Review of Always the Last to Know

If you saw my write up for WWW Wednesday yesterday, you know I was unhappy reading the first third of this book. Did something change? Read below to find out. 🎇

Always the Last to Know

Kristan Higgins

June 9, 2020

Berkley


The Frosts are a typical American family. Barb and John, married almost fifty years, are testy and bored with each other…who could blame them after all this time? At least they have their daughters– Barb’s favorite, the perfect, brilliant Juliet; and John’s darling, the free-spirited Sadie. The girls themselves couldn’t be more different, but at least they got along, more or less. It was fine. It was enough.

Until the day John had a stroke, and their house of cards came tumbling down.

Now Sadie has to put her career as a teacher and struggling artist in New York on hold to come back and care for her beloved dad–and face the love of her life, whose heart she broke, and who broke hers. Now Juliet has to wonder if people will notice that despite her perfect career as a successful architect, her perfect marriage to a charming Brit, and her two perfect daughters, she’s spending an increasing amount of time in the closet having panic attacks.

And now Barb and John will finally have to face what’s been going on in their marriage all along.

From the author of Good Luck with That and Life and Other Inconveniences comes a new novel of heartbreaking truths and hilarious honesty about what family really means.

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If you had asked me yesterday before I had moved beyond the 50% mark in Kristan Higgins’ new novel, Always the Last to Know, if there was any way I’d give the novel above 3 stars (or butterflies as the case may be), I would have laughed, guffawed, and when I was done rolling on the floor, I would have said: absolutely not. Ah, what a difference a day and a whole lotta pages make.

Honestly, unless you are a die-hard Higgins fan (which I used to be), it’s highly likely that you will be annoyed by the first third of the novel. Higgins chose to use four POVs for this novel–which is not in itself a problem. However, it is a problem when some of the chapters, such as one of Barb’s initial chapters, is told completely in exposition. Judgmental exposition by a prickly, cold, highly resentful woman who, despite having lived outside of her native Minnesota for 50 or more years still sounds folksy. Unfortunately this also points to a failure in characterization because Barb Frost, a local selectwoman at 70, has never been folksy (maybe she was when she was a tiny babe in Minnesota). She is shrewd, smart (a one-time paralegal), and determined to be upwardly mobile. Women like this are very careful about learning the proper ways to speak so the folksy talk would have fallen by the wayside probably within a year of her having moved.

And, then we have Barb’s favorite daughter. Yes, Barb admits to having a favorite daughter–Juliet. Sadie, the youngest daughter, refers to Juliet as “perfection from conception.” For much of the beginning of the novel, Juliet comes across this way, except for her panic attacks, which she successfully manages to hide from most everyone. She has the perfect husband in British Oliver, the perfect job as a high-level architect, and two lovely daughters, although the oldest Brianna, a tween, is behaving a little less than lovely these days.

Sadie, the struggling New York artist, is initially the most relatable, and it’s really her story that is the most engaging, perhaps because of her long-lasting though flawed love for wild haired Noah. If the entire book had been devoted to their romance, I’d have been a happy camper.

In the midst of these three POVs popped up husband John’s chapter. John the cheater, John the stroke victim stuck inside a body that doesn’t operate the way he wants anymore and who is struggling to piece things together. This chapter resonated with me. It was extremely well-written, some of the prose touching and beautiful, and it made me wonder why those other expository, dull chapters were surrounding this. Why hadn’t this novel been restructured during editing?

Unfortunately, more unsavory Barb chapters came after this one.

Finally, the novel returned to current action without information dumps and that’s when this truly became a good novel in my eyes.

Slowly I began to care about all of the characters, not to the same degree, of course, but at least I was not loathing them.

The writing itself was still uneven with some absolutely gorgeous prose, thoughtful expressions thrown against conversational phrases. It was kind of like reading the Jekyll and Hyde of tones.

As I came to the last quarter of the novel, I was gripped and didn’t want to put it down. Everything was meshing and jelling. I laughed and I cried and I felt hope and then sadness. At this point Higgins had found her stride and I just wished the beginning could have been like this. What a marvelous novel it would have been

Which leaves me here. I have tried to provide as honest of a review of what worked and what didn’t for me. I am well aware that we don’t have to like characters in order to like a novel. Perhaps the difference comes when the author might not be aware that the picture they are drawing for us is of an unlikable character. Or that some of us find rampant judgmentalism or materialism to be unsavory.

Themes dealt with in this novel include communication (mostly the lack of), all types of love, compromise, and self-actualization.

One last thought. How much do we forgive a very bad beginning of a novel if the end is very good?

I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review.


rating: 

4-butterflies

4 out of 5 butterflies


6 replies »

  1. The trouble is that most readers don’t push on past a bad beginning, but for those who do, the promise is in the next book because the ending mattered. Maybe.

    • I find it to be problematic. I certainly wasn’t the only person who found the beginning rough going which makes me wonder. Are the publishers banking on Higgins’ name and fan-base to carry the book? Why not cull dry expository chapters? Editing and culling might have made this a fantastic book. Have I become a snobby know-it-all? lol

      • No. The reader is the most important part of a story. there is only one writer, but many readers. The purpose of a story is to be read, so making it easy to read, easy to move through the story, is what it’s all about.

  2. I like your reviews. I read all of them, though I don’t always comment. They are insightful, in-depth, and entertaining. You really should be a reviewer at a magazine. BTW, you’ve always been a know-it all–not particularly snobby though. 🙂

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