Thursday, 4 January 2018

#CBR10 Book 3: "Sunset in Central Park" by Sarah Morgan

Page count: 384 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Francesca "Frankie" Cole's parents went through a fairly harrowing split when she was fourteen. Her father cheated with a much younger woman, left her mother as a broken-down wreck and walked out without ever looking back. Frankie was the one who had to try to pick up the pieces with the devastated parent she had left. After a period of mourning, her mother seemed to decide that enough was enough, cut her hair, lost a lot of weight and started borrowing her daughter's clothes, determined to sleep around just as much as her husband had. She didn't seem to be very discriminate about whether the men she chose were older, younger or married and on the small island where they lived, and everyone knew everyone else's business, Frankie's life went from bad to worse as her mother's reputation seemed to become automatically attached to her as well. Once Frankie left Puffin Island to go to college, she has never been back and she now tries to be as different from her mother as is humanly possible.

While her mother's attitude seems to be "If you've got it, flaunt it", Frankie never wears skirts or dresses (after a very unfortunate incident at prom, where someone seemed to think that since her mother liked to sleep around, Frankie did too). She prefers baggy, non-descript clothes and also wears thick-rimmed, specifically chosen unflattering glasses in public, clearly trying to hide herself away as much as possible. What few dating experiences she's had, seem to have been fairly awful. She's an introvert and deeply cynical and pretty much the opposite of her outgoing, romantic colleague and best friend Eva. One of the only men she feels comfortable around is Matt, her best friend Paige's older brother, who also happens to be her landlord. Since Paige and Frankie have been friends since they were four, Matt has been there for her most of her life, and also knows how much of a scandal Frankie's mother caused on Puffin Island.

While Matt might think he knows everything there is about Frankie, he's shocked to realise one evening that the glasses she's worn her entire adult life are not actually something she needs, but one of many defencive shields she uses to hide herself away from the world. He starts to wonder how much else he doesn't know about the fascinating woman he's been attracted to for so long. He knows that Frankie isn't romantic, and actively seems to want to avoid dating, but he's also pretty sure that his interest is not one-sided, and decides to take the plunge and move their relationship to the next level. Trying to coax Frankie out on a date is no easy feat, however.

Frankie is the second of the co-owners of Urban Genie, the events planning and concierge service company set up in Sleepless in Manhattan. She, along with her best friends Paige and Eva, grew up together on the idyllic Puffin Island outside Maine and moved to New York together after college. They ended up at the same company, and were fired at the same time. All three women live in Brooklyn, in a brownstone owned and restored by Paige's architect brother. They pay a very reasonable rent because Matt is well off, and it's clear that along with Matt's best friend (and now Paige's boyfriend) Jake, they are a close-knit group of friends, who tend to have movie nights every Friday on the beautiful roof terrace, or dinner together at Jake's adoptive mother's Italian restaurant.

Determined to make herself as different from her mother as possible, it's clear that Frankie might have gone a bit overboard. The fact that a lot of the guys she grew up with automatically assumed that she was "easy" and hence took liberties they shouldn't, is the reason she started learning karate at seventeen. She's never had a really successful or satisfying relationship with a man so far in her life, and one especially charming individual apparently told her that when it came to sex, she was a "D minus". Hence she's pretty much sworn off men entirely, claiming she's perfectly fine nursing her many, many plants (when they work together, Paige is the planner and organiser, Frankie deals with plants, horticulture and practical details, while Eva covers food, baking and all the romantic touches) and spending her nights reading rather than going on dates. Still, she does find Matt very attractive, and is really not entirely sure how to handle that, much to her two friends' amusement.

When Matt decides that enough is enough, and starts openly flirting and complimenting Frankie, she's entirely flustered and she goes into full-on panic mode when he actually asks her out. Terrified of commitment because of her parents' horrible divorce and burned by her previous awful dating experience, Frankie concludes that if she just kisses Matt, he'll see how terrible she is and give up on her - but that experiment backfires rather spectacularly. Surprising absolutely no one who's ever read a romance novel before, Frankie isn't bad at or hates intimacy and sex, she just hasn't had any good experiences, and therefore doesn't know what she's missing.

It was a nice role reversal from the other two books that here the heroine is the one who takes the longest to commit to the relationship and Frankie's depressing childhood and dating hang-ups are dealt with really well. I also appreciated that while it's quite clear that Frankie hates the way her mother jumps from guy to guy and is embarrassingly candid about her sexual experiences in front of anyone who will listen, and mortifies Frankie by hitting on her male friends (like Jake and Matt), there is no slut shaming here. Frankie can understand why her mother chooses to live her life the way she does, she just doesn't agree with it and feels embarrassed because her mother is the opposite of discreet. It's quickly established that while Eva wants all the details on every of her friends' romantic and sexual lives, Frankie and Paige would rather not have any (in Frankie's case, because they make her uncomfortable, in Paige's case, because Frankie starts dating her brother - and you really don't need those mental images). Neither Frankie nor her friends judge her mother, they just wish she didn't try to make Frankie over in her own image, and was a bit more aware of how intensely uncomfortable she makes her daughter.

A satisfying aspect of the book is also that Frankie isn't immediately "healed", just because she finally starts having a satisfying romantic and sexual relationship. There are good reasons for her reluctance to commit, her many fears and hang-ups and while Matt is a great and supportive guy, he needs to be patient while Frankie works through a lot of her issues. The scene where Frankie has spoken honestly with her mother about the divorce and how her father's abandonment and her mother's behaviour has made her feel and finally feels ready to tell Matt that she loves him is made so much more satisfying by the complicated series of events that take place when she comes to find him at their brownstone.

I have very much enjoyed all three books in the From Manhattan with Love series. From what I can see on Goodreads, Sarah Morgan has at least two other trilogies (one set on Puffin Island) out, as well as a few more books in this series (that clearly spun out from the original trilogy). I see myself spending a lot of time with her writing in the months to come.

Judging a book by its cover: Not a huge fan of pink in any situation, and I find it funny that Frankie's book is the one which gets the pink cover - since she seems to be as far from romance, pink and fluff as it's possible to get. Frankie loves the outdoors and plants, so Central Park is clearly a place she adores (which Matt knows, and it's where he takes her for their first date). On the other two covers, the heart appears to be made up of stars, here it's made up of birds - another nice touch.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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