Only Love by Melanie Harlow (2018)
Only Love is the third book in Melanie Harlow’s One and Only contemporary romance series. Each book in the series follows one of three sisters, Maren, Emme and Stella. I can tell you without reservation that Only Love can be read as a standalone book. I haven’t read the first two books in this series but wasn’t at all confused and I didn’t feel like I stumbled across any spoilers. This is the second book I’ve read by Melanie Harlow and I have to say—she knows how to write a romance novel. I think I liked After We Fall a little more (you can read my review of that book here) but I did enjoy Only Love and would recommend it to any reader who loves romance novels, especially the steamy variety.
This is the story of Stella and Ryan. Of the three sisters, Stella is the oldest. She is the responsible one, the one who has convinced herself that she wants a stable life with a stable husband even if it means stability comes with boredom. She’s a psychologist/therapist who seems to be able to analyze and figure out everyone but herself, and she chases her vision of who she wants to be, who she thinks she wants to be, rather than being who she really is. Ryan is a former Marine, divorced from his wife and now living in a house in Michigan that he is renovating while also working at a winery/farm. He has been doing odd jobs for Stella’s grandmother, who happens to live next door. Ryan’s obstacle to overcome is his need to not feel anything. He repeatedly says he simply wants to be alone and talks about flipping the switch on his emotions, turning them off (a la Damon Salvatore). Once he meets Stella, it becomes more and more difficult to flip that switch and be happy with being alone. While I liked Stella and Ryan as a couple and was invested in their love story, I have to admit that at first, I don’t think I particularly liked Stella all that much. Or maybe it’s that I had a hard time relating to her. I don’t want to spoil the first few chapters, but I think it’s enough to say that I was worried she would be the kind of female protagonist who could only find her value and self-worth in the roles of wife and mother. I did, however, warm to her and got to the point where I was rooting for her and Ryan to fall in love. It also was a challenge to warm to Ryan, and I’m going to attribute this to Harlow intentionally portraying him as someone who didn’t want to feel and craved only numbness. In this way, even when Ryan is narrating from his own point-of-view, he feels distant to the reader. Again, I warmed to him as his character developed and evolved, and he became more accessible in conjunction with his growing inability to flip the switch on his emotions.
The story is told through the alternating first person POVs* of Stella and Ryan, with a small handful of short scenes narrated by Stella’s grandmother, Grams. Normally, I wouldn’t like these “interruptions” by a first person narrative voice not belonging to the female or male protagonist, but I fell in love with Grams’ character and thoroughly enjoyed her intrusions into the narrative. Indeed, as the matchmaking force that ultimately put Stella into Ryan’s path, her narrative intrusions mirror her matchmaking machinations as the two lovers move through the familiar milestones of a romance plot (girl meets boy, girl gets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy back). In addition to Grams, Harlow gives us Emme and Maren as supporting characters, both of whom act as confidants for Stella as well as contrasting personalities who help show Stella as a more rounded, fully-developed character. For Ryan, the best friend/sidekick character is an old buddy he served with in the Marines. One of the things that Harlow does well and sets her novels apart from others in the genre is that she uses her supporting cast effectively, letting the two main characters play off them in multiple ways and in doing so allows them to become more than just characters performing predictable roles in predictable fashion.
Listen. I’m an avid fan of romance novels and scoff at those who want to give the judgy side-eye to romance readers. Still, the massive glut of romance novels currently available makes it challenging for readers of the genre to find the kind of romances they like to read. I sample a lot of romance novels before deciding what I’m going to commit to buying and reading. The more romance novels I finish, the more I recognize the good ones from the bad ones, the bad ones from the ones that are simply unreadable, and the really good ones from the ones that are just okay reads that I’m going to forget hours after I’ve gotten to the end. Similarly, more than I ever have before, I’m keeping track of those authors whose work hasn’t let me down. Those authors who know how to deliver a romance with an actual love story. Because why do we read romance novels in the first place, if not to be swept out of our own everyday worlds and into a grand romance where we’re rooting for the two lovers to defy all the odds and find a forever kind of love? I mean, don’t we all want a happy ending, or am I just projecting here?
Thus far, Melanie Harlow hasn’t disappointed me and she’s earned her place on my list of authors whose work I can go to when I need to get my romance novel fix. If you are looking for a good romance, I recommend checking out Only Love. As of this writing, this book wasn’t available from my local library but it is currently available in the Kindle Unlimited library. That being said, it’s my opinion that this is a book that is worth your book dollars and the author is definitely someone worth supporting (because I really want her to write more books!).
Have you read Only Love or any of the other books in the One and Only series? What do you think?
*POV = point-of-view