It Had to be You
by Sarah Webb
(Avon, $13.95, PG) ISBN 978-0-06-057168-9
***
The cover of this novel proclaims it to be “the Irish #1 bestseller,” which, if true, is puzzling.  It Had to be You is a gentle, likeable piece of Irish Chick Lit, but it certainly doesn’t scream “runaway blockbuster,” and there’s little to distinguish it from other entries in the genre besides a cadre of sweet beta heroes for our three heroines.   

The novel takes place in and around the small Irish town of Burnaby, and much of the activity occurs at the Happily Ever After Bookstore, managed by Molly Harper.  Unfortunately the store has just been sold to Milo Jones, a smarmy businessman with suspicious motives, no experience selling (or reading) books, and a handsome son.  Despite Sam Jones’ obvious interest in her, Molly wants nothing to do with him – at least at first.   

Meanwhile Molly’s best friend Paige Brady has her hands full running for local office while also caring for her husband and two young children.  She faces increasing stress when the local child care center temporarily closes and the election becomes increasingly nasty, but she finds a way to keep everything under control, until unexpected news throws her life off balance again.  Our third leading lady, Molly’s flatmate Kate Bowan, recently returned from a ten-year residence in the United States.  She juggles a job at a shoe store with Dublin Dummy Dates, the business she established to provide dating advice to clueless men.  One of her clients refuses to play by the rules, but he’s the least of her problems when a blast from the past – and the reason she bolted back to Ireland – appears at her door.   

The main thing that struck me as I read It Had to be You was its gentleness.  Most of the main characters’ conflicts are resolved without major fireworks – even the stalker ex-boyfriend who won’t let go of one of the women is more accommodating than creepy.  The men who bring hopes of happily-ever-after to the heroines are mild-mannered as well, with low-key professions and a keen interest in children.  They may not signal danger and excitement, but they definitely are in it for the long haul.   

The heroines’ story arcs are largely predictable.  The most enjoyable chapters portray the ups and downs of Paige’s campaign as she “doorsteps” through the village, participates in local debates and appears in the media.  Less engaging is the clichéd heartache that Kate faces when Mr. Wrong comes back into her life.  This plot is especially disappointing because the author sets up a promising potential match between Kate and her charming but slightly goofy client, then drops the story precipitously in favor of the soap opera melodrama.  Molly’s tale is somewhere in the middle – her love story is sweet but almost uneventful, and she overcomes some strong self-esteem issues to find professional happiness as well.  

Because the novel centers around a bookstore, the story features numerous book club meetings and other literary events.  The featured writers and their works are fictional, but it’s fun trying to guess which, if any, real authors they represent, and refreshing to see Sarah Webb’s unapologetic defense of her genre.  When the bookstore’s new owner proposes promoting literary fiction instead of romance novels, Molly protests: “Sure it was sentimental and maybe a little overoptimistic, but hell, why not?  People needed a bit of light relief and a little hope.  Life was hard enough without having to read depressing stories all the time.  There was definitely a place for some optimism in the world.  Not to mention love.”  

She could just as well be justifying the existence of It Had to be You.  It won’t change your world, but it will provide several hours of cozy enjoyment.  

--Susan Scribner


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