I’ve been on a big romance kick lately; between finding the book that turned me onto reading romance and my newfound love for the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books podcast, my TBR list has been filling up lately with a lot of kissing books. So with romance on my mind, when Ann Roth offered me a review copy of her latest romance novel, Just the Way You Are (independently published, 2019), I was happy to accept.
Having been forced to resign from her high-powered consultant job after an affair with her boss went sour, Cinnamon Smith is licking her wounds and trying to rebuild her life at her best friend’s B&B in Dunlin Shores, Oregon, a small town whose economy is based around tourism and the yearly cranberry crop. The town is struggling, however, because the cranberry factory is rumored to be closing soon. Nick Mahoney, the B&B’s handyman, understands the stress of this. His single mom sister, whom he helps support, stands to lose her job if the factory closes. Nick does what he can, working as the town’s fix-it man, crafting new parts to fix busted and outdated machinery at the factory, but he carries a heavy secret, one only his sister knows: Nick is dyslexic.
It’s opposites attract for Cinnamon and Nick, who feel an instant attraction from their very first meeting at the B&B. So many things divide them: class, economic status, education, and possibly geography, because Cinnamon’s not planning on staying in Dunlin Shores longterm. She’s a city girl, on the prowl for a man with big brains and a big…wallet to match. But something keeps drawing her back to Nick. When things with the cranberry factory come to a head, Cinnamon may just be the woman who can fix things; she and Nick will have to move beyond their divide to learn to listen and be honest with each other, and maybe fall in the kind of love that lasts while they’re at it.
Just the Way You Are held promise, but it didn’t turn out to be a book that I fell in love with. It did have its positives, so I’ll start there.
*The writing. Ms. Roth’s style is eminently smooth and readable; Just the Way You Are is absolutely a book you could curl up with and devour in one sitting.
*Abby. Abby is Nick’s twelve-year-old niece. She’s a total math whiz and utterly dedicated to studying. She kicks some serious butt in a math competition and I love that. More girls and women into math in fiction, please!
*Dunlin Shores. I’ve never been to Oregon, but I have visited plenty of coastal tourist towns, and Ms. Roth has created a fabulous setting here, from the gorgeous descriptions of the weather (even the driving rain sounded cozy!) to the cutesy, kitschy businesses that tourists flock to. Dunlin Shores sounds like an amazing vacation town.
*Consent and respect. YES. Multiple times, either Nick or Cinnamon slam on the brakes during a sexual situation, and the other party is immediately cool with it (especially Nick). No whining, no manipulation. FIVE STARS ON THIS. And when Cinnamon confesses to Nick about the affair she had with her boss, he’s totally chill about it (which he should be, because it had nothing to do with him and happened before they knew each other).
*Worker Involvement. When Cinnamon begins working to help save the cranberry factory, she turns the generation of new product ideas over to the longtime factory employees, since they know cranberries best. I very much appreciated this attitude; if only all companies listened to their employees like this.
*Nick’s determination. Nick is a stubborn person, and while it also harms him, it can be a helpful quality. He didn’t graduate high school until he was 20 thanks to the reading difficulties caused by his dyslexia, but he did graduate. And when Cinnamon suggests he apply for a patent on something he invented for the cranberry factory, even though he struggles terribly with reading, he works late into the night in order to finish the paperwork. I found this to be both endearing and admirable.
What Didn’t Work
(And keep in mind, this is subjective. What didn’t work for me might very well be something you enjoy!)
*An eyebrow-raising beginning. Cinnamon and Nick have their first encounter in the parking lot of the B&B. After a bit of insta-attraction, he helps her inside, summons Fran (the B&B owner and Cinnamon’s best friend), carries her bags upstairs, then returns, all the while full of seductive looks and flirty grins. And he parts, leaving the two women with this line:
“You two have fun tonight. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, but if you do,” he aimed yet another suggestive look at Cinnamon, “think of me.”
Not only is he saying this to Fran’s best friend (whom he’s just met), he’s saying this in the presence of the woman he’s working for. Nick is self-employed, and to me, that felt deeply unprofessional.
*Zero chemistry.I felt no connection whatsoever between Nick and Cinnamon. The two of them were instantly hot and bothered anytime they were in the same room together, but beyond that, their relationship felt flat to me. This may be because there was a serious lack of depth to their characters, Cinnamon moreso than Nick. Cinnamon’s response to what she’s looking for in a man is, “When I decide to date again, the man I choose will be ambitious like me and earn a big salary.” A while later, she restates this: ‘Nick wasn’t the career-oriented, upwardly mobile, sophisticated male she wanted to share her life with.’ Cinnamon does change her mind, however (long live the romance HEA!), but not in a way that felt as though she’d truly grown, and her superficiality didn’t make her a very sympathetic character. Nick doesn’t fare much better in the growth department; while he does work up the courage to tell Cinnamon about his dyslexia, his relief afterwards is no substitute for organic self-acceptance (Nick does find some new confidence after his patents are accepted, however, so that’s definitely a plus).
*Class issues. The opposites attract, blue collar/white collar divide is played up here big time, and while it’s not an uncommon trope, there were certain parts of this that felt off to me. Dunlin Shores is clearly a working class town, with a large portion of its citizens employed by the cranberry factory. Every last person in town fawns over Cinnamon in an unnatural way, simply because she’s well dressed and had previously been employed as a highly paid consultant (I can’t in good faith say it was because of any aspect of her personality). When she meets Sharon, Nick’s sister, Sharon is flustered when Cinnamon tries to shake her hand ‘the way she probably did all the time in the corporate world.’ I’ve never been part of the corporate world, yet I’ve had occasion to shake hands with people many, many times throughout my life, and I don’t think that’s rare. Afterwards, they realize they each saw one another when Cinnamon was taking her tour of the cranberry factory, and Cinnamon tells her
“I was impressed by how seriously you took your job.”
“Thanks for noticing.” For an instant Sharon stood taller.
This bothered me. Why wouldn’t Sharon take her job seriously? She’s a single mother to a twelve-year-old daughter whose needs, beyond food and shelter, include a pricy summer math camp and (one day) college. Her job at the cranberry factory pays the bills and keeps her child fed, and it’s mentioned multiple times throughout the book how terrible it would be if the factory closed and Sharon was unemployed. Of course she’s going to take her job seriously, and the idea that Cinnamon’s compliment felt anything other than patronizing didn’t feel realistic. The issue comes up over and over again, usually in Cinnamon’s refined wardrobe choices, contrasted with the more casually-clad locals, and while I don’t think it was intended as classist, it often comes off that way. For example, a scene where Cinnamon begins consulting work at the cranberry factory:
Dressed in expensive pants and a matching sweater that hinted at her curves, she looked elegant and every inch the professional consultant. Totally out of place among the jeans, lab coats many workers were required to wear, and hair nets.
While [Nick], an uneducated handyman, fit right in with his faded jeans and old work shirt.
(I’m going to assume that Cinnamon was standing behind some sort of line painted on the floor, and anyone past that line was required to wear a hairnet, because health code violations are very, very real…) Of course the locals are at work in this scenario; people working on a factory floor (more on this later) aren’t going to be wearing similar clothing to someone whose job deals more in paperwork, phone calls, and emails. Calling attention to their differences in attire seemed especially unnecessary in this instance.
*Gossipy, catty women. For all Cinnamon’s constant talk about the wonderful new friends she’s made in Dunlin Shores and how sad she’ll be to leave them, I found very little appealing about them. Another single mother character, Liz, is portrayed as being over-the-top man-hungry and out to seduce pretty much anything with a penis, but of course she’s got eyes especially for Nick. (Cinnamon refers to Liz as ‘pretty in a dancehall-girl way,’ whatever that means.) When Cinnamon joins Fran at a ladies’ lunch group, the women spend a bit of time gossiping and speaking poorly of Liz.
“See, Liz has a thing for Nick, and everyone knows it. The time when they ran into each other at the post office, Liz did everything possible to seduce him.” Lynn pantomimed sticking her finger down her throat. “Pushing her breasts out, running her hands down her hips, and licking her lips…Ugh. It’s a good thing no kids were around. He ignored her, bless his heart.”
“It’s not just Nick,” Fran said. “It’s any available male.”
Liz didn’t seem like a terrible character to me. Lonely, probably, and a little desperate because of it, but it seemed more like she was being penalized for daring to take some initiative in finding a partner (especially in a small town that didn’t seem to be bursting with options). She hadn’t had an easy life, but had worked her way up from being a pregnant teenager to owning a store in Dunlin Shores, and apparently that alone should have been enough for her according to the other women in town. After the women give Cinnamon Liz’s backstory, she at least recognizes Liz’s accomplishments.
“That’s admirable,” Cinnamon said. “Nick says she’s looking for a man to settle down with.”
“That can’t be true.” Lynn looked surprised. “She’s been divorced nearly twenty years and loves to flirt. Wonder where he got that idea?”
“Maybe she proposed,” Joelle said.
The entire table laughed.
Call me crazy, but these don’t seem like wonderful friends, and these comments seem mean-spirited. I’d be wondering what they would say about me behind my back if they’re this quick to gossip in front of someone they just met. (Not to mention that in a later scene, Cinnamon licks her lips in a seductive manner in front of Nick, and I couldn’t help but wonder why it was okay for her to do that, but not Liz.) There’s another scene where, after Cinnamon injures her leg and needs to be seen by the local doctor, while she’s getting stitched up, the office’s receptionist engages in gossip about Cinnamon with Nick and the other local people in the waiting room. I don’t think I need to point out exactly how unprofessional that is.
*Postsex instalove. While it’s one-sided, it only takes one roll in the sack for Cinnamon to blurt out that she loves Nick, whereas moments before they did the deed, she’d still been wondering if she could engage in sex without love, making her sudden admission of love come off as inauthentic and out of place.
*The cranberry factory. This is getting long, so I’ll wrap it up, but the semantics of the phrase ‘cranberry factory’ bothered me. I had a minor obsession with cranberry farming when I was younger (don’t ask, my brain goes to weird places sometimes and I have a head full of mostly useless knowledge. Would you like to hear about the time my obsession with Beatles trivia won my team a trivia contest because I was able to regurgitate facts about the history of the city of Manchester, England? No? I’m not surprised!), and I’d only every heard places where cranberries are turned into juice, etc referred to as a cranberry processing plant or a processing facility, never a factory. ‘Juice factory,’ I could have gotten behind, but cranberry factory sounded wrong. Concerned that this might be a colloquialism and something peculiar to the speech of the cranberry workers of Oregon, and in the interest of being fair and thorough in my review, I contacted the Oregon Cranberry Growers Association with my question. A very pleasant man named Zach fielded my unusual request and confirmed that he too had never heard of it being referred to as a cranberry factory.
This may be nitpicky, but accuracy in fiction is important.
So as much as I was hoping to to enjoy Just the Way You Are, it fell a little flat for me. But reading is subjective and your experience reading this book might be totally different!
Thanks to Ann Roth for sending me a copy of Just the Way You Are to read and review!