Saturday 21 February 2015

#CBR7 Book 20: "Once Upon a Rose" by Laura Florand

Page count: 300 pages
Rating: 4 stars

Layla "Belle Woods" Dubois has just won a Grammy for her Indie rock album, but is fleeing to the French countryside in a desperate hope that she will find some inspiration, or there won't be a second album any time soon. She's "accidentally" drowned her phone in a fountain and is hoping to stay away from press attention and the demands of her producers for long enough that she can write some new songs and rediscover her love of playing. Visiting the house she's inherited in Provence seems like the perfect plan.

Matthieu Rosier is one of five very competitive male cousins, and the appointed heir of their grandfather. While his other cousins have been able to go off into the world on adventures, Matt has stayed in the Rosier valley his entire life, devoting his life to taking care of its inhabitants and the precious roses that grow throughout, providing essences to the perfume industry. The valley is HIS, just as he considers his life a gift to the valley, occasionally envious of his other cousins, but all the same, content with his lot in life. So when he discovers that his great-aunt has gifted the house he has spent several months modernising and a part of the land of the valley to some petite American, he is not happy. His grandfather, one of the brave Resistance heroes of France, wants him to consider Layla as the enemy, doing everything in his power to drive her away and reclaim the family land.

Of course, when Layla and Matt first meet, neither know of the coming enmity. It's Matt's 30th birthday party and he's more than a little drunk. As Layla arrives, helplessly lost without her phone to provide GPS, he is instantly smitten and decides to introduce her to all his cousins as his girlfriend, just to make sure none of them lay claim to her first. At one point he actually bodily picks her up and carries her through the room. Layla is surprised, but quite charmed by his flirtatious behaviour. She eventually manages to get across to some of the more sober wedding guests that her car has broken down and she is lost, and is given a place to stay for the night. Of course, the next morning, the reason for her presence in the valley is revealed, and everything changes.

Laura Florand has a formula, and it's a wonderful one. Large, attractive Frenchmen falling in love with diminutive partially American women. In the Amour et Chocolat series, the men are usually emotionally vulnerable, yet professionally arrogant, brilliant masters in their fields. Here, the hero is not a chocolatier or a chef, but a rose farmer. Matt has tended to the roses on his family's land since he was a teenager. He's a handyman, able to fix engines, old plumbing, crumbling garden walls, you name it. He projects a gruff and growly exterior to hide that he's a complete softie inside. Having brawled with, teased and been teased by his cousins since they were young, he has learned not to show weakness. While he sometimes wonders what it would be like to go off and see the world like many of his other very attractive cousins (most of whom are clearly going to be heroes in upcoming books), he's also completely committed to his duty of making the valley and its roses thrive. His territorial grandfather has refused to split the land up, dividing it between the cousins, and Matt has come to think of himself as the embodiment of the valley. It hurts him deeply when he discovers that his beloved great-aunt has given away part of it to a stranger.

Layla, while absolutely loving the Rosier valley and just as smitten with its caretaker as he is with her, initially stubbornly refuses to even contemplate giving in to Matt's demands about returning the land. Yet as she observes his interaction with the workers during the rose harvest, his cousins, his elderly relatives and gets to know how caring, sensitive and considerate he is beneath his growly exterior, and how important a part the valley plays in his life, she's no longer certain she can keep the property. She discovers the reasons why she was given the land by Matt's great-aunt and gets some desperately needed time to relax and recharge, beginning to have new ideas for songs as she takes part in the rose harvest and quiet village life.

While Matt is probably too deeply rooted in his valley, needing to consider and accept the possibility of change, Layla has always been a nomad, never happy to settle too long in one place. She's been happily travelling the world, making a living from her music at various festivals the world over, long before she achieved fame with her album. She loves to play, but has come to hate the way touring and performing has exposed her and her feelings to the world. Her music and creativity has completely dried up. She hasn't allowed herself any time to rest and recuperate, and the little valley in France provides a safe haven, where she can remain anonymous and free.

Matt's many cousins are hilarious, and such a fun supporting cast. While the sequel bait was pretty obvious, I didn't mind, and I just hope that they are all as entertaining in future books as they are as secondary characters here. There is always a lovely sense of place and community in Florand's books, and here we get the French countryside and tiny villages instead of the bustling city life of Paris in her previous books. I liked how the cousins were competitive, but also deeply protective of one another. Matt's previous relationship was with a self-centred supermodel, who used him shamelessly and ended disastrously. When they discover that Layla is also famous, they are worried she will break his heart all over again. Layla, a genuinely decent person, understands their protective instinct and doesn't get offended.

In many of Florand's books, there is a strong fairytale feel, and this book is no different. There is the big gruff hero, constantly compared to a bear, the enchantingly beautiful valley full of roses, and a tiny curly-haired heroine who keeps being compared to Goldilocks. With less of the angst of some of Florand's earlier books, this is a thoroughly diverting piece of fluffy escapism. I shall have to go in search of the novella collection that features the story of how Matt's cousin Raoul and his girlfriend Allegra met, and am eagerly awaiting the sequels where Matt's three single cousins eventually find their matches.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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