The Chick: Nina Carlson. After the dissolution of her marriage to an abusive husband, Nina just wants to do the right thing, to prove to the town that she's not a failure or a victim, which is why she decides to evict her ex-con tenant.
The Rub: When a teen carjacker takes out the front of her bakery with his car, that ex-con might be the only person to help bring her store back up to snuff.Dream Casting: Sophia Myles.
The Dude: Dillon Ward. After spending five years in prison for murder, Dillon knows he's only bad news for people who want to get close to him. Nothing good can come of helping people or letting his guard down.
The Rub: Against his better instincts, he feels a need to protect the softhearted, fragile Nina - but his history with helping people's not a very successful one.Dream Casting: Aidan Turner.
Nina: Sorry, M-Mr. Convict Sir, but I have to evict you.
Dillon: Oh, crap.
Emo Foster Kid: *crashes car into bakery*
Nina: Oh crap, the sequel.
Dillon: I'll help you fix it.
All of Nina's Family Members and Her Asshole Ex-Husband: Oh, crap.
Nina: I think I'm in love with you.
Dillon: Oh, CRAP.
Nina's Evil Ex-Husband: Hey, loser, keep hanging out with that murderer and I'll take your kids.
Nina's Evil Ex-Husband's Nose: Oh crap!
Nina: Hawt. Let's date!
Romance Convention Checklist
1 Ex-Con Hero
1 Battered Ex-Wife
1 Sister with Cold Feet
3 Precocious Children
1 Emo Teen
1 Abusive Ex-Husband
The Word: While at the RITA Ceremony during RWA 2010, my pal SuperWendy clapped extra hard when A Not-So-Perfect Past won the RITA for Best Contemporary Series Romance. Wendy gave it a pretty high grade, herself, although she warned me that the heroine might be difficult to like in the earlier chapters. In her words, the heroine starts out as "such a doormat that her abusive husband left her." When I found a free copy of it at my public library, I decided to read it and see what all the fuss was about.
Yup, Nina Carlson is a doormat. She dropped out of college to marry Trey, a sophisticated, handsome psychologist who then spent the remainder of their marriage belittling, insulting, and slapping her around until he left her for a skinny doctor.
While ultimately she's relieved to be free of Trey and his emotional abuse, Nina's still locked pretty tightly into a victim mindset. She may not be taking any more of Trey's crap, but she no longer trusts her perception of herself and relies entirely on the opinions of others to maintain her self-image.
It's thanks to the town's and her overbearing family's insistent concerns for her well-being that she informs her tenant Dillon Ward that he has thirty days to vacate the apartment she owns. The excuse she gives is that she wants to turn the apartment (which shares a building with her bakery) into a tearoom, but the truth is that, as an ex-convict who did five years in maximum security prison for killing his stepfather, Dillon's not the town's most welcome resident.
Nina tells herself she's just doing the right thing, but her confidence is at such a low ebb that "the right thing" almost always means "what her family tells her" and not what she, herself, thinks. After all, she thought Trey would make a great husband, and look where that got her.
Dillon Ward spent his childhood trying to protect his dependent, alcoholic mother and rebellious bad-girl sister Kelsey (heroine of Andrew's previous book Not Without Her Family), until the day he caught his stepfather trying to rape her and ended the scum's life with a baseball bat. After five hard, live-changing years in prison, he keeps even his sister at arm's length and refuses to play the white knight any longer. Not that anyone in town sees him as anything but a vicious criminal.
When Nina hands him that eviction notice, he's more disappointed than angry - although he knows her "excuse" is full of shit, he knew it would have only been a matter of time before the town convinced the weak-willed "cupcake" to cut him loose. He decides to stay in town just long enough to see his sister Kelsey married to Police Chief Jack Martin before putting Serenity Springs, New York, firmly in his rear-view mirror.
However, an Angsty Foster Teen Angry At The World crashes his car into the front of Nina's bakery and changes everything. Dillon, seeing how upset Nina is, impulsively offers his carpentry assistance, only to be shot down by Nina's overprotective father, who insists on arranging for his own contractor. Nina's torn - her father's contractor won't be able to fix her property for two months, but hiring Dillon will only bury her under a deluge of disapproval from her family and the town.
However, deep down, she's tired of being the victim who needs to be rescued, so she carefully sends Life a polite inquiry as to whether it would be proper to grab it by the balls, and accepts Dillon's offer to fix up her baker, with the help of Jesse, the Troubled Foster Kid who wrecked it in the first place.
I never found it hard to sympathize with Nina, because Beth Andrews characterizes her really well. I may not have always liked her dependence on her reputation or her initial insistence on hiding her relationship with Dillon or her complete cluelessness about how much that hurts Dillon's feelings, but I always understood it. She's so desperate to maintain the good opinion of her parents and friends and townsfolk because she can't maintain one for herself. As SuperWendy states, Nina's biggest shame is the fact that her abusive husband had to leave her, because she didn't have the courage to do it herself, and she's terrified at the damage that failure might have done to her young children.
Dillon pretty much has a similar problem - everyone sees him as a dangerous murderer and he agrees. Unlike Nina, he's less ready to fight it. What good came of him trying to do the "right thing"? A man died and he wound up in prison. Any attempt to connect with or help people is bound to blow up in his face. Besides, he's not sure he wants to help Nina - while she appears willing to stand up for herself and get more out of life, parts of her remind him of his mother, who suffered under abusive partners and never protected her kids.
This of course, is why the novel ultimately succeeds - for in this relationship, it's Nina, squishy, chickenshit cupcake Nina, who has to take charge in the relationship for it to work, and boy, does she, with very enjoyable results.
As mentioned before, Beth Andrews' characterization is top-notch. I loved reading about Dillon's slow, unwilling thaw, especially in the presence of Nina's kids. I also enjoyed the depiction of Nina's abusive ex, especially in contrast to Dillon. Dillon's the town outcast and he makes no attempt to be friendly or charming, but Trey is a pretty insidious bastard. Very charming, very reasonable, very ruthless, he upholds a pretty respectable image in town. Physically, he never moved beyond slapping or pushing Nina, but his emotional abuse hasn't stopped even after the divorce. Whenever he's in public he puts on the Compassionate-Condescension-Face, the Respectable-Doctor-Face, and only Nina understands its actual "Me Smart, You Stupid" message that kept her subject and snivelling for so many years, convinced she was a failure as a wife and a mother.
Despite the shorter page-count compared to single title contemporaries, A Not-So-Perfect Past is a well-paced story and despite Nina's and Dillon's pretty severe problems the narrative never seems rushed. If there was anything that kept it from getting an A grade, it was probably the fact that it never delves enough into Dillon's past, in my opinion. The book tapdances around the idea of the "awful" things he had to do in prison but doesn't really go into detail, and I don't like to think I have to read the previous book (Not Without Her Family) to be able to figure out the protagonist of this one. Other than that, yes, Nina starts out the book as a weak, cringing, gullible doormat - but that only makes reading about her progress into a full-fledged character that much more entertaining.B+