Men I've Loved Before tells the story of Nat and Neil, a thirty something couple who seem to have the marriage from heaven. He has a job he adores, friends he gets on with and the perfect wife. She has a fulfilling career, a family who loves her and the perfect husband. They agree on virtually everything, especially the fact that they don't want children. Until Neil decides that he does. Suddenly they are both questioning every facet of their relationship, and Nat wonders whether any of the men she's loved before could have been the One?
I'm conflicted about Adele Parks. Universally I have loved the first hundred pages or so of every single novel she's written (this is the tenth). Parks establishes the set up of characters and relationships perfectly - she creates an entertaining picture of a couple meeting and falling in love. She writes beautifully about chaotic but perfect lives.
For me, where Parks unfailingly falls down is when she inserts the tension into a novel, and her couples start bickering. It all feels so artificial and forced. Here we have a woman who doesn't want to have a baby - but there is a big secret "reason" for this. I find it disappointing that Nat wasn't just against babies because she didn't want them - it is a valid choice these days, and not all women want babies.
I also thought Neil's storyline with the strippers was appalling, and done to fill up some space rather than to progress the plot in a meaningful way.
Lastly, for a couple who are presented as being so together and communicative and honest, why do they have so many problems talking to each other about their issues with the baby factor? *sighs* It was perplexing to me that they descended to arguments rather than just opening up. I found myself literally rolling my eyes in exasperation.
Parks also has an issue writing realistic male characters. One line stood out for me at an early stage of the novel:
"But somewhere, deep down inside him, he'd always found single-man sex unsettling. He found it a problem that even in the very moment of orgasm he'd start to panic about where his next shag would come from."
I put this line to various of my male friends and they LAUGHED at it, they were so unconvinced. That is not the response that Parks wished for, I'll wager! Karl is a stinker of a character - so vile that I shuddered whenever he was on the page. Nat's various exes universally had issues. Even Neil - supposedly the hero of the piece - ends up going to a strip club and staring rather too much at a stripper's nipples (yes, Parks did describe these nipples in sickening detail...)
I think I understand that Parks is trying to present a realistic look at life between a couple - where issues do crop up, and arguments do happen. But, seriously, I just ended up feeling depressed at their constant bickering and wishing I could shake the pair of them. I read chick lit for the escapism, not to feel sucked into the minutiae of painful discussions and problems that are seemingly unresolvable.
So, read the first one hundred pages for a great look at a fun couple. And then firmly close the book. Parks has written far better books.