Book review: ‘These Girls’ by Sarah Pekkanen

Family secrets, friendship and the sparkle and grit of the magazine world converge in These Girls, Sarah Pekkanen’s latest novel detailing the pains, triumphs and difficulties of family and friendship.

Newly appointed as features editor at Gloss, Cate knows she has her work cut out for her — and realizes purely deserving a position isn’t enough to keep the office gossips’ tongues silent. Her roommate Renee, a talented writer, has her own troubles at Gloss . . . and with her weight. At a (gasp!) size 12, her curves spark hateful comments when she’s up for a promotion. Throw in Abby, the damaged sister of star writer Trey Watkins, and you have a perfect storm of turmoil in one Manhattan apartment.

When each woman’s family troubles begin to take precedence over their day-to-day dramas, Cate struggles to bolster her divorced mother’s spirits; Renee deals with the sudden appearance of a half-sibling; and Abby must come to terms which what prompted her to flee Maryland. Through it all, the women learn it’s their bond — to each other — that will help them through life’s pressures.

In a relatively short time, Sarah Pekkanen has developed quite a reputation for her smart, sassy and realistic examinations of women’s friendships. Though this is my first experience with her work, I can tell she’s earned it: These Girls is equal parts heartbreaking, surprising and moving. Just as I felt the story was veering into comfortable, well-worn territory, Pekkanen’s plot curved in a new direction. I loved not knowing what I was going to get — and that the obvious tropes didn’t apply.

Not to, you know, beat a dead horse, but I really related to Renee in her pursuit to slim down. It’s funny the way weight can manifest itself in various parts of your life, and I thought her struggles — and what she ultimately sees as a “solution” — were well-drawn. The constant pushing of sweets in a workplace is something I can certainly understand . . . even when I’m the cupcake-pusher. I can’t imagine the tremendous pressure on those expected to look, think and dress a certain way just to maintain a certain “reputation” in their industry.

What really worked in These Girls was the scope of the interwoven plots. We’re not dealing with a trio of single girls taking on Manhattan; these women are smart, challenged and struggling to maintain their professional and personal roles. Cate, Renee and Abby’s individual family problems were detailed enough to invest me in the story, but not complicated enough to get frustrating. Though there were no easy solutions, this isn’t one over-the-top drama after another. Abby’s personal issues with her former job left me feeling a little cold towards her, especially as I felt she’d brought them on herself, but Pekkanen did a great job of creating sympathetic heroines I couldn’t actively dislike.

And Trey? He’s yummy. He’s savvy and paternal and suave and a total Chris Pine in my mind. I think Pekkanen’s overall moral — chicks over, um . . . guys — is a sound one, and I liked that we didn’t have a trio of otherwise intelligent women scratching each other’s eyes out over a man. I mean, really. We’re a little more evolved than that, right? I like my books to not be completely stereotypical and demeaning.

For fans of women’s fiction, novels centering on friendship and those looking for a good hook (each character’s back story is revealed over time, wrapping up only at the end), Pekkanen definitely knows what she’s doing. These Girls is a strong, well-paced book that dropped me off far from where I’d started. And I dug it.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 1451612540 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Peach Keeper’ by Sarah Addison Allen

Willa Jackson has finally settled down. Though known as a prankster in high school, the time came for Willa to let go of her constant need for an adrenaline rush, move back to her hometown and run a store in Walls of Water, North Carolina’s popular tourist area. Growing up in a place known for its nature and beautiful cataracts, Willa was eager to get away — but family, more than anything, pulled her home again.

In another part of town, Paxton Osgood has never left. Born into a wealthy family and destined to continue the Osgoods’ reputation for class, excellence and poise, Paxton never considered leaving the only home she’s ever known — especially when her twin brother, Colin, seemed so eager to go. Someone had to stay with her parents, entertaining and helping and supporting them. Someone had to foster their reputation for charity in the community. Somebody had to remain the backbone and brace of Walls of Water’s vibrant citizenship. And guess who that was?

Though cordial to one another, Willa and Paxton were never good friends — unlike their aging grandmothers, Georgie and Agatha. In the 1930s, the two women came together to form the Women’s Society Club of Walls of Water, an organization established to protect and support one another. Paxton has continued their traditions while Willa has shunned them, even ignoring Paxton’s recent invitation to celebrate the club’s anniversary with a giant party at the restored mansion the Jacksons once owned.

But Willa might not be able to ignore Paxton much longer . . . especially after a body is found buried beneath the peach tree that grows on the site of the Blue Ridge Madam. Who was he? And how did he get there?

And how will they find out the truth?

Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper, a luscious slice of Southern fiction, was every bit as scrumptious and delightful as I’d expect from a woman who is quickly establishing herself as one of my “no fail” authors. Infused with a touch of magical realism so light and airy that it seems wholly believable, her latest novel is a treat from start to finish.

At the heart of The Peach Keeper are the ladies and friendships that sustain them, and I found myself relating most closely to Paxton. At 30, she lives in the guesthouse of her family home and sags beneath the weight of trying to please her parents, community and — in last place — herself. I felt her sense of familial obligation keenly, and the scenes in which she expresses her love for Sebastian, her best friend, were heart-wrenching. Sebastian was the perfect male lead: handsome; sincere; hardworking; endlessly supportive. If Paxton couldn’t have him, I thought, maybe I could.

Though neither woman is painted as “the bad guy” here, Paxton is the more uptight and high-strung of the two — but Willa, more of a free spirit, still struggles with maintaining her isolated life in the home she once shared with her father, now deceased. I felt for Willa, too, as she tried to reconcile the adventurous, rebellious young woman she was with the stable, boring person she’d become. Though Colin’s arrival back in town shakes all of that up, too . . .

And the mystery! Oh, that mystery. I was intrigued and invested from start to finish, wondering who had been discovered beneath the Madam’s peach tree. Though obviously linked to their grandmothers, the truth is revealed gradually — and each morsel is tantalizing. Allen’s pacing was exquisite, giving readers just enough to stay interested without spilling the whole truth. I was dying to know what happened.

Romance and love are palpable in this story, too, which are the fishhooks used to snare me in any novel. Of the two developing stories, Paxton’s was the most interesting to me — and I was on the edge of my seat with the suspense of knowing whether or not her feelings were reciprocated. She was so deserving of happiness.

A fabulous, unpredictable read from one of the masters of the magical realism genre, and one I would happily recommend to fans of contemporary or women’s fiction. Allen fans will delight in a cameo made by one of her Garden Spells characters, too.

4.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0553807226 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by Amazon Vine in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Violets of March’ by Sarah Jio

Bainbridge Island has a way of calling people home. It’s just that way for Emily Wilson, a recent divorcee timidly moving forward when she gets a wedding invitation — from her ex-husband. With the support of her best friend, Annabelle, Emily journeys from New York to Washington to see her aunt Bee, a sassy woman in her eighties who happily welcomes her niece to the beach house they once shared.

But life on Bainbridge Island isn’t exactly how Emily remembers. On one of her first nights home, she discovers a red velvet journal — and inside, the enthralling, romantic and heartbreaking story of a woman named Esther. Intrigued, Emily questions Aunt Bee and other residents about her — but never gets a straight answer. And no one admits they know Esther or what became of her . . . though Emily has a sense that it’s up to her to discover the truth.

Sarah Jio’s The Violets of March combines contemporary fiction, historical fiction and romance into one alluring read. Emily is a strong-willed character who loves her family fiercely, but not even Aunt Bee’s cagey responses can keep Emily from wanting to know the truth. It seems like fate that the diary has landed in her lap — and she’s not about to ignore it. Fresh from New York and her heartache there, the journal’s sad tale provides a respite and distraction from her real life.

Though occasionally mired by unrealistic dialogue, Jio’s novel kept me reading quickly. As a heroine, Emily is likable and authentically flawed. She knows she’s not the teen girl who once visited the island and makes no bones about it — not even when she runs into Greg, her summer crush and first love. I liked watching her interact with the men of Bainbridge, especially Jack — and the chemistry between them was palpable. As a male lead, Jack was pretty great: kind; family-oriented; intelligent; handsome. I didn’t fall for him quite the way Em did — quickly, and with few reservations — but I didn’t feel that their story was rushed.

The real crux of the novel, though, is the mystery: who is Esther? What did she mean to the people who loved her — and what is her connection to Emily? I pieced together parts of the story before Emily did, but there were a few surprises left for me by the end! And I was satisfied with how Jio explained the saga and wrapped up loose ends, and didn’t feel like the story was wound up too neatly. Also, we got plenty of back story — and explanation after all was revealed. Once the “mystery” is solved, many books end too quickly — and The Violets of March didn’t suffer that fate. I’m glad.

An intriguing family drama that was a truly pleasant read. Grab your copy April 26.

4 out of 5!

ISBN: 0545230500 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by author in exchange for my honest review