What “must have” elements do you want in romantic fiction? Engaging plot? Check. Characters that you can identify with, care about and root for? Check, check and check. A heroine that’s smart, funny and vulnerable? Men that are endearing but occasionally exasperating with their own Achilles heels? Great dialogue?
How about all of the above plus a once-in-a-lifetime, steal-your-heart dog?
You’ll find all of this and more in Allie Larkin’s first novel, Stay. This book works on so many levels, that I almost don’t know where to start. Larkin is an insightful storyteller and a talented writer; Stay doesn’t read like a “first” book. She nails everything leaving her readers happily satisfied yet disappointed when we come to the end of the book and there’s no more to read.
That time-tested formula of girl-meets-boy is already at work in the Prologue. “Six years ago, Peter and I were having one of our weekly dinners at this little Italian restaurant just off campus. The food wasn’t good and the service was awful, but they served us without asking for ID if we ordered by the bottle instead of the glass.
We were halfway through our second bottle…” P. 1 As Peter sits across from Savannah (“Van”) Leone telling her that he’s pretty sure he passed all of his freshman exams, she’s “…too busy studying the angle of his perfect square jaw and thinking what it would feel like to press (her) lips against his slightly stubby chin and work her way down his neck.” P. 1-2.
As Van imagines the next step in her “pornographic daydream” (P. 2), Peter interrupts her train of thought by asking how she thinks she did on her Rhetoric final. Van’s non-committal response of “It wasn’t too–it was fine.” (P. 2) as she fails to meet Peter’s eye, juxtaposes the depth of her feelings for this boy onto her lack of self-confidence.
They trade one liners:
“I always have such a great time with you, Peter said, splitting the rest of the wine between our glasses.
“I am a hell of a lot of fun,” I deadpanned, finally getting the courage to look him in the eye again. P. 2
He is: oblivious to how she feels. She is: not going to tell him how she feels. They are: drunk. Her heart “thumped in a drunken beat” and her hand “wobbled” as she raises her wine glass. “His bottom lip was stained purple from the wine, but his teeth were as perfect as Chiclets.” P. 2 Peter’s next comment is unexpected and climatic, deliberately so as Larkin writes it: “Will you marry me,” he asked, clinking his glass against mine, “if we’re not married by the time we’re thirty?”
This is skillful writing. By the time we get to Peter’s marriage proposal, we want it to be an out-pouring of his love for her because Van so desperately wants this. Larkin brings us to that emotional high with Van and then, immediately after Peter finishes his statement, Larkin smacks us down along with Van into Peter’s obliviousness for Van’s feelings.
Van herself aptly describes the roller coaster of emotions she’s now riding in the next two sentences:
“My pulse spiked as elation crashed into the result of being his back up plan. From fiancee to consolation prize in a matter of seconds.” P. 2.
She may be drunk in this first scene, but Larkin leaves no doubt that Van is also resolute and determined, giving Van the last word:
“Make it thirty-two, I said, clenching my teeth into a smile. “At least give me a fighting chance.” P. 2
Wasting no time, Chapter one takes us right back to the top of that emotional roller coaster as Van tells us that “The wedding was more than I ever could have wished for.” P. 3. Just when we think that Van has gotten her heart’s desire, we find out that she’s not the bride, she’s the bridesmaid, and the story is off and running.
We are quickly introduced to Van’s best friend Jane (the bride) and Jane’s parents, Peter’s family, and we begin to find out about Van’s past: where she grew up, what her mom was like, and, that six years after that dinner with Peter, Van is still hopelessly in love with him.
As Peter and Jane promise to love, honor and obey, Van is left to pick up the pieces of her shattered heart and get on with her life. She already has a job – one that lets her work from home and provides her a comfortable income so that she supports herself. She’s smart enough to realize that it’s more than time to get over her first love, but between that knowledge and the moving on part is an enormous learning curve. One that she’s not sure she can make by herself.
She’s dealt with a lot in her twenty-three years as Larkin deftly reveals in the next series of chapters, moving easily from past to present as the wedding scene unfolds. By the time the wedding is over, most of the secondary characters have been introduced.
As the story continued, I found myself engaged in heated arguments with almost all of them, especially with Diane, occasionally with Jane, most often with Van. I suspect the appeal was that at various points in my life, I’ve been like Jane and like Van. If you’ve ever been so me-focused that you selfishly hurt your best friend, then you’ve been Jane too. For everyone who’s had their heart broken for the very first time and had to move on, you’ve been Van.
How does Diane fit into this three-some? She’s the woman left behind. The woman whose best friend dies leaving a daughter that is best friends with her daughter. And, oh, by the way, her daughter and her friend’s daughter are in love with the same guy.
I started out not liking Diane very much, but by the end of the novel … well, you’ll have to read it and see if you agree with me on this one.
The catalyst for change in this story is Van’s spur-of-the-moment decision to get a dog. She makes this choice in a drunken stupor after the wedding is over and she’s back home scrolling the internet. As she slurps Kool-Aid mixed with vodka, her thoughts twirl faster and faster, around and around like a never-ending carousel.
She she sits watching television before going online. Ironically, the show she stumbles upon is a wedding on “Lifetime, so most likely, the bride was going to find out that her husband was really married to women all over the country, or that her maid of honor was trying to kill her…at that moment in the movie, everyone was all smug and delighted with themselves, and it made me sick.” P. 54
“He doesn’t really love you…” (P. 54).
Watching this TV couple, Van finally realizes that Peter doesn’t love her, giving these words a double-edged poignancy.
Quickly swiitching channels, she finds herself watching a movie about Rin Tin Tin. “…the dog was incredible…He was always there when needed. He never let anyone down.” P. 54. And that becomes what she wants – to not be let down, to have a friend. Once she goes online to search for her dog, her life will never be the same again.
Getting a dog doesn’t magically take care of what’s wrong in Van’s life, but it does help her begin to take those first tentative steps towards getting what she does want. As she falls head-over-heels in love with a five month old, purebred German Shepherd, she slowly falls in love with who she is and what she has to offer in a relationship.
Larkin never lets us down. She refuses to write a “cookie-cutter”, cutesy love story. And, she doesn’t stop writing until Van has come to terms with everyone in her life and found her true love.