Overall Grade: ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️
In the final semester of my undergraduate degree, I was tasked with taking 15 units to graduate with my bachelor’s in English, Languages and Literature. One of the classes I took that final semester of my undergrad was a major elective, the cherry on the top of my English sundae, so to speak. That class was a women’s fiction class. We read British and American female writers. We read everyone from Jane Austen to Willa Cather, and it indulged my love for anything created by women. What you learn quickly in a women’s fiction class, and women’s stories more specifically, is that they are often prescriptive in their exposition about the constraints of society on women. The moral, emotional, physical, and mental binds that wrap around the figurative (sometimes literal) wrists of women’s sense of selves and place in the world is constricting. I love that type of discussion because it’s reflective of my own experiences as a woman. To find yourself represented on the page, the reflection of your own struggles, is a powerful thing. When an author can encapsulate that through his or her storytelling, it is, in a word, empowering. It tells the reader, “you are not alone; you are not the only one.” One of my favorite stories from that class (along with other classes where I read this story) is Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Now, this is not everyone’s “cup of tea.” This is one of the OG angsty romances, and it doesn’t have a traditional happy ending. Yet, it has a happy ending for its female protagonist, Edna Pontellier. Many people read this story, and quite honestly, don’t get it. They don’t recognize the freedom of Edna’s final choice, her ability to choose her life on her own terms outside the scope of society. It’s a powerful thought and underpinned by tragedy. I ate that book whole, endearing myself to Edna’s plight and finding the genius in Kate Chopin’s morbid solution.
Like Chopin and her ilk, Jewel E. Ann has ventured further into the world of what it means to be a woman in her 40s in her newest book, Not What I Expected (NWIE). That title is apropos of its story because, in many ways, this reads differently from her other stories. I am a devoted Jewel E. Ann reader. I will read anything she puts forth without question because Ann’s ability to transform the genre of romance, to ask hard questions that people don’t like to ask in polite company, to reinvent herself in every book while holding true to her voice and her instinct, sets her apart from the ordinary. I have placed her squarely on a pedestal because her storytelling challenges me, and it connects with me.
There is definitely romance in NWIE. However, as a warning, it will challenge your ideas about love and marriage and happy endings. This is the beauty of Ann’s book. While it’s challenging you, it also commiserates with you too. Each chapter has a truth, a statement about a husband or partner’s dirty habit, the thing that drives you mad as that person’s partner. So, as the reader of this book, you find yourself laughing at the outset of each chapter, commiserating with the ridiculousness of that partner’s habit, yet you quickly find your humor diffused by Ann’s heroine, Elsie’s story. If you’ve read Jewel E. Ann before, then you know no one is safe (for the most part), and she loves a bit of shock and awe to engage her reader. Thus, as Elsie’s story progresses and evolves, you find yourself easily swept up into the humor and sadness of Elsie’s journey. Ann’s ability to write a story that brings out visceral feelings is a testament to her intelligence as a writer. I am one of her many proofreaders, so I read the manuscript early. From the first chapter, my stomach dropped, my heart palpitated, and I felt like someone was stealing my breath because the truth of her book reflected my own relationship. I saw it deftly emulated my beliefs about romance, and it unnerved me. For me, that indicates the believability of Ann’s story. That’s the representation of her genius, and her willingness to bare it, to allow her readers to question love and its trappings, is a brave one. Typically, she writes romance, and this book questions our sense of it. Without divulging much of the story, if you are looking for a traditional contemporary romance as you’ve read from her before, you are NOT going to find it in this book. Because, ultimately, this book is a story about questioning your values, making choices for today, and loving yourself through those choices. For me, this book is a romance between Elsie and herself. And in a world such as romancelandia that wants to challenge romantic ideals while also holding them firmly entrenched in standards, it feels brilliant of Jewel E. Ann to “go there” in NWIE. The title becomes your own mantra as you finish this book.
I could tell you that Ann’s hero Kael is adorable and wonderful and $exy. Yet, for me, Kael reads as a flat character. We learn very little from him and about him, and this is Ann’s intention because he’s simply a conduit, the vessel by which Ann uses to challenge Elsie’s sense of love and marriage and ideals. He also acts as her foil for the same reasons. Again, Ann illustrates her genius in upending her usual fare with this book as a way to “discuss” deeply entrenched values. Albeit, she does it blanket it in humor, so it seems like Mary Poppins’s “spoon full of sugar” helping “the medicine go down.” And maybe that isn’t for everyone, but people will miss out on an opportunity to question love and romance and marriage which seems like a fruitful activity. Elsie’s journey is a special one, a real one, and what feels like a necessary one for all of us to consider.
So back to The Awakening. When I ended that book, I sat in awe pondering Kate Chopin’s suggestion for being delivered out of the constraints of societal expectations on women, both civil and religious. When I came to the end of Jewel E. Ann’s Not What I Expected, I sat in the same awe. While I ended The Awakening with reticence and bleakness in that awe, NWIE left me with some hope, with a challenge to think better, to throw off old ways of considering love and romance and the truth behind loving myself. This is the profundity that belies Jewel E. Ann’s newest book, and it feels essential in a world of romance and happily-ever-afters.
In love and romance,