“For fans of One Day, What Alice Forgot and Sliding Doors”. Well I wasn’t exactly wowed by One Day but while I’m also not a fan of anything Gwyneth Paltrow, I was quite familiar and intrigued with the premise of Sliding Doors. I think I stopped reading the blurb after that and just requested this automatically.
So one can imagine my surprise with how Then and Alwaysseemed to be a sleepy Adult Contemporary Romance one chapter playing with sci-fi, paranormal possibilities the next while wallowing too long with the usual suspects of cliched tropes and triggers. It was a very conflicting reading experience for me until the final chapter which made sense in one level, albeit a little manipulative in another.
But then I was hardly emotionally invested with these characters so I guess… no harm done?
This started with Rachel Wilshire and her friends having dinner, each about to head off separately toward their individual futures. For Rachel it’s university, Journalism and Matt, her handsome and affluent boyfriend. That was until a tragic, freak accident changes everything, when Jimmy, the childhood friend who may have been secretly in love with her, sacrificed his life in order to save her.
Fast forwards five years later, Rachel is a lowly secretary outside London. She is single, physically scarred and living in a shabby flat atop a laundromat. Her father has cancer and is burdened with insurmountable grief and guilt. Forced to face the friends she’s turned her back on, she finds herself drowning in a heady mix of regret and drugs. She ends up in the hospital and comes out of it living the life taken away from her all those years ago: She’s working in a London magazine, her father is healthy, she’s engaged to Matt… and Jimmy is alive. But at the same time, she can remember details from that other miserable life too vividly for it to be a dream or the symptoms of a nervous breakdown.
If not for how this ended, this was an easy 2-star read for me. It started at a creeping pace followed by a mildly interesting middle plagued with the usual pitfalls I loathe in Contemporary Romance. The narrative was told solely from Rachel's POV and I did like how this kept me guessing right to the end what exactly was going on. The red herrings were pretty clever, at one point I even guessed [spoiler]Matt turns out to be a quantum physicist and he sent Rachel to an alternate universe where their relationship can get another chance.[/spoiler]
A lot of people would probably not look at that plot twist at the end too favourably. But considering the alternative where the cliched lines, the love triangle, the big misunderstanding, the macho posturing and the cheating is intended gratuitously… well we need to count our blessings, fellow reader.
There is a point to all this I suppose but it got to levels of ridiculous and cloying before getting there. The bigger message could have been conveyed with better finesse and had to power through a couple of Avoiding Commitment flashbacks this seemed to set off with me, but I won’t deny that this did have some redemptive moments.
”…it’s heartbreaking to see you like this.”
I hadn’t realized his words had made me cry until he lifted my face gently with his finger and dabbed at my eyes with the folded napkin. His voice was still soft and low. “And I’ve certainly never seen you cry this much, not even when you kept falling off your bike when you were eight years old.”
I am such a sucker for the childhood friends-to-lovers trope that I can’t believe this faltered in that very aspect. I mean he died and now he’s alive again and they get the chance to finally be together… HOW CAN YOU SCREW THAT UP?!
Then and Always has placed the entire emotional pulse of its story in its heroine, yet I never felt any depth to Rachel’s sorrow and it was an endless struggle to sympathize with her grief and regrets. Right at the very end, I felt like I hardly knew her. Why does Matt even insist on going after her? Or Jimmy, for that matter? She sounds like this meek chick who just likes to go emo from time to time while two men fight over her from time to time. There was no easing into these characters and instead, this throws you right into the moshpit with them. Which is, you know, a little disorienting. It gave very little opportunity for me to get to know these strangers and to actually care about where this story is going to take them.
Even worse, this failed to communicate the gravity of her friendship with Jimmy, taking away that bittersweet element of love that was lost and found again. I actually feel that it was this book’s greatest miss: not being able to capitalize on that relationship.
While this wasn’t an entirely bad book and one I can probably recommend to friends with some reservations, I can’t help but feel the overwhelming disappointment of the opportunities this missed. Which is quite ironic seeing as this was a book about second chances. This had the right tools to carve you from inside out… but lacked the sharp precision in executing that final, killing blow.
ARC courtesy of RH-Ballantine thru Netgalley.