Spoiler warning! This is a direct continuation of part one of The Belhaven series, How Not to Fall, and while the reader is given enough context to understand what happened in the previous book, it will not make as much sense or have the emotional resonance for the reader unless you have read the first one. Seriously, these books are two halves of a whole story. Also, you will probably get spoilers for the first book in the series in this review. So maybe skip it until you've read part one. It's a really great start to a romance, and I promise you that the second part gives the story a satisfactory ending.
At the end of an extremely steamy month of physical intimacy, medical student Annabelle "Annie" Coffey can't help but fall in love with her intense lover, Dr. Charles Douglas, only to be told that due to the horrible abuse he watched his family go through at the hands of his father, and the extreme emotional strain this has had on him, Charles isn't capable of returning her feelings. Their arrangement was always meant to be one month of no strings attached sex, before they went their separate ways, remaining friends. Utterly heartbroken, Annie is in no fit state to maintain any sort of friendship. She leaves Charles without even saying goodbye and goes home to her parents, hurt and devastated, to slowly put herself back together. The couple meet briefly a month later, at Annie's best friend's wedding, and Charles is mortified at how much he has hurt her.
They don't have any contact or see each other for nearly a year. Having worked closely together for years before they started their sexual relationship, both deeply miss the company and professional input of the other. Annie keeps writing long e-mails to Charles, but never sends them. She knows he will be at a big conference in London, where she will be presenting, however, and having spent their time apart trying to come to grips with her feelings for him, and recalibrating them, so they might have a chance at a friendship, she reaches out and asks to meet Charles when they are both in England.
Back in London for the first time in four years, Charles also has to face his family again. His genius computer programmer brother and his long-suffering, abused mother. When the airport is closed down suddenly as Annie is due to fly back to the US, she ends up staying over at Charles' brother and gets to meet and see for herself just how monstrous his father actually is. She begins to see the challenges Charles struggles against and what is he fighting so desperately not to become.
While at least the first two thirds of How Not to Fall is all laughter, intimacy, getting to know each other better, the flutterings of infatuation and a LOT of smexy times, the last third shows that in the face of severe psychological damage, the love of a good woman and an amazing physical connection isn't enough to magically heal.
In How Not to Let Go both Annie and Charles have to change and redefine their relationship. Annie has to get over her initial heartbreak and figure out if her heart has lied to her, or if Charles is worth loving and keeping in her life, even if she can never be his partner. It takes her a year of processing and soul-searching before she's ready to consider a friendship with him, despite their continued physical attraction. Charles, on the other hand, is gutted that he ever caused Annie a moment of pain and has spent a year just trying to be worthy of her respect. Through a lot of gruelling therapy, he's started mapping out exactly how messed up his psyche is and how many protective layers there are, keeping him from being able to allow himself to get close to or trust anyone.
There is a LOT of pain in this book and several rounds of gruelling emotional exploration. It's quite clear that both Annie and Charles are better together than apart, but Charles has such a long way to go before he can return Annie's love and his family situation really is so very messed up. While the first book was told entirely from Annie's point of view, this one has more or less alternating chapters from Annie and Charles, so the reader gets to fully see inside Charles as he works his way up from the pit of despair, through the swamp and wasteland, up rage mountain to battle the metaphorical dragon, before he can begin to break down the walls surrounding his inner self.
With How Not to Fall, I had trouble putting the book down, and kept reading long after it was entirely sensible. I find Annie and Charles such incredibly compelling characters and kept wanting to read more about them. In this book, I occasionally had to take a break, though, as their emotional journey was absolutely exhausting to me. While the first book focuses mostly on Annie, the second book is probably more Charles'. We get to meet Charles' family, his anorexic little sister, who has no end of imagination games to parse out people's inner psyche; his extremely brilliant and sensitive younger brother, who seems to express himself best through piano playing; his lovely mother and see the joy they can share when Charles senior, Lord Belhaven is nowhere near them. We also get to see the contrast in Annie's home life with her incredibly loving and supportive parents.
The first book ends on a cliffhanger, when Annie leaves Charles. The second book begins at the same place. Neither book will be entirely satisfying without the other, they are really two halves of a whole story. While some romances get the couple together quickly and spend very little time actually having them get to know each other, the opposite has to be said for Emily Foster. By the end of the book, Annie and Charles have known each other for about four years, and have had their "Thing" for the best end of two. The course of their true love certainly doesn't run smooth, and there is a lot of pain to work through and a whole lot of metaphorical dragon slaying to do before they can have a chance at their HEA.
I have no idea if Foster intends to write any more about the younger Charles siblings, but based on their appearances in this book, I would absolutely love to see a book starring Charles' younger brother Simon as a hero, or his wounded but snarky younger sister Elizabeth as a heroine. Preferably both. I know that she primarily writes scientific non-fiction, but based on these two books, it would be a terrible shame if she didn't continue writing realistic and very satisfying romance as well.
And with this, I post my final book review of the year. Cannonball 9 starts on January 1st. Anyone interested in participating can sign up here.
Judging a book by its cover: How Not to Fall had a couple embracing and kissing in the rain, here the weather is a lot more sunny (possibly indicative of the brighter times faced by the couple towards the very end of the book). It may just be me, but the male cover model reminds me a lot of Ryan Gosling. Charles does not. I forget exactly how Annie is described in the book, but I'm pretty sure the female cover isn't a very good match for her. Nonetheless, it's a sweet and romantic book cover. Doesn't quite match the emotional turmoil of the contents, but there IS a happy ending, so maybe I'm just being overly critical.