I rediscovered my love for romance novels after I had my first son. After a few years of post-college literary reading, I needed a respite. I’m a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and have read nearly everything they wrote; their writing leaves me breathless. But their subject matter? Not so much.
Like many new mothers, I felt that amazing mix of overwhelming awe and fear that comes with holding your tiny child in your arms, and when I finally found the time to read something beyond a short magazine article, I turned to my first literary love, romance. By then, I was desperate for stories with happy-ever-afters I could depend on; books that would uplift me and make me feel better when life as a new mother could be more difficult than I ever expected.
My two kids are adults now, and I rarely read the “literary greats” anymore. I read Anna Karenina in college and was blown away at times by the writing. But the misogyny and message of that book also takes my breath away - women who seek happiness, especially sexual liberation, deserve to die. Reading Fitzgerald these days more often than not reminds me more of Zelda’s tragic life than F. Scott’s, and Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife was a fascinating reminder as to why we should all look a little askance at Hemingway, no matter how wonderful his writing may have been, depressing endings aside.
My favorite books these days include great writing, interesting plots, and twists and turns that make me laugh, cry, think, and that surprise me or keep me guessing.
For Mother’s Day, let me share some recent reads that delighted me in surprising ways, and that look at the idea of motherhood in a new way. They include one of my favorite authors and two debuts.
First off, I’m sure most of you have already read On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins, since I know she’s a must-read author for many romance fans.
This is Higgins’ second foray into women’s fiction, and I found it highly successful and thought-provoking. Half-sisters Kate and Ainsley aren’t terribly close, but when Kate is widowed after only four months of marriage and the accident causes Ainsley’s would-be fiancé to back away—and turn into a real jerk—they turn to each other and are surprised when they realize they like each other more than they ever thought.
I can’t go into the whole “motherhood” thing too much, because I would give away a huge plot point, but I will say that, as usual, Kristan Higgins handles some intensely difficult emotional topics with grace and sensitivity, even when it looks like there’s no way to navigate without crashing. Kate and Ainsley and all of the secondary characters are perfectly rendered and shine with Higgins’ typical authenticity and complexity, whether they’re grieving, adjusting, or self-serving and oblivious
I miss romance in Higgins’ elegant and eloquent hands, but while her women’s fiction can be a little harder to read and includes less “high romance” moments, I think it fits her writing and her voice beautifully. I’ll still read anything she writes, and I highly recommend this witty, amusing, heart-wrenching, soul-affirming book.
If you like the way Kristan Higgins can combine laugh-out-loud humor with emotional intensity, then you must pick up The Garden of Small Beginnings, a debut from bright newcomer Abbi Waxman. When widow Lilian Girvan attends a gardening class with her two young daughters and her sister, her life opens up in completely unexpected ways—and not just because she discovers she likes the teacher.
There are a lot of great things going for this delightful debut that examines family and community—not to mention preconceived notions and flawed first impressions—and includes simple yet irreverent gardening advice at the beginning of each chapter. Waxman’s voice—as channeled through Lilian’s first person perspective—is so witty, amusing, and perceptive that I can’t decide if I liked the writing, the characters, or the story better. They’re all so well done, let me just say that this is a must-read debut and so wholly satisfying on every level that I will put it on my shelf of “Best Debuts Ever” (along with Sonali Dev and Amanda Bouchet, who immediately come to mind). It released May 2, so you still have time to get it in time for some quality Mother’s Day reading.
(I received the audio for this book from Penguin Random House - thank you! The narrator, Emily Rankin, did a terrific job on a complex book. The Kirkus reviewer also really liked this title and gave it a starred review.)
Finally I discovered Small Blessings by Martha Woodroof, a 2014 debut, through the “Suggested For You” element of Overdrive. A small college community subtly shifts when a new bookstore manager, Rose, comes to town, and soon after, the emotionally unstable wife of a professor is killed in an accident, setting the stage for sweeping change. When a little boy shows up with a backpack full of money and skin dark enough to prove at least one of his parents was black, yet with a birth certificate claiming to be Tom Putnam’s son—who is very white, and hasn’t been with any women in a time frame that make it possible for the child to be his—a circle of people must figure out how to care for him even as they’ve already decided that they love him. (The Kirkus reviewer liked it too.)
This is a lovely, unexpected story of complicated love, unanticipated reinvention, and the motley ways we occasionally create and define family.
Another sweet Mother’s Day read.
I hope you have a beautiful Mother’s Day, filled with love and family, no matter how that plays out for you, and whether or not you have children of your own. And if you’re looking for some great books that examine the bonds of sisterhood, family, community and love, these are some worthy contenders for your time!