Overall Grade: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️++
Okay, here’s the thing. Romance, as with any genre, has its standards. We call them tropes: friends to lovers, forbidden, older man/younger woman, older woman/younger man, so on and so forth. How does a writer keep it fresh? How do they write stories and keep their readers engaged when the tropes don’t really change? I’m fairly new to reading romance (almost two years). There are preeminent writers I have yet to read (I know…it’s wrong. Give me time.). I have plenty of time to expand my breadth of romance reading. Yet, even if I do, it’s possible that the romance might become stale if writers don’t play with the tropes. I try to mix it up as much as possible by reading a variety of sub-genres. I read just about everything from the smuttiest of smut to the most elevated of romance. What I have found for myself is a preference for authors who infuse and weave in social relevance and significant topics of our day into their writing. It might be the Master’s in Lit that drives this for me; I’m not sure. What I do know is that I like the romances that inspire my thinking, that keep meat on the bone of the story. I want an author to challenge me with their writing, with their storytelling, even when I want to be entertained by the romance. There are a handful of authors who do this for me. Jessica Peterson is one of those authors.
If you’ve read any of my former reviews on her Southern series, you’ll see my thoughts on the profundity of her writing. Yes, she writes romance within the tropes of romance. But her romances are the epitome of female empowerment. More specifically, she uses her romance to illustrate the struggles of women in our society. She crafts her heroines in a way that challenges our thinking about the conflicts of living as women. And it’s inspired and important.
Jessica Peterson’s newest book, Southern Heartbreaker, is no different. Every time she releases a book, I’ll be honest, I’m waiting to be underwhelmed. This has more to do with my love for her storytelling than it has to do with her. Her stories are so thoughtful that I wait for a story where I’m not challenged and, by extension, disappointed. This has yet to happen. And Southern Heartbreaker is probably my favorite of them all, meaning that it had the most impact on me. I was definitely not disappointed or underwhelmed by this story.
This is a second chance romance between Eva and Ford. They were college sweethearts, drowning in their love for each other. On graduation day, Ford breaks up with Eva because he perceives she isn’t ambitious enough. This breaks Eva’s soul, but she works hard to heal her broken heart and follow her dreams to be a writer and a pit master. Years later, Ford and Eva meet at a baby shower for her best friend, Julia, and Ford’s brother, Greyson. On meeting again, the sparks fly. They clearly still have chemistry. Yet, Eva is initially reticent to move forward with Ford given his treatment of her in the past. Even more, Ford has a daughter, and Eva has never wanted children. After a few more meetings, Eva must decide if she should walk away from Ford and their connection or change her mind about decisions she made in the past. Will she choose Ford and his daughter, Bryce, or will she walk away from him forever, leaving a Ford-sized hole in heart?
At face value, this story utilizes the second chance trope. Ford and Eva reconcile easily, and Ford’s apology of his treatment of Eva at the break up helps this. In terms of the trope, the story-telling is fairly easy. Once Ford is in, he’s all in, and he is, honestly, the first one committed to a future. He is everything you love about a modern hero: he’s respectful of Eva, he’s thoughtful of her, he’s enlightened and responds to her feelings with maturity. He quite frankly is the preeminent male feminist. This is a man whose intelligence allows him to love Eva where she needs it. The few times he attempts to “man-splain” her he recognizes it quickly and asks for forgiveness. In doing so, it doesn’t make him any less masculine. Instead, he becomes sexier and attractive. This is the genius of Jessica Peterson. She imagines what mature, “woke” relationships can look like in today’s society. Even more, it isn’t heavy-handed in its delivery. Instead, it’s natural to her story-telling. Ford is swoony, not because he’s gorgeous. He’s swoon-worthy because he’s a masculine moderate male. His intelligence and emotional maturity are far more attractive than his looks.
Now, Peterson’s real power in Southern Heartbreaker lies in Eva, her heroine. Through her characterization, we are treated to a discussion about (1) motherhood and (2) perfectionism as a means to control every outcome. Eva’s past most definitely informs her present. She comes from a family where her mother sacrificed portions of her life for motherhood and marriage. This has left her mother dissatisfied and discouraged. Her parents’ marriage is fraught, and her mother’s unhappiness influences Eva’s perceptions of marriage and motherhood. Through Eva’s struggle to decide to enter a relationship with Ford, a single father, Peterson encourages us to consider motherhood. We still live in a society that expects women to become mothers. Yet, Eva allows us to reconsider this. Peterson pushes against this expectation through Eva’s dilemma. Is it possible to become a mother and hold onto the important pieces of yourself? Is it possible to follow your dreams without sacrificing them for children? Even more, do all women need to become mothers? These questions underscore Ford and Eva’s romance. And they are important questions to consider. While I’ve had a child, I have felt the struggle with maintaining my identity and dreams while raising my son. I found myself here in Eva’s story, and this is Peterson’s genius. This is where she challenges her reader through this oft-used trope of second chances.
Even more, having been a mother, I know the struggle of wanting to do it well. As a Type A perfectionist myself, this can be problematic and crazy-making. Anyone can look at Pinterest and see how that forum pushes this type of thinking. Through both Ford and Eva’s stories, Peterson illustrates the troubles with trying to do everything perfectly. It simply cannot be done without burning out. Once again, through their story, she reminds us that we don’t have to be Pinterest perfect moms or dads or people. We simply need to be present. It’s the depth of these messages that bind my heart to Peterson’s stories. I saw myself so clearly in Eva and Ford’s struggles, and it made the story headier for me. It’s why I loved it so much.
There is a clear place for all romance. One romance or sub-genre or trope is not necessarily better than the other. Given our mood and need for the day, we can decide the type of romance we want to read. That is the beauty of writing. However, Jessica Peterson is doing something so important here. With Southern Heartbreaker, her newest book, and the other books of the Southern series, she’s offering us contemplative romance, romance that seeks to challenge our thinking while it entertains and titillates us. In a world where women are still struggling to find their voice, still struggling to push against societal norms about what it means to be a woman, Eva and Ford’s romance reminds us to find our own space, to live our own lives, to be thoughtful about our discussions and connections with each other. Most importantly, it’s a suggestion that love can ultimately conquer all if we are honest and love from our own expectations.
In love and romance,