The romantic mystery is a well-loved recipe for exciting literary meals. The zing of romance, the tension of a good mystery, mixed with liberal portions of interesting characters, topped up with a dash of thrilling action … it’s a taste sensation that can’t be beat. Having just finished The Thin Man in my off-time, I was certain thrilled by the prospect of digging into something that could be in the same vein (at least by the book blurb) in There’s Always Love.
Before we look at this particular recipe, let us recite the Starving Review creed:
- I attempt to rate every book from the perspective of a fan of the genre
- I attempt to make every review as spoiler-free as possible.
Let’s start with the positives. Ms. Russ has the kernels of a great mystery here and there are many threads that could prove interesting in the knotted background of the protagonist. There are twists, secrets, and betrayals, all great spices to throw into the mix of a romantic mystery. The problem, though, is that all of these spices are used simply as a little dash here or there.
Let me explain further. Usually, when you bake a literary treat like this, you use a liberal mix of the two key elements: romance and mystery. Sure, the chef might add a dash more of this, or a bit more of that, but there’s a balance there. Love, as its title foreshadows, sheds the mystery and thriller aspects for at least eighty percent of the book, if not more. The key mystery, the thing the protagonist sets out to solve at the start, only occasionally pokes through the rest of the romantic narrative. Yes, some of the remainder is devoted to family drama and the occasional foreshadowed bit that ties back into the main mystery, but the romance elements far outweigh the mystery. This is especially confusing as the book blurb doesn’t even mention the romantic elements that dominate the book. It’s like writing down on the menu that you are serving pizza only to put out ice cream instead for dinner. It’s not automatically a bad thing, but it’s not what you said you were serving.
This could turn out to be a good thing, all the same. As you may know, the Starving Reviewer enjoys a juicy romance. However, we don’t really get that served to us either. Our two protagonists fall in love in the first chapter, marry swiftly, and never have that love tested. They remain in stasis, in a perpetual state of newlywed highs for the entire length of the recipe, which takes place over a year or more of in-world time. There’s no build-up to the romance, no layers of spice cake before the sweet center. With no build-up and no proven chemistry, there’s no drama and no pay-off. They don’t even bicker or, if my memory is correct, even really disagree on anything in the entire book.
If anything, the only real drama in this recipe revolves around the complicated strands of the main female protagonist’s family and the secrets revealed. This too could have saved the book, especially as it ties into the main mystery, but this is drained of flavor by the presentation. We, the readers, are told many, many things alongside the protagonists, but we rarely see them do anything to find these things out or do anything about them. There are reactions, sure, but even those are a bit muted. It robs the protagonists’ of all agency … even the big mystery itself is resolved, for the most part, by outsiders wrapped up in an out-of-left-field deus ex machina.
The last thing that might have come in and salvaged Love would have been great characters. We aren’t lucky enough to get that. Again, there is potential here. I can feel the struggle of characters, mostly our main heroine, trying to break the surface and express themselves, but being rendered devoid of agency, much of that characterization is lost. This is doubly hamstrung by the overall writing style, which struggles to give any of the book’s characters a unique voice in the dialogue. There is no snark, no fire, no quips, no stumbling, no … anything. Also, a total lack of commas in the entire manuscript did little to help.
I know this has been a rough review. However, as I have said many times, I review these treats in my pantry to help their chefs, to be critical so that they can improve and also to spread the good word to readers. So, to reiterate, there are some good elements here and some real potential.
That doesn’t do much to help my final summation, which is that There’s Always Love might have some potential mystery but it’s overwhelmed by excessive, sparkless romance and dull characterization. If the chef were to take this back to the kitchen, rebalance the recipe, and put the protagonists really into the mix of the mystery, this could turn into a well-baked cake. Until then, though, I’d say keep this out of your pantry, readers.
FINAL VERDICT: ** (A hint of mystery spices overwhelmed by sparkless romance, lack of agency, and dull characterization!)