they happened, not to simply be told about them! I wanted to see Nina slowly realizing what's going on, how the vision of the perfect life with Alex slowly degenerates into a vision of Guy II. And I wanted to see scenes like that dinner at Alex's parents' house.

But that was only enough to knock the + from my A. And it was more than compensated by the other brilliant, wonderful stuff in the book, like the secondary characters, for instance, or my personal favourite: the fact that Alex and Nina did not want to have children. I don't need the heroes and heroines of my romance novels to want exactly what I want out of life, to be made happy by what would make *me* happy. I want their HEA to be one that's appropriate to who they are, and that often means kids, which is something that prominently doesn't figure in my personal dream HEA. Still, it's nice to sometimes see the message in a romance novel that a HEA without kids is also perfectly valid, and this particular part of the plot was especially nice for me.


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