Broken Homes & Gardens by Rebecca Kelley
Rebecca Kelley teaches writing at the Oregon College of Art & Craft and lives in Portland with her husband and daughter. She is also the co-author of The Eco-nomical Baby Guide. Broken Homes & Gardens is her first novel. It’s earning comparisons to David Nicholls’s One Day, but I was reminded more of classic Meg Ryan rom-coms like When Harry Met Sally and especially You’ve Got Mail. Like the former, this book asks if a guy and girl who find each other attractive can ever really just be friends; like the latter, it takes two people who shouldn’t necessarily be suited to each other and sees how, even as they move on with life and have other relationships, they can never quite escape their hold on each other.
The novel opens with Joanna, aged 24, traveling back from Prague after seven months of teaching English. It wasn’t the wonderful abroad experience she’d hoped for, and now she feels like a failure for abandoning her students partway through a year. Back in Portland, her sister Laura puts her up on an air mattress while she looks for work. Joanna isn’t sure what she wants from her life, but one thing is sure: she won’t go back to living with her mother, Tess. As Joanna walks around Portland, she carefully observes the houses’ architecture and landscaping, imagining future possibilities.
Romance, too, seems like a possibility when Joanna meets Malcolm Martin at a birthday party for Laura’s boyfriend, Ted. Malcolm, Ted’s housemate, seems a little odd: the first thing he does, seeing Joanna absentmindedly flicking through a copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting from Ted’s shelf, is to touch her stomach and ask if she’s pregnant. It turns out he’s a gardener and carpenter and makes beautiful wooden benches and huts. Joanna is intrigued. The bad news, though, is that he’s leaving tomorrow for two years with the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. Joanna and Malcolm make out that night, and promise to keep in touch while he’s away.
A year and a half later, Joanna is moving out of a beloved apartment and in with her new boyfriend, Nate. The last thing she packs is the precious bundle of airmail letters she’s been collecting from Malcolm. Although she’s moved on with her normal life, this old-fashioned paper correspondence is a sign that she hasn’t given up on what seems like a fairytale romance. She finally sees Malcolm again at Ted and Laura’s wedding, where Malcolm is the best man. Joanna is vehemently opposed to marriage; after her parents’ divorce, she’s convinced it’s always doomed to fail. But can she believe in true love nevertheless?
Over the years, Joanna and Malcolm epitomize an on-again, off-again relationship pattern. More often than not, they’re both dating other people. Joanna teaches writing at a community college, buys herself a little fixer-upper house with potential for a nice garden, and tries out Internet dating. Malcolm does contract jobs in Alaska and California. Yet these two keep getting thrown together, often into intimate situations. When Joanna runs out of oil during a snowstorm, she shelters at Malcolm’s place. They join friends on a spring break trip to the coast and keep running into each other at parties.
Then comes a bit of an unusual turn in the plot: Malcolm offers to move in with Joanna to help her renovate her crumbling house. This will be a “just friends” arrangement, mind you. Until it becomes “friends with benefits.” Joanna decides to put a stop to the shenanigans with a list of sex challenges; her logic is that if they can just get each other out of their systems, they can go back to the good old days of being friends. Is that really what she wants, though? “We’re obviously in love with each other, but you want to go around being ‘just friends’,” Malcolm erupts. What happens next is for readers to find out, after a somewhat rushed ending.
There were some elements that didn’t work for me here. I couldn’t relate to Joanna’s impulsiveness and self-sabotage. Years later, she’s just as aimless as she was when she got back from Prague. The repetitive nature of the will-they/won’t-they plot means that nearly every chapter has Malcolm and Joanna breaking up or having a major argument. Some of their relationship decisions seemed ludicrous to me; who would go over to an opposite sex friend’s house, sleep in bed with them, and not expect something to happen?! Ultimately, it’s so far from my own experience that I can’t really get the whole “friends with benefits” thing.
However, this was still a pleasant read; I raced through it in less than a week. Joanna’s Internet dating mishaps can be amusing, especially the time she decides to make pumpkin-flavored cocktails. The Oregon and Nevada settings are terrific – Kelley knows them personally, and it shows. Plus the chapter names are just as fun as the play on words in the novel’s title. If you have a hankering for some Nora Ephron-style romantic comedy, or if you enjoyed last year’s Cutting Teeth (Julia Fierro) and Friendship (Emily Gould), this is for you.
Broken Homes & Gardens releases on April 28th. With thanks to Rebecca Kelley for sending me an electronic copy. I was provided with a free copy in exchange for my honest review.