There is something about the way Kristan Higgins writes that appeals to me. The stories, the people, the craftsmanship – I just love ’em. I come away wishing I lived in those small New England towns, convinced that I could be friends with her characters.
So it is with The Next Best Thing. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I will state straight away that this is not my favorite of Higgins’ books. Lucy Mirabelli, the 30-year-old widow around whom the book turns, is the reason. She’s just not all that likeable, I guess. Or at least she isn’t for about three-fourths of the book.
Lucy and her husband, Jimmy, were married a little over eight months when he died. As if the loss isn’t tragic enough, Lucy has to contend with the “Black Widows” – her mother and two aunts, all three of whom were left widowed when they were young wives. Like Lucy, none remarried, but unlike Lucy, none were interested in doing so. Lucy, however, thinks it’s time to pursue marriage and family. Unlike Jimmy, however, she plans to look for someone safe. Someone she can be fond of, without losing herself completely.
Meanwhile, there is her brother-in-law, Ethan, who introduced her to Jimmy in the first place. It is clear that Ethan cares about Lucy, and she about him, in her own way. But Lucy’s problem is that everything must be her way. She tells us that this is because she’s a widow, and unless you’ve been in her position, you have no idea how she feels. And she’s right about that. I did not lost a husband in my mid-twenties, and I don’t know how it feels. But I do know that Lucy’s self-focus is off-putting at best. How she has any friends, much less a fairly devoted one in Parker, who happens to be the mother of Ethan’s son, is beyond me.
In fact, Parker urges Lucy to date Ethan, and she also pinpoints the reason behind Lucy’s reluctance to do so.
She gives me a wry smile. “Well, one could say that you do love Ethan already. The big question must be, what if you didn’t love him as much as Jimmy?”
Hearing it said out loud like that, right here in the kitchen with the sun shining in the windows, my African violets blooming on the windowsill … it’s a slap in the heart. “I really don’t want to talk about this, Parker,” I whisper.
Parker sighs. “Okay. I’m sorry.” She pauses, and I swallow against the pebble, knowing she ‘s not finished. I’m correct. “But Lucy, you’re never going to know unless you give him a shot, are you? And if you don’t, you’ll end up with some loser who leaves you cold. Is that what you want?”
You wouldn’t think it would be, but Lucy seems to be aiming just for that. She wants comfort and predictability. Safety. No threat of an early death. As Lucy observes, love ran her over and left her bleeding in the road. She doesn’t want that again, and the potential to get hurt by Ethan is just too much to bear.
But Ethan isn’t going anywhere. And when he asks Lucy to give him a chance, it is heartbreaking and beautiful. In fact, Ethan is the reason I like this book as much as I do. He becomes a real person, someone I understood, empathized with and cheered for. If it makes Ethan happy to be with Lucy, then I hope it works out. For him. Hopefully, in the process, she loosens up a little.
The Next Best Thing has an obvious ending, but the way we get there is not obvious at all, and that’s another reason why I adore Kristan Higgins. She respects her characters and her stories too much to shortcut them. If Lucy is going on a tortured chase for love and stability, then that’s what it will take.
I’ve got a few more Higgins novels on my TBR pile, and I can’t wait to read them.