Review: Almost Perfect by Susan Mallery

Title Almost Perfect
Author Susan Mallery
Published June 29th, 2010 by HQN Books
Pages 379 Pages
Intended Target Audience Adult
Genre & Keywords Contemporary, Romance, Small Town, Family, Secret Baby
Part of a Series? Yes (Book 2 in the Fool’s Gold series)
Source & Format Purchased from Amazon.com, eBook
Find It On GoodreadsAmazon.comChapters

Synopsis

Back in high school, Liz Sutton was the girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Then she’d stolen the heart of the most popular boy in town, and their secret romance helped her through the worst of times. Until Ethan Hendrix betrayed her and everything they’d ever meant to each other. Devastated and pregnant, Liz left Fool’s Gold, California — Forever, she thought…

Now Liz must return to town and face the man who doesn’t know of their son’s existence. And this time she won’t have the option of making a quick getaway. Ethan and Liz can’t deny their passionate attraction, even after all these years. But will their desire be enough to spark a second chance at love?

“Liz Sutton had always known the past would come back and bite her in the butt – she just hadn’t known it was going to happen today.”

As far as Elizabeth Marie Sutton is concerned, the only thing Fool’s Gold is home to is a series of bad memories. Having run away from her hometown at the tender age of eighteen in an attempt to escape her mother’s abuse, alcoholism and her own rather notorious (and untrue) reputation, Liz never expected to set foot in the quaint California town again. Now a successful mystery author and single mother to an eleven-year-old son, Liz is shocked when she receives a desperate email from the nieces she never knew she had. Pleading for her help after their father’s incarceration and their stepmother’s abandonment, Liz is forced to return to Fool’s Gold in order to take care of them. What begins as a temporary solution soon becomes a lot more complicated. How was she to know her childhood sweetheart, Ethan Hendrix, had also moved back to town, and that he is now a widower? In an instant, Liz is forced to confront her past, her choices, and the long-dormant demons that she thought she had buried long ago. Worst of all, Liz is now faced with the challenge of telling Ethan that, unbeknownst to him, he fathered a child eleven years ago, one he has never had the opportunity to know. Can you ever go home again?

“Are you married?”
“No. I’ve never been very good at taking care of things. Although I’m looking after a cat for a friend and that seems to be going well.” Pia frowned. “At least I think it is. He hasn’t tried to kill me in my sleep and just last week he let me pet him. Well, it was more an accidental brush of my hand against his back, but we’re making progress.”

Almost Perfect is the second installment in Susan Mallery’s Fool’s Gold series. There was something comforting and familiar about returning to the small, California town that Mallery had first introduced us to in Chasing Perfect. This is only further accentuated as the reader is treated to a series of cameos from familiar faces who made appearances in Chasing Perfect like Josh, Pia, Crystal and Morgan. We’re also introduced to a number of colourful new characters as well like Denise, Montana, and Raoul. Best of all (at least in my humble opinion) the rather silly man drought ‘problem’ that dominated the first book in the series is nowhere to be found in its successor. Having laid much of the groundwork in her debut novel of the series, Mallery’s sophomore novel has a much better pace and focus. With less of a necessary emphasis on the logistics and geography of the town and the introduction of a slew of new characters, Almost Perfect was a much tighter final product. This allowed for a greater emphasis on the intricacies and nuances of the relationship between Ethan and Liz. As a result, I was far more invested in Liz and Ethan’s story and found that their problems were much more grounded in reality.

“I agree I have responsibility for what happened, but so do you. And until you can admit your part of the blame, you’re going to be so caught up in the past, that you’ll miss the present and what you have now.”
“What do I have? A kid who doesn’t know me?”
“You have a second chance, Ethan. How often does that happen?”

Susan Mallery consistently seems to excel when it comes to creating lively, layered and lovable romantic heroines. What Liz lacks in terms of Charity’s wit and vivacity in Chasing Perfect, she more than makes up for in fortitude, resilience and generosity of spirit. Unfairly forced to shoulder the burdens of her mother’s notorious legacy at a young age, Liz was often the subject of taunts, gossip and ridicule growing up as a teenager in Fool’s Gold. The one bright spot in her life, apart from her budding writing ability, was her relationship with Ethan Hendrix, who allowed her to believe in her talent and to dream of a life outside of the small claustrophobic town. Unfortunately, even her relationship with Ethan was anything but perfect. Having kept their relationship a secret as teenagers at Ethan’s behest, Liz is further humiliated when Ethan publicly denies their relationship when his friends confront him about it, stating that he would never associate with ‘someone like her’. For Liz, this is the final straw. She packs up and leaves Fool’s Gold with the intention never to return. Just when things seem like they can’t get any worse, Liz learns of her unplanned pregnancy. When she returns to tell Ethan the news, she finds him in bed with another woman mere weeks after she left. Crushed, alone, and scared with no-one to support her, Liz returns to San Francisco and is forced to forge her own way in the world. With an admirable courage, Liz hones her talent and ends up penning a series of wildly popular mystery novels, all while raising her son single-handedly to the best of her ability. She rarely, if ever, complains about her lot in life, and takes everything in stride with a strength of self I couldn’t help but admire (and envy!)

I must admit, before beginning this novel I was predisposed to dislike Liz as I had been worried about overcoming Liz’s deception and/or alienation regarding Tyler’s relationship with his father, Ethan. I’m happy to report that my concerns were unfounded, as Mallery handled this issue with a sensitivity and gentle hand that made it very easy to sympathize with our heroine. Liz undoubtedly made a concerted effort to inform Ethan about the existence of their child. First returning three weeks after her departure only to find Ethan in bed with another woman, Liz returned again five years later only to be turned away by his current wife. While she undoubtedly should have tried harder to ensure Ethan knew of his son’s existence, it’s clear that this unfortunate incident was not for a lack of effort on her part. While Ethan consistently attempts to portray her as the ‘bad guy’ in the situation, it’s clear there was never any malicious or evil intent on Liz’s part.

“I’m not the bad guy,” he spoke into the silence. “I’m doing the right thing.”
But for the first time in his life, he wondered if doing the right thing was going to be enough.”

In contrast, Ethan Hendrix’s character was a crushing disappointment. Initially introduced in Chasing Perfect, I took an immediate interest in him and was eagerly anticipating a story centered around his character. You can therefore imagine my surprise and dismay when the Ethan we’re introduced to in Almost Perfect is little more than a spoiled, cowardly, thoughtless and often selfish man masquerading as a romance hero. In his defense, Ethan is very much a product of his upbringing. Reared from birth to be proud of his lineage as a Hendrix, and made painfully aware of the responsibilities and social consciousness that accompanies the family name, the concepts of duty, practicality and obligation were all drilled into him at a young age. In this regard, I could sympathize with Ethan to a degree – Forced to take over the family business after the sudden death of his father, despite a fundamental lack of interest in it, and wed to his first wife, Rayanne, out of a misplaced and ill-advised sense of obligation after learning of her unplanned pregnancy, Ethan has a history of ‘doing the right thing’, even when it’s clear he doesn’t have a clear understanding of what that actually entails. You can’t fault the man for trying, even when he often does more harm than good.

“Some of us do the right thing because it’s what we’ve been taught, while others do it because it’s who they are. I know which side I’m on in that discussion. If you’re worried about how someone is playing this game while hiding his true character, you should look in the mirror.”

Unfortunately, even my sympathy has its limits. While I understood Ethan’s initial anger at having missed the first eleven years of his son’s life, his bitter resentment and constant recriminations toward Liz throughout the course of the novel began to wear a little thin. Even when faced with the proof that Liz had made a genuine effort to contact him about Tyler only to be rebuffed by his wife, Ethan remains reluctant to place blame on one of the parties most responsible – His ‘sainted’, deceased wife, Rayanne, who knew of the pregnancy and deliberately kept it from him. His constant, and often violent, mood swings and thoughtless, impulsive behaviour (i.e. involving the court in a decision that could have easily been worked out amicably between the two parties) prevented me from ever truly warming up to him. This was only further exacerbated by Liz’s memories of their relationship together as teenagers, which was always less than ideal. Moreover, Ethan’s utter lack of awareness concerning the town’s attitude toward Liz until the conclusion of the novel was irritating and more than a little unbelievable. No-one is that oblivious. Liz is accosted and reprimanded everywhere she goes, from the library to the town hall meeting, and yet Ethan is seemingly oblivious to her discomfort and unhappiness. His eventual public declaration and defense of her felt like it was too little, too late. The damage to his character had already been done. As I’ve seen others mention in their reviews, I can’t help but feel that I would have warmed to Ethan had I only been allowed a glimpse into the story from his perspective. Without it, we’re often left in the dark as to his motivations and true feelings, and without it he is truly a difficult character to like or understand.

“She was too agreeable, he thought, irritated. He wanted to fight with her, argue. He had too much energy and nowhere to put it. Apparently she could also read his mind.
“I’m not the bad guy,” she elaborated softly. “I wish you’d at least try to see that.”

I don’t know quite how she accomplished it, but Susan Mallery managed to have me passionately invested in the state of Liz and Ethan’s relationship, despite my utter distaste for the hero in this particular story. Mallery perfectly captures the confused feelings of love, lust, betrayal and anger that arise between the couple, and it was often heart-wrenching to watch as Liz and Ethan struggled to redefine their relationship eleven years later in the wake of all that has happened in their lives. Almost Perfect was an emotional roller-coaster, and as loathe as I am to admit it, I was perpetually near tears at numerous points throughout the novel, which is highly unusual for me. Mallery does not shy away from the raw, gritty emotional realities and the problems Ethan and Liz face, both as parents as well as a couple, even if it meant occasionally portraying her characters in a less-than-flattering light. Years of baggage and hurt feelings culminate to create an authentic, unvarnished emotional intensity that I found lacking in Mallery’s prior installment in the Fool’s Gold series.

“So they were back to that, she thought, both annoyed and sad. The same road, the same words, the same feelings. They were trapped and she didn’t know how to make things different.”

That said, at times it was difficult not to grow frustrated with the development, or rather the lack thereof, concerning the relationship between Liz and Ethan. It felt as though the reader was forced to experience the same argument over and over again – Ethan would accuse Liz of alienating him from his son, Ethan would do something reactionary and thoughtless, Liz would accuse him of being untrustworthy, and both parties would apologize profusely. Lather, rinse, repeat. More often than not, they would kiss and make up (literally) before beginning the same cycle all over again a few days (or hours) later. Although both characters claim to be looking at the situation from the perspective of the other person, they both lack a shocking amount of insight and continually make the same mistakes. Suffice it to say, it was more than a little repetitive and irritating to have to re-hash the same issues endlessly. The phrase ‘I’m sorry’ began to lose all meaning in this story. My handy Kindle ‘search’ function tells me that it was uttered well over sixty times throughout the course of this story and I can’t say I’m surprised. I would have preferred a little less lip service after the fact and a little more decisive action when it came to healing the issues in the relationship. Despite my complaints, I must admit that given the combative and often adversarial nature of their relationship, their eventual happily ever after was all the more fulfilling in that it truly felt well-earned.

“…Melissa and Abby.” He wrinkled his nose. “They’re okay, you know, for girls.”
“Words that will warm their hearts,” Liz murmured…”

While I ordinarily dread the appearance of young children in a romance novel, I was pleasantly surprised by the inclusion of Tyler, Melissa and Abby. None of the children monopolized the focus of the novel and added, rather than detracted, to the dynamics between the characters. They didn’t fall prey to the traits ordinarily assigned to children, particularly in the romance genre, in that they are neither wise beyond their years nor overly precocious. Mallery captures their childlike innocence while also touching upon some important issues regarding their shifting relationships with the adults in their lives.

“The words practical and marriage don’t belong in the same conversation. Nothing about marriage is practical. It’s wonderful and difficult and amazing and demanding. Besides, no-one wants a proposal like that. We want to be swept away. Not compared to a really good microfiber dust cloth. Attractive and practical. That’s going to make your heart beat faster.”

Much like my experience with my first Susan Mallery Novel, Chasing Perfect, I’m of two minds when it comes to my final feelings regarding the second novel in the Fool’s Gold series. Despite my issues with the problematic and rather unlikable hero and the rather repetitive nature of certain aspects of the story, I found that Mallery’s Almost Perfect is just that: Almost perfect. Even having taken into consideration the issues I encountered with this novel, I still look back on this book with fondness, and it has undoubtedly cemented my interest in reading future novels in the Fool’s Gold series. With an emphasis on the importance of family and the power of forgiveness, Almost Perfect is a tale that focuses on universal issues that I’m sure will speak to an unimaginable number of people.

Overall Rating

Around The Web

Still not sure this is the right book for you? Why not listen to what some other bloggers had to say about it?

● Jess @ Gone With The Words wrote “The Fool’s Gold books are great if you’re looking to get into a romantic Romance series with just the perfect amount of steaminess.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Nath @ Books, Books And More Books wrote “I really enjoyed Almost Perfect. As I said, Liz really was the star of this book and made it good. It’s unfortunate that Ethan and the romance did not measure up.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

● Jane @ Dear Author wrote “…Liz is what makes this book. She refuses to be intimidated, she accepts responsibility for her actions, and she stands up to her critics whether it is Ethan’s mom, the town or even Ethan himself.” (Read the rest of the review Here!)

5 responses to “Review: Almost Perfect by Susan Mallery”

  1. Barbs says:

    That sounds like a nice book series to read for fun. I definitly have to check it out.
    From your review and the book description I can already tell, that I won’t like Ethan 😀

    Did you ever read anything by Debbie Macomber? She writes the same genre as Susan Mallery (I think they wrote sth together too) and in my opinion here books are really nice.

    • Ethan was definitely more than a little trying at times, but to my surprise I still greatly enjoyed this story. I hope you will too! 🙂

      I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything by Debbie Macomber before, although I’ve certainly heard of her. I’ll be sure to head on over to Goodreads right now and take a look at her work – I’m always on the look-out for more adult romance series to read! Thanks for the recommendation 😀
      Jen @ Pop! Goes The Reader recently posted…Review: Almost Perfect by Susan MalleryMy Profile

      • Barbs says:

        Her best work is The Blossom Street Series. Especially the first few books. The later ones lack something, but the last one that came out a couple of months ago made up for that.

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