Saturday 14 September 2019

#CBR11 Book 64: "Evvie Drake Starts Over" by Linda Holmes

Page count: 304 pages
Rating: 4 stars

#CBR11 Bingo: Reader's Choice (in place of Back to School)

Eveleth "Evvie" (rhymes with 'chevy') Drake has packed the car and is about to leave her husband when she gets a phone call that he's been in a car accident. Before she can make it to the hospital, he is dead. About a year later, everyone thinks Evvie has kept to herself, isolated in her big house, because she's overcome with grief. She never told anyone that the town's beloved son, a popular and charming doctor, was in fact an emotionally abusive asshole whom she was in the process of leaving when he died. She doesn't feel grief, she feels guilty - about all the sympathy almost smothering her. About NOT grieving.

Her best friend Andy, single father of two little girls, is puzzled that the good doctor didn't seem to have left any life insurance, he knows Evvie is almost broke. He suggests she rents out her downstairs apartment to a childhood friend of his, former baseball pro Dean Tenney, who needs to get away from the media spotlight and could use some relaxing downtime in Maine. Dean used to be a Major League pitcher, but finds himself struck down by the 'yips' and can no longer pitch reliably. He's tried every possible treatment under the sun, and needs to get away from it all to start rethinking his future.

Dean and Evvie make a deal: he won't ask her about her marriage and late husband, she won't ask him about baseball. As they become more friendly, that rule rather quickly gets broken, though, and Evvie finds that she can tell Dean, an almost stranger, things that she has never felt comfortable sharing with her dad or Andy. The couple of months Dean was going to stay keep getting extended, and gradually, his and Evvie's friendship starts evolving into something more, at the same time as some of the secrets Evvie's been keeping come out and start driving a wedge in the friendship between her and Andy.

While Dean seems to enjoy his time with Evvie and the quiet life in Maine, the rest of his life is back in New York. Evvie claims she is perfectly fine and totally over her former relationship - but can she really fully put her trust in another man after the things her husband put her through?

This book has been on so many 'Must Read' lists this year, and I'm assuming that so much of the hype comes from the fact that Linda Holmes is a well-known podcaster and NPR presenter. She also used to write for Television without Pity back in the day (man, I miss some of those recaps!), but to me, she's a complete unknown. I'm always happy to give a well-reviewed romance a chance, and it didn't take me long to see why this book has become so popular.

As an introvert with social anxiety, I totally understand and relate to Evvie's instincts to stay inside and shield herself from the outside world. Her job is transcribing audio tapes and interviews for other people, which sounds like a fascinating way to make a living, if one that doesn't exactly lend itself to an active social life. In the year after her husband's death, she pretty much only sees her friend Andy or her father, and even after Dean moves in, her interactions with others than these three men isn't exactly frequent.

I found it interesting that there was not one, but two, portrayals of mothers who chose to leave their children behind after a divorce. In general, it always seems to be the mother who has the main custody of the kids, but both Evvie's mother and Andy's wife are more than happy to leave the child rearing to the men and going off to do their own thing, which certainly results in Evvie having a lot of complicated feelings towards her mother and feeling abandoned and ignored by a person she wishes to be closer to. Her father is great, but so caring and protective that Evvie has never felt she could tell him the truth about her marriage, and what she was about to do on the night her husband died.

I also liked that while this is absolutely a romance, with the developing relationship of Evvie and Dean at the centre of the story, the book is just as much about Evvie slowly healing from the emotional abuse she has suffered and learning to become a bit more open and adventurous. This is presented as a gradual and slow change, and very refreshingly, it's not because she suddenly falls in love with someone new, who "heals" her magically with his presence. Evvie just comes to realise how much of the solitude she now has told herself she enjoys comes from the fact that she was being isolated from other people by her husband, and that in fact, her life will be more exciting and richer if she has more people to share it with. Over the course of the book, she also comes to accept that she's not weak for accepting the help from others, including a professional therapist who can help her work through her past trauma better than anyone else.

While Dean isn't really able to "heal" Evvie from the scars brought on by her emotionally (and occasionally physically) abusive marriage, neither is Evvie able to fix Dean's 'yips', for all that she tries and tries. They change each others' lives, and make them richer and happier, and both characters end the book in a much more hopeful place than where they started, but this is not a story where love magically solves everything.

I can see why this book has become so popular, but all the hype made me expect something more than just a well-written contemporary romance. I kept waiting for it to blow my socks off, and to really suck me in, and that never happened. I liked the book a lot, but based on other reviews, I was expecting to love it, and that never happened. It's good, it deals with a lot of important issues, but I doubt I'm going to revisit it in years to come.

Judging a book by its cover: This is one of the many romance novels being marketed for a wider audience by giving it a cute cartoony cover, in this case, there aren't even people on it, embracing and sending the signal that you may catch 'romance cooties' if you read it. This book is a romance, through and through, and it's a shame that other books of similar quality are overlooked because of the stigma associated with the genre.

Crossposted on Cannonball Read.

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