Once in a Lifetime
by Jill Shalvis
Book 9 of Lucky Harbor
And then sometimes, there's a Jill Shalvis book that leaves you so conflicted that you're not even sure how you feel, much less how to give it a star rating.
Because Once in a Lifetime certainly did that.
You love it because it provides a lot of interesting insight to a lot of pretty down-to-earth, real life situations. But you don't love it because sometimes these potentially promising conflicts just don't seem to have been executed in the best of ways.
And then you love it still, because it gives you characters like Aubrey, who has decided, on her own terms, to turn her life around and make amends for her past so that she can move forward with her future. But then you don't love it because she then gets surrounded by a bunch of self-righteous, unmoving people who think that they have the moral high ground over her quest, not even giving her the time of day, when we know that everything Aubrey is trying to move forward from, were mainly all the things she did during her wild child days of being young and stupid.
Because who's never been young and stupid?
But then, you love it again, because of people like Lucille, who's such a nosy, busy-body, but who has a genuine heart of kindness, who doesn't judge, because she's older than the dinosaurs and understands that, well, shit happens in life, and we move on. Truthyfully, Lucille was one of the highlights of this story and I only wished we could have seen more of her meddling if it gave Aubrey a chance to breathe through her mission.
The other highlight was this:
"Hold on a sec," he said. Christ--he was going to do it; he was really going to ask. "I thought we didn't like Dani."
Pink shrugged. "She said she was sorry for being mean."
Kendra nodded, her pigtails flying.
Just like that. Just that easy. Ben looked into their sweet, innocent faces and felt something shift within him. They were so damn resilient. So easy to please. So completely full of life.
And so full of forgiveness.
Bemused, Ben sat there for a long moment, absorbing the fact that he'd just been schooled on life and forgiveness by a couple of five-year-olds.
Aubrey Wellington was never the golden child growing up. She knows that she has a reputation for being a bitch, and she surely was never any teacher's favorite pupil... far from it. But as she tries to start a new stage in her life, reviving her Aunt Gwen's book store and settling into something meaningful for her future, she's now determined to look back at her past and right some of the wrongs she'd accumulated during her youth. Encouraged by the help of a local pastor, an accidental attendance of an AA meeting, and a list of names, Aubrey sets out to make amends with all the people she feels she'd wronged over the years.
And one of the people on her list is Ben McDaniels; an old high school crush, and now the guy who's helping her with her bookstore renovations. Ben has just returned to Lucky Harbor after five years of being adrift after his wife's passing. As an engineer, he'd spent his time building equipment and structures to help sustain and improve life in third world countries. Returning to Lucky Harbor, he's pretty much the golden boy of the town, a little local hero, and maybe ready to stay in one place for a while.
And despite what either of the two have in mind, it seems that the attraction sizzling at the surface between them is something neither ever expected.
One of the things that came to mind while reading this book is something that I realize is always a problem in a lot of small town romances: the Double Standards. Okay, so well, this is something you see in a lot of books anyway, romance or not, and really, just in real life in general. But I'm narrowing it down to contemporary romances that take place in small towns, specifically this one.
Lucky Harbor is a place where everyone knows everyone and their business. The majority of the people we get to follow throughout this series are Lucky Harbor residence, born and raised, and permanently rooted. So you get to read a lot about how so-and-so used to be when he or she was younger. You get to read about how Mallory was always the good girl, or how Sawyer and his buddies caused trouble when they were young... how Chloe was the wild child, and Leah was the girl next door, but who had a hard time of her childhood.
But for the most part, you read a lot of random, casually mentioned hints here and there about how most of the boys were all just holy terrors in their teenage heydays.
In fact, I'm not entirely sure there weren't any of our Lucky Harbor series males who didn't terrorize the public, and made a reputation for themselves as troublemakers. And some of these antics written about, that color the back story of many of our lovely Lucky Harbor books, could have also been dangerous, life-threatening, illegal, or even construed as bullying.
But then the boys grow up, and the entire town flips their switches. Because one trouble-making boy becomes a police chief and everyone loves him now. One holy terror becomes a fire fighter and the whole town is in awe of him.
And the hero of this particular novel is mentioned to have had his moment in the trouble-making light. But he's now Lucky Harbor's wonder boy, who is an engineer who works to help install important pieces of equipment in third world countries.
The point is, these boys did their worst, came out unscathed, changed their ways, and everyone loves them and becomes super protective of them. Boys will be boys, and boys will get in trouble, and boys are just like that. But in the end, they are still Lucky Harbor's boys and everyone still loves them and gives them the benefit of the doubt.
On the other hand, troublemakers like Aubrey Wellington, apparently don't get that kind of biased treatment. And therein lies the Double Standard.
Because even as this book progresses, Aubrey continues to get crap thrown at her by people who, yes, she has wronged in the past, but who have also wronged her as well. In another sense, being young and wild, a lot of the things that Aubrey claims she is going around trying to collect penance for... well, I'm not entirely sure all of it was singularly her fault. And she shouldn't be the only one being labeled a troublemaker for it, nor should it fall to her shoulders to take all the weight of the blame.
Most importantly, she's trying to apologize for the things she has screwed up in from her past, and no one will give her the time of day. Some of the people who were on her list were adults during her wild child heyday as a teen troublemaker--one of them, even, is currently an advocate for troubled teens (ironic...). And instead of brushing off her bitchy, trouble-making youth like they all do for the boys of Lucky Harbor, they continue to look down their noses at her, as if they all have a leg to stand on, based on some sort of screwed up moral high ground they view themselves on.
Honestly, I give more leeway to trouble-making teens, because they're still young, and they still have time to reassess their actions and learn from them. Mean-spirited adults, however, are a bit more unforgivable--they should know better.
And the way we see Aubrey's reasons for everything she'd done wrong, a lot of it was in retaliation for how she'd been treated first, except for maybe one or two instances.
Mean girls in high school who were mean to Aubrey first; and Aubrey stepping up and facing them down by out-mean-ing them doesn't come to me as a "big troublemaker screw up." That's survival. A teacher who falsely accuses a student of several wrongdoings, gets her in trouble and suspended, probably shouldn't be surprised when said student turns around and repays that favor. That's Karma. A snooty district attorney who goes out of her way to say demeaning things to a young teenager just because she doesn't approve of her being pretty, then finding herself the butt end of a bad prank. Also not a surprising turnaround. A bunch of stupid kids out drinking and causing general mayhem, who then cross a few lines when someone gets hurt... is simply that: a bunch of stupid kids.
Aubrey was just a stupid kid, just like every other stupid kid that Lucky Harbor produced and raised, who caused trouble and general mayhem, and who eventually learned to grow up and set upon a road to get her life together.
But this is Aubrey's own self-appointed journey to face down her own conscience; so I'm sure there's more insight there than I'm actually seeing.
However, to be totally honest, when she described the situation with the first person she needed to apologize to, I actually felt my eyes widen and my jaw drop. Aubrey felt she'd screwed up and cost her sister an important internship, and her sister has never forgiven her for that incident. Except that, no matter how I read the paragraphs and the snide dialogue from her sister's side, I don't see that the screw up was Aubrey's, nor does her sister have a reason to hold a grudge.
According to the back story:
Carla had needed a favor. She'd found herself needing to be at her job at the same time as she'd needed to sign some documents to accept a very important internship, so she'd asked her look-alike sister to go sign for her.
Aubrey had been working her butt off full-time and trying to keep full-time school hours as well. Busy, exhausted, hungry, and admittedly bitchy, Aubrey had agreed to the favor, even though she'd known it would be a real crunch to get there in time. She'd left a little later than she should have, gotten stuck in traffic, showed up late, and lost Carla the internship.
Look, maybe I'm not seeing the underlying meaning here, but no matter how many times I read these two paragraphs, I can't seem to see how this screw up was Aubrey's responsibility, and how it would have merited Carla's life-long grudge. Nor do I see how it justifies Carla's bitter sniping at Aubrey about how Aubrey was late probably because she was with their mother getting their hair and nails done. Of all the spoiled and privileged bullshit that came out of her sister's mouth, harping about how she had to study at all the toughest schools and become a successful doctor and wah, wah, wah...
Because how many people even have the opportunity to even go to school, nonetheless, the toughest schools? How many people can boast about being in a successful career, rather than at a crossroads in their life because they were never given that kind of opportunity? Carla got chosen by their orthopedic surgeon father who proceeded to have a new life without Aubrey and their mother. So while Carla is complaining about exhausting days in school, Aubrey had to scrounge to find her own way to pay for the opportunity to go to school at all.
So Carla had lost the internship and had to wait another whole year just to get it--big freakin' deal!
But I honestly do not see how that was Aubrey's responsibility to begin with, and that maybe Carla should have managed her time a little bit better. Or at least be understanding that it wasn't like Aubrey had agreed to help and then blew it off on purpose.
I guess, I just didn't see how any of this was Aubrey's fault at all. And on top of that, what about the moral and/or ethical issues of having a stand-in sign for you? What if whatever committee found out that the person who signed hadn't really been Carla? Then what? Point more fingers and tell Aubrey that she'd screwed that up as well?
This entire story irritates me, because it was a pretty great premise that seemed really vanilla in flavor. If Aubrey had truly been a big, bitchy troublemaker, then I'd probably love seeing her growth throughout the book as she went down her list to make amends with people. But most of the antics she'd brought up from her past were somehow over-dramatically misaligned as, terrible, terrible deeds that mar her reputation for life; as her being the main culprit to blame for any and all screw ups.
In reality, a lot of her "wrongs" were either misunderstandings that no one would hear her explanations for; or a case of holier-than-thou adults already writing her off as a troublemaker even when she'd done nothing wrong. Other "wrongs" were just a case of kids being kids--young and stupid, and overly emotional.
I've seen worse from kids when I was a teenager. Heck, even some of the boys in these books talk about some of their own antics that were way worse than what Aubrey's done to other people.
But for some reason, the entire town, whilst able to forgive the sins of every other troubled teenager who caused trouble, especially the boys, sort of just cast Aubrey to the wolves. The entire town can't seem to keep their opinions to themselves as soon as they notice that Ben and Aubrey are seen together in the same breathing space. All of a sudden, the people of Lucky Harbor feel like they need to band together to protect Ben from Aubrey's evil, trouble-making, bitchy ideals.
Even though Ben is the one who keeps interjecting himself into Aubrey's life; even though Aubrey is the one who keeps telling him to go away and mind his own business. Even though Ben was more likely to break hearts than Aubrey would have been to lead him astray of his golden boy status.
It's moments like these that I really, really find myself unable to like the small town of Lucky Harbor. Little bits of dialogue, casually flung around about Aubrey and how "I'm telling you she's trouble" or "You're not good enough for Ben and he deserves better" really don't speak highly of the togetherness that Lucky Harbor is supposed to boast among its residents.
If I were Aubrey, I would have high-tailed it out of that town a long time ago, for all the closed-minded, pre-judgmental attitudes that everyone's been taking with her. Even her father was a complete ass about things and he was barely in the book.
Ben was a troublemaker too--in fact, he admits to doing all sorts of things that would have gotten himself into jail, or maybe worse.
So what made his wrongs so much more forgiving than Aubrey's? What makes it okay for the town to continue writing off Aubrey as a troublemaker, but accept that Ben has grown up and become a better person?
Anyway, hopping back down off of my soapbox of Double Standards.
Once in a Lifetime is a really hard book for me to decide whether I liked it or not.
I loved Aubrey, and I loved her friendship with Leah and Ali. I loved how Aubrey was so willing to own up to her own shortcomings and try to make amends for her wrongdoings. I loved how Aubrey was willing to put herself out there, even though everyone just sneered in her face, or continued to ponder about what other evil acts she's brewing up. I loved how she didn't really make excuses for herself, even though, there came a moment when I really, really wished that someone would just put her reasons for what she'd done out there for all to see.
But aside from all of that, I didn't really love a whole lot else about this book. As I'd stated, I loved Lucille, even though her presence was limited; but each and every silent gesture and nosy info dump she presented was a blessing to Aubrey's plight. I loved the two twin five-year-old girls, even though their tangent seemed a little incoherent with the main story line of this book.
I DID NOT love Ben, unfortunately, because not only was he just another standard broody, male alpha... he let his own misgivings and fears rule his life, thus causing that obligatory romantic angst in any and all romance novels. He even uses Aubrey's self-proclaimed screw ups of her past to punish her emotionally when she tells him why he's also on her list. Like a typical romance novel hero. I also did not love the lack of interaction between the three stooges, Ben, Luke, and Jack; and that what interaction we DID get made Jack out to be more of an ass than he was in his own book. Luke was still great and I still like him a lot.
Finally... I did not like that the book still feels kind of open ended, even as the ending was also super rushed, both for Aubrey's self-journey, as well as our main couple's romance.
Aubrey and Ben had sexual chemistry in spades, I'll give them that. But romantically... I honestly didn't really feel it for them. So their concluding chapter of love declarations and whatnot actually felt really cheesy and forced.
And on a final side note, I think I would have liked to see more of Aubrey's conflict with other people resolved, especially with her father--this relationship was entirely open-ended, and made me a little irritated, especially considering the emotional turmoil that just thinking about her absent father had given her at least three or four times throughout the book.
As I said, sometimes there's just a Jill Shalvis book that you can't figure out. Do I love it? Do I hate it? I'm not even sure. Which is why everyone ends up getting a long-winded ramble of all the things I end up thinking about when I'm reading a book like this.