I read He’s Come Undone months ago, so this isn’t going to be the best review I’ve ever written (probably not the worst either). I enjoyed it a lot, but at the time that I read it, it was all I could do to review my NetGalley books before their publication date. Writing a review of a book that didn’t come with an obligation was too much.
The five authors in the anthology are all authors I have enjoyed very much. I can guarantee that the stories are well written, well thought out, and may or may not ring your bell. Each story centers on a man who is tightly wound and comes undone when he falls in love. I didn’t dislike any of them, but two stood out for me particularly: Ruby Lang’s “Yes, And…” and Emma Barry’s “Appassionata.
In “Yes, And…” uptight physician Darren Zhang has been told he needs to take preventative action to lower his blood pressure so he signs up for a meditation class. He accidentally ends up in Joan Lacey’s Improv class. Darren is completely flummoxed and never plans to come back.
He lingered. “For what it’s worth, I kind of had fun in your class. I mean, I was terrified, but you made it enjoyable. In a weird way.”
Joanie is drowning in responsibilities with a layer of self loathing. She’s is taking care of her mother full time and she uses one of her few breaks to teach an improv class at the community center. She needs the class to be popular so that she can keep teaching it. Not only is it time away from her mother, it’s time for herself and it’s a tether to her previous life. The class is not popular and Joanie is feeling increasingly unmoored. While Darren is attracted to Joanie, he doesn’t really think theater is serious work. Darren and Joanie aren’t entirely sure what to do with their attraction to each other. They try dating anyway. The secret of “Yes, And…” is, they are both tightly wound – Darren by long habit and Joanie by recent circumstances.
One of my favorite things about Ruby Lang is that she writes adult women who can be both terrifying and terrified. Joanie is smart and challenging, but the things that tell her who she is are falling away and she is overwhelmed. Darren needs to take better care of himself, but he finds that wanting to take care of Joanie allows him to unwind enough to care for himself. It’s a lovely story and I can relate to the need to hold onto yourself when everything you’ve worked for is falling apart.
In Emma Barry’s “Appassionata,” Kristy Kwong is a concert pianist who has struggled with intense stage fright and a loss of confidence. She is scheduled to perform live in Boston in an effort to save her career. Brennan Connelly is the piano technician hired to tune and voice Kristy’s piano. He is also asked to watch her and give his opinion about whither she is capable of performing.
Unlike most starchy one/chaotic one romances, Kristy and Brennan have a shared trauma – not a shared event, but for both their current careers are rooted in realizing they aren’t the artist they thought they would be. Kristy can’t find the vulnerability she needs to perform live. Brennan is also a pianist, but realized young that he wasn’t ever going to reach Kristy’s level. Again, Barry explores a work place romance where the work is a part of the characters. Their relationship isn’t separate from the work they do and the work they do is an integral part of their bond.
In four of the five stories, older characters are grappling with who they are having reached a certain age. There’s a richness in characters who have experienced life and are questioning whether they have peaked, if this is all they will ever be, if the effort of the past decades has been meaningful. The best romances let us reconnect with that part of ourselves that wants more from life, wants companionship, and is willing to be and accept vulnerability. Several of the characters in these stories are wondering if they are destined to calcify as they are and dwindle into nothing. Falling in love, taking a chance on being vulnerable with someone else, another imperfect adult, blows them apart and lets them grow.