A retirement community. Turtles. A tattooed love interest who rides a motorcycle. An old-soul protagonist with a fear of the outside world. That’s just about all you need to know about Sally Thorne’s new romance novel, “Second First Impressions.”
Ruthie, the protagonist, has worked and lived in Providence Retirement Luxury Villa for years. She has her daily routine down: serving the wealthy residents, eating her afternoon yogurt and taking bubble baths, until Teddy, the son of Providence’s owner, arrives to shake up her monotonous life. Teddy is everything Ruthie is not — tattooed, edgy, adventurous — and when he takes up a job at Providence, Ruthie is wrenched out of her comfortable routine. Though Ruthie is initially wary of the new arrival at the retirement community, Teddy is irresistibly charming, and Ruthie soon finds herself questioning her sheltered existence.
Thorne misses the mark in this novel. From lackluster character development to a predictable plot, every aspect of her upcoming book falls disappointingly short. Ruthie and Teddy lack depth and their relationship seems forced and improbable. At first, Ruthie’s perspective is full of angst, as she wonders whether she will ever meet her “patient, safe cuddle bug soul mate” or if she will spend her whole life at the retirement villa. As an answer to Ruthie’s prayers, Teddy shows up. He is, however, not what she expected of a love interest, and she is resistant to his affections. The subsequent portion of the novel is spent in similar distress, as Ruthie wonders whether she should trust “tattoo guy … with his expensive teeth.” Predictably, as Ruthie starts developing feelings for Teddy, she must rethink her isolated life at the retirement village and consider the possibilities of life in the world outside of it.
The most obvious and problematic consequence of this storyline is that Ruthie is essentially “saved” by Teddy. Would she have wasted her life away at the retirement home had Teddy not swooped in to take her away? Ruthie feels like a quirky manifestation of the “damsel in distress” trope, waiting for her perfect prince to appear and save her from her monotonous life.
Teddy’s character is equally formulaic. He is territorial and protective, the embodiment of the bad-boy-with-a-soft-heart archetype. It often feels like Teddy’s only defining trait is his physical appearance, as Ruthie uses phrases like “tight muscles” and “exceedingly rare” to describe him. Ruthie and Teddy don’t feel like real, multi-dimensional people. Instead, they are like walking stereotypes, and the affection they develop for each other seems ingenuine and unconvincing.
Reading a good rom-com should feel like a warm bath or a hug; “Second First Impressions” feels like a slog through the mud. The novel moves slowly, full of Ruthie’s worries, her repetitive routine and her fear of being alone. It is easy to quickly lose sight of the plot in Ruthie’s tedious and angsty speculations about her future. Teddy and Ruthie’s love story develops at a snail’s pace, as Teddy immediately shows his interest and Ruthie slowly warms up to him. The result is lots of longing eye contact and daydreaming on Ruthie’s part, while Teddy painstakingly flirts and fumbles his way into her heart. The romance, drawn-out and lackluster as it is, does not offer a welcome escape — rather it was something I wanted to escape from.
The only redeeming aspect of this novel is its sense of humor. While the plot and the characters fall short, Thorne’s surprising wit is a light in the dark. Even as I found myself frustrated and unsatisfied with everything else in the novel, I was often unexpectedly overcome with laughter. Particularly, Renata and Aggie, two entertaining elderly residents at Providence, provide much-needed comic relief. Renata, always on the hunt for a male assistant, delivers witty one-liners like “we haven’t had a Goth boy in a while … I want one that’s constantly thinking about his mortality.” She also messes with her assistants in creative ways, assigning impossible tasks like ensuring that “the sunlight never again touches (her) skin.” Still, these nuggets of humor are not enough to salvage the novel.
In short, this is not a book I would recommend to someone looking for a cute romance. Lacking in just about every department, “Second First Impressions” will leave you wishing for your time and money back. Thorne had some success with her novel “The Hating Game,” but this outcome is not replicated in her most recent work.
There are already too many romance novels with two-dimensional characters and predictable plots. The world doesn’t need another.
Daily Arts Writer Emma Doettling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.