Review: All He Ever Desired by Shannon Stacey
“You are going to dance with Ryan before this party ends. I don’t care if I have to stand on a chair and announce to everybody that he has to dance with you.”
“If you do that, I’ll go to the library on Tuesday and check out every Nicholas Sparks book you have and not bring them back so you’ll have to tell everybody you don’t have any of his books. Forever.”
Lauren smiled over the rim of her champagne glass. “Oh, I would.”
There aren’t a lot of Big R Romance writers whose books I’ll buy without a second thought.
For a long time, it was just Julie James, and then I found Shannon Stacey, whose Kowalski books published by Carina Press absolutely charmed me with their warmth and width. More recently, I discovered Molly O’Keefe and Ruthie Knox who both have distinctive (and quite different) styles. So whenever one of these writers releases a new book, I usually snatch them up ASAP.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the fourth book one of my go-to author’s, Shannon Stacey, Kowalski series about a boisterous New England family, which shifted the setting of the series from New Hampshire to Maine. I was worried that the magic of the first three books couldn’t be rekindled. Fortunately, I gave this series another shot and very much enjoyed All He Ever Desired, the fifth Kowalski novel.
Ryan Kowalski left his hometown of Whitford, Maine after confessing his love to his best friend’s wife and being rejected. He has since married and divorced and built a successful career for himself in Massachusetts, but returns to Whitford to help his brothers refurbish the family inn. Lauren, the woman he begged to come with him years before is now divorced with a teenage son.
Ryan discovers Lauren’s son Nick vandalizing the inn and rather than force Lauren to pay for the damage, he makes Nick work at the construction site. And, it provides him a convenient reason to see a more of Lauren, the one that got away.
All He Ever Desired centers around the theme of “what if.”
What if Lauren had left with Ryan? What if he’d raised Nick rather than Dean, Lauren’s bitter ex? What if they can make things work? What if they can’t?
I was surprised by the depth of these questions, considering that this series is what I consider “light.” When I read a Shannon Stacey novel, I know what I’m getting: a fun, fast read with memorable secondary characters and a lot of warmth. This pondering of the “what ifs” surprised me. In order to make things work, they have to overcome both geographic obstacles and challenges related to what they want out of life moving forward.
Lauren didn’t know what to say to that. In fact, the entire conversation seemed a little surreal. During all the years she’d harmlessly imagined what life would have been like if she’d said yes to Ryan that day, she’d never once imagined they’d have a telephone conversation about it.
These challenges were resolved to a achieve a different—though equally satisfying—happily ever after than in previous Kowalski novels.
Early in All He Ever Desired, there’s a huge Kowalski family gathering for Mitch and Paige’s wedding (they’re the main characters in All He Ever Needed, which I did not finish). While I was reading, I made a note in my ereader that was something along the lines of,
“Good grief, all these couples have the same end game.”
That is, they all got together and immediately started populating New England with lots of little Kowalskis. That’s not to say that a happily ever after with the white picket fence in a small town and loads of kiddos running around is a bad thing, but in a family this large, you’d think that there would be some outliers who maybe live in a city and enjoy time together before (or maybe even not at all) filling up their house with children. Contemporary families take many forms and I’d love to see that reflected more in all genres.
This is why I’m so happy with the resolution to All He Ever Desired.
I don’t want to be spoilerific, but one of the main conflicts between Lauren and Ryan is that she absolutely does not want to have any other children. She spent her twenties and much of her thirties raising Nick on her own and hasn’t had an opportunity to live her life. She works hard to take care of her son, but she also longs for more. Ryan always expected to have a family of his own, just like his brothers and cousins.
The life that Lauren wants doesn’t mesh with the Kowalski family paradign of what a family is. But, in this book the couple figures out a way to make it work and it was extremely satisfying. There are no sudden changes of heart due to OMIGOD True Love in All He Ever Desired. Both Lauren and Ryan are established adults who have a clear idea of what they want in their respective futures, so it’s refreshing that Shannon Stacey respected her characters enough to let them be true to themselves while also being happy together.
On a related note, one of my favorite aspects of All He Ever Desired was the growing relationship between Ryan and Lauren’s son. Ryan never tries to be a dad to Nick, but instead reaches out to him as a friend, a role model and as a guy who’s been a 16-year old boy. The scenes with the two are some of the most “real” feeling and add so much to the novel—as do the conversations between the Kowalski brothers and their sister, Liz. Shannon Stacey’s writing really shines in the dialogue.
“We haven’t changed the brackets on the gutters yet,” Ryan pointed out. “If he tries to shimmy down that pipe, he’ll spend his honeymoon in traction.”
Sean laughed. “With all those pulleys to elevate body parts, maybe he can keep it up more than two minutes.”
“I’m not shimmying anywhere,” Mitch said. “I don’t shimmy. And my feet aren’t cold and I don’t need pulleys to keep anything up, thank you very much. Stop deflecting your dysfunction onto other people.”
“Hey, Emma doesn’t complain.”
Liz gave him a sweet smile. “Not to you, anyway.” They all laughed, except Sean, whose expression just made them laugh harder.
Finally, this is really apropos of nothing, but I cannot stand the was the second grouping of Kowalski books are titled.
The first three have charming titles: Exclusively Yours, Yours to Keep and Undeniably Yours. However, the following three installments all follow the “All He Ever…” naming convention and there’s something that doesn’t sit with me, possibly because the titles shift the focus to the male main character. It sounds old fashioned and not fresh and contemporary—and more than anything, aren’t accurate, since both characters get what is essentially equal page time.
I don’t recommend starting the Kowalski books with All He Desired, though it is ostensibly a stand-alone, but if you’ve read one or two of the earlier novels, you could jump ahead to All He Ever Desired without losing any of the story. If you’re looking for an entertaining one-sitting read with a whole lot of heart, you can’t go wrong with a visit to the world of Shannon Stacey’s Kowalskis.
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Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.