Romantic comedies are the comfort food of my reading life. There, I’ve said it.
Sometimes you just need to read something that you KNOW will make you feel good by the end, something that you can pretty much guarantee will not be depressing or dispiriting, something that might even make you laugh and get you a little weepy (but the good kind of weepy, if you know what I mean), and for me, that’s a good Romantic Comedy novel. Over the last year or two, I’ve been mixing my usual dark and quirky reading fare (you know, mysteries and thrillers and the occasional Murderbot book) with palate cleansers of the Rom Com variety and it’s worked for me.
My most recent encounter has been with Second First Impressions, by Sally Thorne, and a great fun read it was, too. Reading it, I came to the conclusion that what makes a great rom com is the secondary characters, and in this book they were spectacularly fun.
Yes, I know the protagonists are important, too, and their attraction to each other (as well as the obstacles that keep them apart for most of the book) has to be realistic. You have to want them to succeed, even if there are times in the course of the book where you really want to smack one or the other over the head to get them to act like sensible human beings. In this case, the protagonists are Ruthie, a sweet and good hearted if somewhat easily-put-uponable (is that even a word?) person, who’s working like a maniac at a retirement home for rich people for years, and Teddy, the seemingly feckless son of the man whose company owns the retirement home and whose company may or may not decide to kill the whole place and redevelop it as something that will make more money. Ruthie has low self-esteem and gave up her dream of becoming a veterinarian years before; at this point she doesn’t believe she will ever leave this job. Teddy, for all his tattoos and his apparent lack of seriousness, is also good-hearted and someone who falls head over heels in love with Ruthie, whether she believes in his love or not; he’s a kinder, better person than Ruthie gives him credit for being, as we see pretty much from the outset. They are both good people with real issues, and they definitely deserve each other, so yes, we are rooting for them from the start.
But it’s the secondary characters who really make this book. Let’s start with Melanie Sasaki, the temp who’s working with Ruthie as an administrator. Mel is a firecracker, a person as full of life as Ruthie is full of repression. Mel intends to straighten Ruthie out using what she calls the Sasaki Method, her own invention to walk Ruthie step by step from her blocked and repressed life into a life with a boyfriend and something more than just her job to look forward to. Mel is determined and clear-eyed, and she’s basically the backbone of the plot, keeping Ruthie moving in the right direction even as she distrusts Teddy as a potential boyfriend. Mel is the kind of best friend you want in your corner, no matter how pathetic your life may seem.
And then let’s turn to the Parloni sisters, who are so much fun to read about (possibly not as much fun to work for, but we don’t have to do that, do we?). They’re both old, Renata being 91 and Agatha being 89, but don’t think of your stereotypical old ladies. They’re bawdy and demanding and loud and insistent on getting what they want. What they want, or what they claim to want, is an assistant, preferably a young and good-looking man, to be at their beck and call, to run whatever errands they choose (and some of their errands are pretty out there) and basically to put up with whatever abuse they choose to dole out. These assistants don’t last; some don’t make it through the first week. When the Parlonis are between young men, Ruthie ends up doing their bidding, so she definitely knows what’s involved in throwing someone to the Parlonis, and she also has a serious interest in making sure they fill that position. Naturally she gives them Teddy, more as a means of getting rid of someone who seems so smug, so commitment-phobic, so unused to working for his living. To everyone’s surprise (well, maybe not Teddy’s), he turns out to be the perfect assistant for them, even bringing them to the tattoo parlor of which he’s trying to become a part owner. It makes perfect sense that Renata would want a particular tattoo, despite never having had one in the past, and it makes even more sense that she wouldn’t tell anyone else what her tattoo is going to look like (and by the time we get to that point in the book, having seen Renata in action, I would have been willing to believe any kind of tattoo, from the most garish to the most obscene to the most all-encompassing). I believe I want to be one of the Parlonis when I grow up.
There are other secondary characters in the book, from Teddy’s half-sister, Rose, who’s been deputized to make a close inspection of the property and decide its fate, to Kurt, the owner of the secondhand store where Ruthie buys her clothes (who has something of a crush on Ruthie himself, suggesting that Ruthie’s low self-esteem might not be all that valid), and they’re all good and well-drawn, but it’s the persistence and brilliance of Mel and the old lady wildness of the Parlonis that really makes this book stand out among its peers.
Since I have been complaining lately about books that screw up their twists and don’t know how to end properly, I must say there’s a twist that comes late in this book that was not only genuinely surprising but genuinely moving (I mean, full on putting-the-book-down-to-cry moving; I can’t remember the last time I did that), and that worked perfectly in the context of the rest of the book.
Funny, goodhearted, full of life and energy, and of course containing a happy ending: if you need a good comfort read, you could hardly do better than Second First Impressions.