|There are many authors who can convince their readers that love and passion are possible in exotic locations like Europe or in historical settings like the Regency period. Barbara Bretton makes me believe that romance can happen in New Jersey. There are no princesses, spies or supernatural beings in her novels – just ordinary people like you and me who are fortunate enough to have the extraordinary experience of finding true love.
Antiques dealer Kate French is exhausted and jet-lagged from her recent trip to Europe, so when she starts feeling ill as she drives towards Princeton, New Jersey she dismisses her symptoms as trivial. The next thing she knows, she’s lying in a shopping mall parking lot with alarming chest pains, holding the hand of a handsome stranger in a Grateful Dead t-shirt. She has only a moment to hope that nobody can see the red lace thong that she’s wearing only because all of her nice white cotton briefs are in the laundry before she completely blacks out. When she wakes up in the hospital, she learns that she suffered a mild heart attack.
Mark Kerry finds himself at the right place and the right time to help the attractive woman in trouble, but in the confusion of the ambulance ride, emergency room and a hospital transfer, he is separated from her before he can learn her name. Although his life is in a state of transition, he’s determined to find her again, if only to give her the box of documents she dropped when she fainted. When Mark and Kate finally connect, they realize there is a strong, almost magical connection that links them. Practical, unsentimental Kate is afraid to trust these new feelings, since her doctor warned her about the unusual emotional mood swings she could experience for several months after her attack. Mark is more sure about his feelings but reluctant to act on them when he is about to make a major life change.
In a quick 300 pages, Barbara Bretton utilizes her trademark humor and insight to tell the love story of two people who could be your next-door neighbors. While you’re chuckling at Kate’s futile attempts to find one pair of clean white panties, you’re nodding in recognition as she describes her young adult daughter’s ability to “suck all of the oxygen right out of [Kate’s] lungs with her melodramatic outbursts.” Then you’re caught up in the powerful emotion that is so clearly evident the first time Mark and Kate meet, and again when they re-connect after Kate is released from the hospital (Bretton wisely refrains from turning the story into a Sleepless In Seattle meet-on-the-last-page saga). Their courtship is filled with ordinary events like dining out, playing poker with friends and necking on the sunroom glider, but there’s also a sense of magic that makes even the most cynical reader believe in the existence and power of true love. It helps that both main characters are so likeable, and that the family and professional issues they’re also dealing with are instantly recognizable and relatable. Extra points for making Kate’s ex-husband a perfectly nice guy who just wasn’t the right one for her.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is a strong religious element running throughout the novel. I wouldn’t call it an Inspirational Romance, but faith plays a major part in the story. It would have been helpful if the back cover description offered a clue about that particular theme, but the publisher probably didn’t want to scare away any prospective readers.
I finished reading Just Like Heaven with a happy sigh, turned to my husband of 20 years, and asked, “Do you remember the first time we said I Love You to each other?” Fortunately he’s no fool, so he confirmed that he did indeed remember that momentous occasion. Bretton has few peers among contemporary romance novelists when it comes to combining escapist romance with everyday, messy reality. She’ll make you believe that love can happen anywhere – or make you grateful that you’ve been fortunate enough to find it.