Off the Shelf: Dealing with life and romance

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Once upon a time, romance novels focused on bringing two people together in married bliss with the action usually stopping either just before or after the wedding. Few featured women who wanted something more from life than a husband or who faced problems or difficulties beyond tying the knot. This is no longer true of many contemporary novels that can qualify equally as romances, coming of age stories or re-evaluation of life tales. Two recent novels fall into that latter category: “Expiration Dates” by Rebecca Serle (Atria Books) and “Welcome Home, Caroline Kline” by Courtney Preiss (G. P. Putnam and Sons) focus on women who, while no longer in their 20s, are still trying to decide the direction of their lives. 

All of Serle’s novels contain a supernatural element and “Expiration Dates” is no exception. Every time Daphne Bell meets a new man, she receives a piece of paper with his name and a number on that. That number tells exactly how many days, weeks or months they will be together. Fortunately, her three-month romantic relationship with Hugo turned into a continuing friendship, one that sustains her through life’s difficulties. But the piece of paper that awaits her before her blind date with Jake contains no number. For the first time, Daphne must consider that she may be meeting the man with whom she will spend the rest of her life. Things seem to go well, but Daphne wonders if their relationship can survive because there is something she has not told Jake, something that might change how he feels about her.

It’s frustrating to write a review of “Expiration Dates,” but not because it’s not a wonderful novel. It’s full of wisdom, warmth and excellent explorations about what it means to be in a committed relationship, including which dreams a person might be willing to sacrifice to make that happen. However, there are several plot twists – incredibly moving plot twists – that would spoil the surprise if revealed here. As with some of the author’s previous works, Serle’s characters feel so real and I came to care about them so deeply that I desperately wanted someone else to read the book so I can discuss it with them. That makes this a perfect novel for a book club, but right now I’d settle for talking about it with a friend over tea or coffee.

While Daphne is given a view of her future in “Expiration Dates,” Caroline Kline has no clue about the direction of her life. At the opening of “Welcome Home, Caroline Kline,” the narrator’s life is a mess. At first, she seems to be fulfilling her dream of living and working in New York City – something she wanted when growing up in a small town in New Jersey. But then everything goes wrong at once: although she was supposed to move with her fiancé to California, he dumped her after she’d already quit her job and given up her apartment. Her work replacement is so successful that Caroline is now jobless and living with a friend. She tries to numb herself by drinking too much and sleeping with men she’s just met. Then she receives a call about her father: he’s been badly injured in a fall and wants her to move back to New Jersey to serve as his replacement on the local men’s softball team. He think it’s his team’s turn to win big and he believes Caroline can make it happen.

Against her best instincts, Caroline returns to New Jersey. Life there is more complicated than she expected: first, there is living in the same house as her father and stepmother after years of independence. Second, although she tries her best, she is not fully welcomed by the other players in the softball team. She is the only woman in the league and is taunted by both her teammates and the players on other teams. Third, her mood is not helped when she sees a former friend and now arch-enemy, who is now married to a star player on another team. If all that is not enough, her path crosses with Crispin Davis, who was her childhood love. The crush was never reciprocated, but that doesn’t stop her from still being attracted to him. He has his own demons, though, but tries to help Caroline manage hers when she’s arrested for DWI and must attend court-ordered meetings in order to keep her license. The questions that arise include, will her team accept her and/or win their championship, and will she and Crispin ever become a couple?

“Welcome Home, Caroline Kline” does an excellent job balancing humor and serious topics. The novel is fun and easy to read, even if you are not a softball fan (which I am not). The characters are engaging, even though at times, I shook my head at Caroline’s self-destructive behavior. There is not as much for a book club to discuss as there is in “Expiration Dates,” but its exploration of 30-somethings who have not found their life path may appeal to some clubs.