Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Almost Perfect (Julie Ortolon)

Almost Perfect
(The Perfect trilogy, Book 1)
Julie Ortolon
Julie Ortolon, publisher
Fiction, Romance
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: In college, roommates Maddy, Christine, Amy, and Jane couldn't have been more different... which may be why they were such perfect friends, balancing each others' shortcomings. Though no longer close, Maddy and the others were happy for Jane's successes, first as a TV anchor and then as a motivational speaker... at least, until they read her best-selling self-help book, How to Have a Perfect Life. All three friends are used (if not named) as sterling examples of what happens when a body lets fear sabotage their life and happiness. As upset as they are, though, they admit Jane has a point. They make a pact on the spot: within the next year, each will face their own greatest fears.
Maddy grew up watching her hard-working mother sacrifice her happiness for the sake of a brutish man. She swore she'd never be that woman, even to the point of rejecting her high-school sweetheart, bad boy Joe Fraser, in order to pursue a career in art. Now she's in her thirties and a widow after cancer took her husband... and she still hasn't done a thing with her art degree or her talent, dabbling on the side and even getting a job in an art gallery without ever trying to submit her own work for display. When she makes that pact, she has an offer to teach arts and crafts at a summer camp in Santa Fe - one of the world's premiere art cities - which would put her in the right place to face her own fear of success: her personal oath to her friends is to get her work into one art gallery. But the job isn't without a few drawbacks. For one, the camp owner is Mama Fraser, foster mother of Joe. For another, Joe himself will be on site, his career as an Army Ranger ended by a bullet to the knee. True, she shattered his heart the day she rejected his proposal, but they were just kids then, barely out of high school. Both Maddy and Joe have had over a decade to mature and change; odds are, that old torch burned out long ago. Or has it?

REVIEW: With a bit of a rough start, as Ortolon establishes the set-up and the characters (all of whom initially look like standard romance fare), I didn't figure I'd be particularly drawn in, but somehow I ended up reading this whole thing in a day. While Maddy continues to wrestle with fear of success, coupled with a certainty that somehow she's responsible for others losing if she wins, Joe must deal with issues of abandonment and love stemming from a childhood spent bouncing from one foster home to another, not to mention a tendency to overcompensate for uncertainty by clinging all the harder to plans. Both stumble frequently as their reunion passes from anger to infatuation to frustration and utter disaster, with miscommunication and assumptions perpetually tripping them up. From the start, there's a physical spark between the two, but even when things cross the line from imagination to reality, the going isn't smooth; indeed, physical intimacy only makes things more complicated, especially when there are still unresolved issues in the closet. Scars from the past never fully heal, but failing to address them, ignoring them and hoping they'll go away, only makes them fester. The story treads close to preaching now and again, particularly towards the end as Maddy and her friends finally dig down to the roots of her fear (the dialog takes on the air of an author lecturing, here), but manages to pull back at the last minute. There are also some genre tropes that I suppose can't be avoided. For instance, women are allowed to be a little plump if they're really gorgeous underneath it, though they must be willing to lose weight (and trade glasses for contacts) if they want to be noticed by guys, while men start and remain Greek gods in the flesh, limited to emotional rather than physical flaws. Otherwise, it proves to be a remarkably balanced relationship that's willing to address the flaws in the characters, not to mention the traditional idea that love alone is all it takes to ensure a happy ending. That, plus its aforementioned power to grab me for a day's reading, land this one solidly in the Good range.

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