After We Fall by Melanie Harlow (2016)
If this is the only sentence you read, here’s what you need to know: read this book if you love romance novels. It’s the first novel to get a five-star rating from me this year and I want to read more books by Melanie Harlow. After We Fall is the second book in Harlow’s After We Fall series. I downloaded a heaping handful of samples onto my kindle one morning and when I got to the end of the sample for this book I instantly hit buy and there’s not a bit of buyer’s remorse.
This is the story of Margot and Jack. Margot is your stereotypical rich city girl, the daughter of an old money family in Detroit. Her father is running for Senate, and her mother is all about appearances and tradition. Margot has always gone along with her parents’ wishes, being the dutiful daughter and doing what was expected of her (going to Vassar, majoring in English). The next step in the line of duties seems to be getting married and starting a family. At the start of the story, Margot is on the cusp of doing exactly that. Indeed, her story begins with a marriage proposal. A dozen thrown scones later, she’s effectively banished from Detroit and told to keep a low profile until her shocking and scandalous behavior is forgotten. This is the catalyst that pushes Margot out of her normal world and into a new world she knows nothing about—a small farm in northern Michigan. In many ways, Jack is Margot’s opposite. He left college to enlist in the military after 9/11 and spent eight years in the Army. After returning home, Jack marries the love of his life, Steph, who died two years later. When the story begins it’s been nearly three years since his wife’s death. Jack is still grieving and is also dealing with traumatic events that took place while he served in Iraq, events that make him feel directly responsible for his wife’s death. The only things Jack seems to find any joy in are spending time with his one-year-old nephew, Cooper, and working the farm he owns along with his brothers, Pete and Brad. It’s those brothers, along with Pete’s wife, Georgia, who hire Margot’s marketing firm to help them build the farm into a successful business, a decision that forces Jack out of his normal world.
The ensuing romance between Margot and Jack is turbulent and more than once evoked an emotional response from me (I teared up and laughed out loud). Margot and Jack are honest and real characters, relatable and vividly drawn. Repeatedly they are thrown into situations with each other that highlight their differences and show who they are, what they want and what matters most to each of them. Sometimes they do the right thing and sometimes they make mistakes, but the whole time I was reading I was invested in their love story and kept reading to see how they would get their happily ever after. Jack’s character arc is more fully developed than Margot’s and thus he undergoes more change throughout the story. And yet Margot changes as well, starting out as the dutiful daughter that cares what other people think of her and becoming a more independent woman who lives her life on her terms regardless of anyone else’s opinions. Harlow drives this home during a conversation between Margot and her mother near the end of the story. The point I’m trying to make here is that both Jack and Margot are engaging characters. I was completely engrossed in their story and I think you will be, too.
The story is told through Margot and Jack’s alternating first person point-of-view (POV), and it turns on the recognizable trope of the city girl/country boy opposition (though why it’s always the woman from the city who is the fish out of water in the country, and rarely vice-versa, is beyond me). I have to admit that Harlow does something in this book structurally that typically turns me off when it comes to a romance novel. The meet cute between the lovers doesn’t occur until chapter seven. While I’m pretty adamant about the meet cute happening in the first or second chapter (at the latest) of a romance novel, the delayed moment of Margot and Jack’s meeting works in Harlow’s favor here. I got to know Margot and Jack a little bit before they met, pulling me into their separate lives and seeing them as individuals before they are thrown into the falling in love portion of the story. Another aspect of the novel that did have me raising my eyebrows is the supporting cast of characters. Margot’s friends—Jaime and Claire, who are featured in books one and three of this series—are fine, but I gave Jack’s brothers, Pete and Brad, the side-eye. Jaime and Claire work in terms of showing Margot’s support system, but Pete and Brad don’t really come off as being all that supportive of a brother who’s had the experiences Jack has had. Perhaps that’s the reason for including Georgia in the supporting cast. I kind of wanted to tell Pete and Brad to have some compassion, but maybe their lack of compassion and brotherly love and support further underscores the myriad of reasons Jack is struggling with his past and having trouble moving forward.
I loved this book. I don’t give out five-star ratings easily or often, but After We Fall earned it. Not only does Harlow deliver a compelling romance, she also manages to slip in an important message about agribusiness and food justice. This was exactly the kind of read I was looking for and it definitely goes onto my recommended reads list and my list of favorite books for 2018. Give this one a try, it’s book budget money well-spent.
Have you read After We Fall or any other books by Melanie Harlow? What did you think?