A Not-So-Perfect Past, by Beth Andrews

13 Jun
The blame for this lies squarely on the amazing Super Librarian’s shoulders. She made me do it.

A Not-So-Perfect Past, by Beth Andrews

 

Published in April 2009 by Harlequin Superromance, A Not-So-Perfect Past is Ms Andrews’ second novel, and the first of her books I’ve read. It has also shot to my top ten contemporary romances I’ve read recently. The setup is simple and-I suspect-may be off-putting to many readers. The hero is an ex-con, but not your stereotypical “wrongly accused” one. He spent five long years in a maximum security prison for a homicide (murder, in the eyes of the town) he did commit. The heroine is one of the town’s good girls, and an annoying, irritating, want-to-shake-some-backbone-into-her doormat.

The magic is in how, through Ms Andrews’ writing, we see these two characters grow past their current limitations and evolve into more rounded human beings.

First, the back cover blurb:

Everyone makes mistakes… but he isn’t looking for redemption

He’s the most dangerous man she’s ever met…

Nina Carlson knows all about Dillon Ward. Knows he served time in prison. Knows nobody pulled out the welcome mat when he moved to Serenity Springs. But that doesn’t stop her from renting him a place to live. And when someone crashes into her bakery, he’s just the man to fix the damage.

And Nina isn’t the only one who thinks Dillon’s the perfect man for the job: her two kids have taken a shine to him. Still, she can’t afford to get close to Dillon, even if he is tempting her to toss out her good girl shoes. Because it’s not that she doesn’t trust him. It’s that she doesn’t trust herself.

First thing: Nina does not rent the apartment above her business to Dillon. The previous owners-her grandparents-did. She only kept the arrangement going because it’s a fixed and dependable source of income. Or at least, it has been so far.

A quick digression here: we learn in passing that a few months prior to the event of this novel there was a murder in town and that-of course-the ex-con became the main suspect. How that unfolds is the story covered by Ms Andrews’ previous novel, Not Without Her Family. (aside: I don’t know how Wendy failed to mention that these two books are linked! grrrr *ahem*) While I certainly enjoyed A Not-So-Perfect Past on its own merits, I think I would have benefited from reading the prequel first, because it sets up Dillon’s character, his relationship (or more like an armed truce) with most everyone in town and Nina’s overprotective family’s reaction to his living arrangements.

As the book starts, Nina gives Dillon a month to vacate the premises. Given how most people in town look at him, he is quick to realize the actual reason despite her excuses: she’s once more bowing to her ex-husband’s wishes. Not, to be fair, that he’s the only one applying pressure-see “overprotective family” above.

Of the two, Dillon was the most likable character from the beginning. There is some bitterness in his makeup, but not enough to make him unbearable. He’s also the one person who sees through Nina’s “let’s not make waves” people-pleaser façade to the woman who is about to explode with frustration. Furthermore, he struggles all through the novel between behaving according to what life has taught him, and an innate sense of responsibility and caring. He quite simply does not want to get attached-on any level-to anyone. After all, he killed his stepfather defending his younger sister, and all it netted him was five years of prison and a criminal record.

Despite this, his natural decency keeps tripping him up, so to speak, pushing him to be kind even knowing his kindness will be looked upon with suspicion, if not outright animosity.

I took a lot longer to warm up to Nina, mostly because of the whole “been there, done that” thing**. For a long time she reacts passively to the people in her life. Hell, even the divorce is not her doing but his decision to leave her for a newer model! This is somewhat understandable, partly because of her upbringing (the middle child, being the good, accommodating, nice one became her identity early on), and partly because of the abuse she suffered during her marriage.

As the story unfolds we realize that this abuse was mostly emotional, even if there were a few instances of physical violence. Trey, her ex, happens to be a psychologist who makes good use of his credentials to undermine Nina’s self-confidence at every turn. As a result, Nina spends a good part of her time justifying her passivity as “doing the best for her children” by avoiding controversy-with Trey, with her parents, with her customers, with the town at large.

I found Nina’s struggle to overcome the conditioning Trey’s abuse has ingrained in her psyche to be realistic. I know it’s been said before but it bears repeating: abuse is insidious, starting slowly. By the time it becomes evident that it is abuse, the person suffering it has had most of her self esteem-stripped off-overcoming abuse is not easy.

There are a number of good secondary characters, and a few I would like to know more about. Nina’s relationship with her family (parents, older sister, younger brother) is painted with somewhat broad strokes, but it’s developed enough to contribute to Nina’s internal struggles. There are kids in the book-Marcus and Hayley are Nina’s young children-but they don’t take undue space in the page nor are they soooooo special and precocious I wanted to smack them. They were kids who behaved like kids according to their ages-from those under ten to Kyle, the troubled teen Dillon ends up mentoring.

A Not-So-Perfect Past gets 7.75 out of 10, and I have yet another title to hunt up.

** (caveat: this may be considered spoilerish, read or avoid under advisement)

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Nina didn’t truly snap out of her passivity towards her husband until his abuse towards her children crossed the line from only emotional to emotional and physical. That pissed me off because the emotional abuse described is immensely more damaging than a couple of slaps to the face (as humiliating as they might be).

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