Elizabeth Walker is an award-winning children’s author. When she was five years old, her father, a judge, was killed in a fire in their home. Her mother had died in childbirth previously. Elizabeth’s two younger sisters were adopted, but Elizabeth was placed in Texas’s foster care system. Through those difficult years, she developed a close sisterly bond with another foster child, Gina D’Angelo, that has continued into adulthood.
Gina has had a long-term, sometimes abusive, relationship with Austin Leggett, a lawyer in the firm where she is employed as a paralegal. Together they have a daughter Jesse, Elizabeth’s godchild. When Gina and Austin separate, Elizabeth is glad to have mother and daughter move in with her. An elderly neighbor, Louie Christian, acts as a surrogate grandfather to Jesse. Traumatized by the domestic strife in her young life, Jesse depends on Elizabeth for stability. Elizabeth, in turn, is devoted to Jesse even as she recognizes Gina’s failings as a mother.
Gina sues Austin for custody and child support, and another lawyer Ryan Paxton, is assigned by Austin’s father, a name partner in the firm, to represent him. Ryan dislikes the irresponsible Austin but has no reason to doubt his client’s version: that Gina and Elizabeth may have a lesbian relationship, that Gina is lying about any abuse, that the suit is merely to pressure him into a large financial settlement. Researching the case, Ryan discovers that Elizabeth is the daughter of Matthew Walker, the man whom he blames for his father’s suicide.
Ryan has his own family problems. His teenaged daughter Jennifer lives with his ex-wife. When Jennifer, who’s underage, and two friends take a family car, she hits a bicycle rider. Ryan’s ex-wife insists she cannot handle her and Jennifer must move in with him.
A newspaper article about Elizabeth brings unwanted attention: her two younger sisters, a television reporter and a doctor, wish to reestablish a relationship with her. Elizabeth is uncomfortable with reopening that stage of her life and tries to rebuff them.
During the court hearing, Ryan is impressed with Elizabeth and begins to suspect that Austin has lied to him. Against his lawyer’s advice, Austin tries to circumvent the court proceedings by meeting with Gina without their lawyers in attendance. Gina is critically injured in an auto accident which will have repercussions on Elizabeth’s life.
Private Lives is being marketed as a romance but could more properly be termed women’s fiction. The story focuses more on other aspects of Elizabeth’s life than on the romance. In addition to the romance between Elizabeth and Ryan, the story includes subplots on Gina’s relationship with Austin, Jesse’s emotional trauma, Elizabeth’s reconnecting with her biological sisters, Ryan’s relationship with his daughter, and the past events involving Elizabeth’s and Ryan’s fathers. There’s so much going on, in fact, that the romance is overshadowed for much of the book.
Character development in Private Lives is somewhat uneven - Elizabeth and Ryan, as would be expected, are the most developed characters. Others, including Austin, Louie, and Elizabeth’s sisters, remain fairly one-dimensional. If Austin’s character had more depth, his relationship with Gina and his subsequent actions would be more understandable. As it is, he remains a classic jerk and no more.
Elizabeth and Ryan are appealing characters. They are mature and responsible with none of the over-agitated histrionics that might weaken their credibility. They are not without faults - Ryan shares equal blame for the breakup of his marriage - but they’re decent people who are right for each other.
In the domestic abuse storyline, Elizabeth stands for the rest of us: how could Gina stay with a man who repeatedly abuses her and inflicts such emotional abuse on their daughter? Gina’s character is never explored with much depth so the question is never fully answered, only suggested.
Jennifer’s passage from out-of-control teen to responsible heroine remains unconvincing. She’s obviously been the victim of her parents’ divorce and her mother’s inconstant nature. The shift is too abrupt - the book would have readers believe that daddy’s taking control can remedy all her hang-ups.
The story’s conclusion deserves comment. As a matter of course, I expect all the loose ends in a plot tied up by the end, but there’s something of a real-life tone to this ending that I found particularly satisfying.
For readers who are looking for a well-plotted story and who won’t mind an underweight romance, Private Lives could be a good choice.