Squee from the Keeper Shelf is a feature wherein we share why we love the books we love, specifically the stories which are permanent residents of our Keeper shelves. Despite flaws, despite changes in age and perspective, despite the passage of time, we love particular books beyond reason, and the only thing better than re-reading them is telling other people about them. At length.
If you’d like to submit your reasons for loving and keeping a particular book for Squee from the Keeper Shelf, please email Sarah!
If you ask me for my top 5 romances ever, Poppy Jenkins by Clare Ashton will be at or near the top of the list. One of the best books I read a couple of years ago, it has a stunning friends-to-lovers, second-chance relationship and enough angst to make reading it hurt so good (and that’s true on each reread, too). To say I was excited when Ashton dropped her newest book, The Goodmans, would be an understatement. If you heard a high-pitched squeal in the distance, that may have been me. I’m happy to report that I was not disappointed and I was left with a massive book hangover when I finished it. The tagline on the cover says “Even the nicest families have secrets” and WHOA, do they ever.
Jude Goodman is heading to her sleepy hometown on the England/Wales border for the weekend, leaving her boyfriend in the city like always. She arrives in the village sure of three things: nothing ever really changes in Ludbury, her mismatched parents are just right together, and her deep and abiding friendship with the town’s doctor, Abby Hart, is one of the best parts of her life. Little does Jude know that change is afoot.
Abby has been in love with Jude for years, but she’s never been able to say so. Not only is Jude straight, but the Goodmans are like family to Abby, and Jude’s mother, Maggie, has never hidden her homophobia. While Maggie’s always loved Abby as fiercely as her own children, she can’t seem to stop herself from suggesting that Abby settle down with a man at every opportunity. So, Abby dates every so often, contents herself with the closeness she has with Jude, and tries not to think too often about how attracted she is to her best friend.
Maggie’s embarking on a new phase of life, having recently been forced to retire from teaching. She frequently battles the xenophobic Brexiter next door and fumes at the inequality that’s rampant in Ludbury and across the UK, as more people are left vulnerable thanks to austerity and other similar measures. Also, even though he remains her best friend in the world, Maggie and Richard are divorcing after thirtyish years of marriage. She may be ready for their marriage to be over, but Maggie isn’t at all ready to tell their kids, despite it being obvious that Richard is living in the attic of their home and is moving on with his life.
On this particular weekend, Jude’s little brother, Eli, is coming back for a visit, so the Goodmans are throwing a party. Rascal and drama seeker that he is, Eli shows up with a woman and announces that they’re getting married. When Jude’s boyfriend shows up out of nowhere, ready for a little celebration of his own because he made partner at his law firm and acts like a gigantic dick, it doesn’t go well, turning their five-year relationship into a huge question mark.
And that’s just the setup! While The Goodmans is definitely a romance, it doesn’t focus entirely on one couple. Instead, the perspective shifts between Abby, Jude, and Maggie as we see all the changes happening in Ludbury and within the Goodman family. Abby and Jude have a lovely friends-to-lovers relationship that is incredibly satisfying and manages to not at all be a repeat of Poppy, which made me happy. I actually can’t talk about Maggie’s storyline except to say that it’s masterfully developed, because if I do, it will spoil literally all the best things about this book and you need to just read it and experience it. If I have any complaint about The Goodmans, it’s that I can’t discuss any of the plot points that moved me the most (all of which revolve around Maggie), which is SO frustrating. I can say, however, that they are stunning and raw and are part of the Goodman family’s secrets, and I may have skimmed the last quarter before going back and savouring it properly because I couldn’t go to sleep without making sure everything resolved well!
One of the things I most admire about Clare Ashton is her versatility as an author. She’s self-published five books now and they’re all different and excellent. Her stories are intricately plotted, her pacing is excellent, and she writes characters that I get immediately attached to—and The Goodmans is no exception. While Jude and Abby are both incredibly likeable and a joy to read about, Maggie might just be Ashton’s most complex character to date, as she feels everything deeply and is reluctant to let go of the past despite knowing she needs to step into her new future. She also has a fraught relationship with Jude and we watch as Maggie is consumed with parental love even as she can’t seem to ever reach her daughter. It’s in a moment that she’s contemplating this very problem that I was especially struck by how exquisite Ashton’s prose can be:
Maggie could remember, as if a blink of an eye had passed, that Jude would cling around Maggie’s neck for her dear young life.
How did the same tiny girl curled on her lap turn into the bright, independent woman who managed people’s health? Maggie was proud and devastated at the same time. Richard had maintained his position of respect, always an involved parent although never with the same fierce love as Maggie’s—a love that had once nurtured and inspired but one, it seemed, that must be rejected to gain independence.
It never changed for Maggie. How was she meant to let go?
Sometimes, instead of having a single daughter, it felt as if she were grieving the loss of hundreds. The baby that clung to her little finger. The toddler who squealed with delight at her first steps. The small girl who said “I love you” for the first time with no ceremony and without realising it almost broke Maggie’s heart with joy. The teenager who broke down when she needed Mum one last time. It was like her daughter disappeared over and over again. All those incredible people who Maggie would never meet again, some of whom were remembered only by her. And she felt colossal loneliness at the realisation.
That right there. That hit me like a ton of bricks and brought tears to my eyes, because as a parent of small kids, I also find myself missing the versions that are gone, even as I’m thrilled by each new one that I meet. I didn’t always like Maggie or the things she said and did, but it was in those moments that I felt like I knew her. I was surprised to find that I adored her by the end and I was so very glad for her happily ever after, which still twists my heart a little each time that I think about it.
The Goodmans is the best book I’ve read in 2018 and I suspect it will be my book of the year. I will be reading it over and over for the rest of my life, giving it to friends as gifts, and recommending it to literally anyone who will listen to me. Also, it’s less than $6 for the ebook, which is a great price for an f/f romance, especially since it’s around 375 pages long. If you haven’t read anything by Clare Ashton before, this is a very fine place to start, and if you’re already a fan, you’re going to adore The Goodmans. It’s lesbian romance at its finest and everyone who likes an angsty read should pick it up.
This great Squee from the Keeper Shelf is from Tara Scott. If you want to see Tara’s other guest reviews (and we highly recommend that you do), you can see them all here.
Tara reads a lot of lesbian romances. You can catch her regularly reviewing at The Lesbian Review and Lambda Literary and hear her talk about lesbian fiction (including romance) on her podcast Les Do Books. You can also hit her up for recommendations on Twitter (@taramdscott).
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