Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bitter Sweet by LaVyrle Spencer ****

I took a little break from the fun, sexy books by Susan Andersen and picked up a new-to-me LaVyrle Spencer book. I knew it would be different, although I have really liked Spencer's style of capturing how people feel, how their feelings are mirrored in the other.

I also knew going in that this book contained infidelity, which is a hot button for Romance readers in general. I wondered if it was still a hot button for me.

This was a First Love story - I was frustrated by never learning why they broke up and married other partners. But in Spencer's story, there was a soul-mate attraction, a conceit of the romance genre that may or may not have a real world application.

I don't know if the theory of Soul Mate really exists - meaning, there is 1 person to whom you become eternally bonded just after meeting each other. Or maybe Soul Mate theory allows for a courtship, but basically it transcends all other loves, no matter what transpires - once Soul Mates, always Soul Mates, across time, across space. I tend to believe more in the "love builds" theory - where there needs to be chemistry first, so that you meet and court, but then comes a series of deposits, so to speak, where each person fills the needs and wants of the other to maintain the relationship. Where it is entirely possible to fall out of love if the needs and wants are not met, and also to work back into love again with the right actions. Where love can dissipate if not fed, whether by imagination (keeping First Love alive fantasy) or by actions. I think you can feed your own "love bank" with your imagination, but it might go away if you were to actually be in the presence of the person you imagined and that person didn't continue to make "deposits". That sorta negates the Soul Mate theory, which would be that no matter what happened, she is for him and he for her, under all circumstances.

So, in this story, the hero and heroine, First Lovers as teens, were both married to others, and the heroine's husband has died in an accident. The story opens near the 1-year anniversary of his death, and Maggie is attending grief therapy, still struggling with getting over it. The counselor suggests contacting friends from her past, with the idea that going over happy memories of a time when life wasn't so complicated would help put her life in perspective. Specifically, high school friends. She contacts a friend from her home town , who puts her in touch with other friends, one her first love Eric. Although she balks at contacting him, she does anyway. They're adults, after all, having grown and changed, right? (well, not if you buy the soulmate theory, see?)

Eric is married to Nancy, who Spencer draws as a pretty tightass bitch, to be honest. Although they declare their love, and make love when we first meet them, pretty soon we see that Nancy is selfish and cold and not satisfied with life in Eric's small town. She's got a career that keeps her out of town weekdays - and she admits to us, from her POV, she's had several affairs over the years, but she loves Eric - or at least she loves having a good-looking husband anyway. She's not quite Cruella De Vil but she's close. Unfortunately for Eric, he doesn't exactly figure out he's not satisfied with Nancy until he starts seeing Maggie again. That's too bad, really. Maybe if we'd really felt them fighting, growing apart, before Maggie enters the scene, it would be easier to accept his actions.

Maggie is encouraged by her female friends to come back to her hometown for a visit, and while there one friend convinces her to buy an old house, move back and run a B&B from it. Maggie's rolling in dough from her husband's insurance settlement, and decides to go for it. Since it's a small town, she does run into Eric occasionally, and the attraction grows.

Now here is where, in a real world situation, the old Love Bank theory and some of the things I've learned about infidelity popped into my brain. For one thing, it is easy for Eric to transfer his feelings of love to Maggie because they are not living together - he only gets the "nice" side of the relationship, and not the real relationship. Plus it's new and newly-sexually charged, something missing in his marriage. That's a common infidelity issue, really, because it's easy to fantasize how much better the lover is over the spouse when the lover isn't really in the picture. (I'm sure I'm not saying this right...) For instance, a major issue between him and Nancy is her unwillingness to have a baby - but has he even asked Maggie if that is something she would consider? No, he has not. If he had, he might have learned that Maggie is going through menopause. If he had, he might realize that leaving Nancy for Maggie won't fill his need to have children of his own, and that he might stop loving Maggie after a while for the same issue. Of course, right as they're getting ready to Do The Deed the very first time, he does sorta pant out something about birth control, and she reassures him it's not an issue. Do they discuss STDs, health history, anything? No, sorry, they're hot and heavy and just go for it.

(Not that I wanted him to stay with Cold Bitch Nancy, mind you, because Spencer manipulated my own feelings about her! Boo! Hiss!)

Then there's the issue of Maggie's mother. Oh how close I came to relating to this mother. No, not that I am her, but that I know her. She's critical. She's cold. She's demanding. She's controlling. And she seems to be incapable of love. She makes Nancy seem like a mother earth figure. Interesting that Spencer introduces mothers like this in her novels (That Camden Summer comes to mind.) Maybe they just make for good conflict, or maybe she's experienced this. I wonder how the daughters of these mothers become such good mothers themselves, with such a poor role model.

Well, I've already introduced the Infidelity issue, so it's clear that Eric and Maggie do commit adultery - not so difficult with Nancy gone 4 nights a week. He decides to tell Nancy and get a divorce, and every time Nancy finds a way to manipulate him into staying. This part is so true and so typical of how married couples handle infidelity. I kept waiting for him to say "I love you but I'm not in love with you any more" just to get the whole picture. However, since Nancy wasn't the heroine of the book, she isn't destined for a happy ending, and they don't find the right combination of forces to keep their marriage going. Not that they don't drag it out for months - and even after he asks for the divorce and moves out and promises Maggie they will marry, sure enough, typical wayward spouse, he goes back for a couple of reconciliation tries. I did try to feel sorry for him, but his last decision to go back was really for all the wrong reasons, and it made me mad.

Oh the agony, and what a tangled web was weaved. Or woven. It about tore my guts out - that's LaVyrle Spencer for you. When she introduced the biggest obstacle, I waited, torn, knowing there was the Other Shoe, not knowing how she would handle it. When the Other Shoe dropped, I was actually shocked but pleased that it wasn't what I feared. And then - it's a long book, and I got too sleepy to finish, so I had to leave the last 100 pages for this morning, and while I drifted into sleep, I thought about this review and how I would put into words my own feelings about infidelity and love.

This book did bring me tears, which is not all that usual in general, but not completely unusual for a Spencer story. I wasn't prepared, however, for one thing - Maggie took him back in the end a little too easily for my taste. He had promised his mother (thank god she stepped in to save the day) he wouldn't see Maggie until he had divorce papers from Nancy, but that took months during which Maggie had no idea how he felt, or what his plans were. The day he got the papers, he went to her and she didn't even hesitate to take him back. It's not really a spoiler, being a Romance, to say they were married right away, although that wasn't the end.

There were unresolved issues in the story that kept me from feeling happy at the end when the h/h got their own HEA, however. What about her parents? What are her daughter's true feelings? (and on another note, I read a debate about how her daughter reacted to her mother's moving and selling her childhood home, and frankly my opinion is the daughter can take a flying leap - her mother was not wrong to sell/move since the daughter was away at college, having essentially left home anyway!)

Was the infidelity a hot button for me in this book? Hmmm - no actually it wasn't. Spencer successfully manipulated me into rooting for the hero and heroine over the hero's existing legal vows to his wife - a tribute to her talent with the written word, for sure. And it's always fun to keep the fantasies of First Love and Soul Mate alive too, even if I don't actually believe they exist.

I'm also torn on the rating - I think I have to go with 4 stars, because I was affected, because I did cry, because I was on the edge of my seat. Better than average/3 stars. But not a keeper/5 stars - I don't know if I can read it again. I think I need to devour another Andersen book and smile some more, because I didn't smile at the end of this .

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