Thursday, June 7, 2012

Book Review: Monarch Beach

By Melissa Amster

When I was younger, I loved reading "The Babysitter's Club." My favorite stories were about when the girls went on vacation. Sometimes they'd be part of the series and other times, they'd be stand-alone books that featured all the characters and their sides of the story. Those were the best. I think the first involved a Disney cruise and Disney World. It was like a vicarious vacation and sometimes involved romance (at least on the pre-teen level). In any case, reading "Monarch Beach" by Anita Hughes reminded me of the days when vacation was just a page turn away.

Amanda Blick gave up her dreams of a career for the domestic life of a PTA mom, married to a successful chef in a small town. Then, on what she dubs as Black Tuesday, she finds her husband romantically entangled with the female sous chef at his restaurant. In an effort to escape the possibility of running into one of her husband's many flings, she escapes to the St. Regis at Laguna Beach with her mother and son. It's an easy escape as it involves being swept into a world of decadence; when anything she wants is within reach at any time of the day. Then she meets an older divorcee who only has eyes for her and soon gets swept up in the romance of it all. Will Amanda be able to take a chance on love, even at the risk of getting hurt again?

"Monarch Beach" is Anita Hughes' debut novel, but it's hard to tell that this is her first time "at bat." She writes a captivating story that flows so easily throughout. I found it to be irresistible and couldn't put it down. I was even reading it in the car while sitting at five minute long Maryland stoplights! The decadence of Amanda's vacation made me feel like I was laying on the golden sand, soaking up the sun's rays and listening to the gentle waves of the ocean...all while drinking a strawberry daiquiri (just because those are my favorite) and reading a good book. Yes, this is the ultimate beach read, and you don't even need to be on a beach to feel like you're there. Putting down the book to get back to real life felt like coming back from a vacation each time! I liked Amanda's voice and how she tried to be strong, even in the face of heartbreak. She didn't wallow in self-pity, but was still honest with her emotions. She really knew how to stand her ground and then pick up and move on. There were so many layers that made her a complex and intriguing character. She was around 32 years old and sometimes seemed years older or years younger, depending on the situation. The other part I really enjoyed were the "romantic" scenes. Ms. Hughes has given Sue Margolis (who writes amazing "romantic" scenes) a run for her money! I was reading these scenes with a huge grin on my face and I'm pretty sure I was blushing too. (I could feel it.) I even warned a friend not to read these scenes while in public because they led to such reactions! Amanda had a lot of fashion sense, as she originally wanted to be a fashion designer, so the descriptions of clothing were fabulous. I wish she were around to design my wardrobe! I also love the cover of the book. It's easy to get lost in that beach scene!

While I liked a lot about this story, there were a few things that didn’t sit quite right. I want to bring these to Ms. Hughes’ attention because I see her writing other fantastic novels and I want her to catch and change these things before they become cause for concern in the future. The first thing I noticed was how the characters seemed to react impulsively. I won’t share all the examples as to not give spoilers, but right from the beginning, Amanda saw her husband having relations with another woman and filed for divorce the next day. I know there’s more to the story, but she pretty much shut down after that incident and saw only one path to redemption. She also had impulsive reactions to other situations in the story, as well as did other characters.

What I feel caused Amanda’s impulsiveness was her wealth. Her situation was unique in that she had a lot of money that would be all hers when she turned 30. It was a safety net for her that allowed her to just be able to get a divorce and not look back. Her mother’s wealth and influence also had play into Amanda’s decisions. Not many women getting divorced have it as easy as Amanda did. However, her wealth didn’t make her act snobby or elitist. She was down-to-earth and easy to relate to. Her husband didn’t want her money and she chose to live by lesser means, even though she could have spent her money as soon as she had it available. (I’m surprised she didn’t divorce him for that reason alone!) In any case, being wealthy did not make Amanda invincible from heartache and stress.

Finally, there were some contradictions in behavior that I noticed in the story. Amanda was always talking about wanting to be a good mother, yet she barely spent any time with her son during the three months at the beach, and when she did, her mind was elsewhere or she was doing other things. Then her mother was encouraging her to meet someone new (a male companion, of course) and when she did, her mom wasn’t that supportive of her budding relationship.
Picture from the St. Regis at Laguna Beach

Having said all that, I really enjoyed “Monarch Beach” and was sad when it ended. I would have loved to see an epilogue saying where Amanda was a year from the end of her vacation. Maybe Ms. Hughes will bring Amanda back in other stories so we can keep up with her life. I also need to mention that I was initially hesitant to read this story because the topic of infidelity and divorce has become so cliché in the chick lit genre. I was worried this would fall into that trap. However, I was delighted to read a fresh voice on the topic and the story never became stale or dry at all! I have a feeling Ms. Hughes will become a HUGE name in chick lit soon enough, especially with this delicious beach read as her debut!

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