Dueling Review

Dueling Review: Then, Now, Always by Mona Shroff

To kick off Secret Baby Week, Holly and Ingrid buddy-read Then, Now, Always by Mona Shroff. And you know what that means: time for a duel! (Moderated by Erin) 

Holly’s Take:

Heat Factor: The door is firmly closed.

Character Chemistry: Um. It’s complicated. But also love at first sight.

Plot: Maya and Sam were in love. But they broke up. Now it’s 16 years later and Maya finally tells Sam that he has a daughter.

Overall: This was kind of a weird book and I’m still processing how I feel about it.

Ingrid’s Take:

Heat Factor: This is not a book with a temperature.

Character Chemistry: It’s both “at first sight” and also a slow, complicated development at the same time.

Plot: Maya and Sam had a good thing going until everything blew up and incredibly bad choices were made. Then, 16 years later, Maya fesses up that she’s kept their child secret from Sam and he’s an emotional wreck, understandably.

Overall: I maintain that this trope is a massive romantic buzzkill and this book is like a case study in why that is.

Ingrid, summarize the book:

Maya and Sam meet in their early twenties, but it feels like they’re teenagers, and they have this whirlwind romance that results in a pregnancy but is abruptly ended. Fast-forward 16 years later, Maya has to call Sam to bail their daughter (about whom he knows nothing) out of a sticky situation, and hurt feelings abound.

Holly, summarize the book:

I totally agree with Ingrid’s plot summary. I would like to add that it’s a dual timeline story with lots of flashbacks. Furthermore, there are all these moments with tons of potential for DRAMA, but then all the drama doesn’t happen. 

Ingrid: It’s a really well-behaved drama. They’re all going to have heartburn in a number of years from pushing all of those feelings down.

Holly: Also with the amount of coffee they drink! It’s just a recipe for ulcers.

Let’s talk about the drama! There is a lot of *potential* for drama in this story, but not a lot of actual drama or dramatic tension. Discuss.

H: I’ll try not to get too spoilery. So. For example, when they meet again in their late 30s, Sam is engaged to somebody else who is pretty clearly telegraphed as “not right for him.” I was expecting there to be evil other woman drama or a really dramatic breakup, but there isn’t. It turns out that Paige is really nice and while she’s upset when she finds out Sam has a daughter, she still makes friends with the daughter and is prepared to step into her life in an appropriate way. When Sam and Paige break up for valid-ish reasons, they do so really maturely. Like, “actually we really aren’t right for each other.” So the setup led me to the expectation of serious melodrama, and then everyone was just really well-behaved about it.

I: To be fair, how many times have we been like, “They’re being so ridiculous!” and here we have characters being responsible, and we’re not satisfied. Would you want to be with a person who broke up with his fiancée with a huge drama? It’s like “ooo yeah,” here’s the drama, but there’s a kid in the equation and they need to be responsible. So I do kind of get the lack of drama in that situation…but then there really should have been more drama with Sam’s mom situation.

H: I absolutely agree. Reading that scene with Sam’s mom really highlights how lacking in dramatic tension this book is—even when perhaps it shouldn’t be—but I couldn’t figure out how to talk about it without a massive spoiler.

Thoughts on the secret baby aspect of the story?

I: I think this is my least favorite trope, and the reason for this is I feel like there are so few scenarios where it’s valid to withhold a pregnancy from both parties involved in the pregnancy, and the scenario needs to be really obscure in a romance novel to pull that off. With most romances, I have a very strong dislike of characters who would withhold that kind of information (and it’s virtually always the mother). In real life, there are absolutely scenarios where I can see it being safer and smarter to withhold that information, but in a romance novel, if he’s going to be the kind of hero that we want the heroine to end up with, then explaining away the choice to rob a person of their child’s life is really a problem.

H: Totally valid, especially given the parameters of what we want out of a romance. 

Given that qualm about this trope, I think what this book did really well was deal with all the emotional fallout of the secret baby. Shroff made it clear that Maya knew what she had done was really fucked up. She knew she should not have hidden the child from Sam but she did because she was scared and ashamed of how she acted when she was young. And I thought that Sam’s mix of hurt and betrayal but also wanting to be a part of this teenager’s life – because the kid is 15 now – and therefore the emotional stuff he has to go through to have a working relationship with Maya so he can coparent is handled in a thoughtful and engaging way

I: I do agree that Schroff really nailed that dynamic.

Erin: How does the narrative change for you because the baby is 15 instead of a baby or 3 or 5?

I: Well, exactly–this isn’t the loss of a few months or a year or two. One of the scenes that yanked me out of the romance of this story was when Maya invited Sam over and had all the photo albums spread out on the table, and bares his loss in that way – he lost his daughter’s whole childhood – and she didn’t even talk to him about it beforehand, she just ambushed him with this massive table full of pain.

H: That scene, I agree, was super wrenching. Maya is so thoughtless about it, like “I thought you’d want to see this.” And he gets so angry with her! But the emotional beats are spot on.

I: As a book the cadences are great. As a romance, stuff like that just yanked me out and made me wonder if I wanted them together because of these scenes. And on top of that we don’t even get the perspective of the daughter being without her father for the whole story–as an adult with tiny humans, I felt like there was no real way the author could even get into that authentically because it would have been an emotional pit of quicksand.

Do you believe that Maya and Sam love each other? Does your answer change if you’re talking about them when they’re 22 vs when they’re 38?

I: I think they absolutely did love each other when they were 22.

H: Starts to sing “Summer lovin’”

I: It’s patently clear in the flashbacks that it’s young love. They don’t have a lot of life under their belts. So it’s very clear that the first love story is about young love and one is more measured, mature love and they’re not the same. So they feel very different.

H: See, I had a hard time believing them falling back in love in their late 30s. I totally bought the fluttery young love in their early 20s, but the fact that it seemed like neither of them had really moved on from this relationship was sort of…troubling. How is this love more mature if you’re still holding on to what love felt like when you were 22?

I: I felt like Sam did. Sam had very romantic feelings for Paige before stuff went down.

H: I thought Sam was settling. He gets annoyed with Paige in his very first scene when she starts to talk about table linens. Paige is nice, but he’s constantly reminding himself that he loves her, that he’s attracted to her, that he likes her in spite of meeting her through his mom.

Maya was definitely hung up on Sam, but one of the reasons that Paige fought with Sam was because she accused him of being still in love with Maya. Paige knew that Maya was the one who broke his heart—even though Maya had been out of the picture of over a decade by the time Sam and Paige met. 

The way their relationship was constructed, it was like they had been carrying the torch that was able to come back into a more fully-fledged love—without them doing the work.

I: I disagree with Sam and Paige’s lack of connection–Sam is eager to get back to Paige, they’re flirty and at first at least, they have a shared vision for their future. I bought it at first. However, I do think that you’re exactly right about Sam and Maya having a somewhat weak romance the second time around. There was a definite lack of physical cues pointing towards their connection. More emotional cues than physical cues maybe?

H: I didn’t buy the emotional cues, though. 

I: I didn’t think the emotional cues were strong, but I did feel they were still there. The memories over the smell of the coffee, and them refusing to open the door to those memories because of how powerful they’d be. There were a lot of cues, but there was so much else going on that they weren’t reading into them very much. 

Then, Now, Always was published in early 2020 but Shroff sets the action in 1996 and 2012, instead of “Now” and “Sixteen Years Ago”. What impact did this choice have on the text?

H: I thought it was a really interesting choice to set the book in a specific moment in time with the “present” being 8 years ago rather than being “now” or “today”. A lot of romance novels are set such that it takes place “today”, but this book indicates that this is the specific date when this took place. It was a really smart decision because it means that all of the cultural and technology references that might feel weird or not age well for “now” worked. 

Or maybe Shroff was a teenager in 1996 and wanted to write those characters from what she already knew. Characters listening to bands that are NOT HIP to their age is a huge pet peeve of mine (and I am not alone in this), and this is a smart way to get around it.

I: I hadn’t realized that when I started reading it, so it didn’t phase me whatsoever. I just assumed it was written in 2012.  But I would like to know what the author thought when she was doing the setting because now that I do know, I’m very curious.

H: Maybe she went to a really awesome concert at Merriweather! But I was bummed that Sam got cut off before we could find out what High School he went to. 

(We all agree Centennial, Mona Shroff please chime in.)

How weird was it to read a book set in an obscure place (Howard County, Maryland) that you know intimately?

I: I thought it was really weird they didn’t go on a date to Old Ellicott City. I was expecting it the whole time. They went to Lake Kittamaqundi and Merriweather (which, obvi).

H: Only the Hebron kids went to Old Ellicott City. 

I: It’s more romantic than Merriweather.

H: I also wanted to know what band they went to at Merriweather. If you’re getting that specific, why not go all the way? But I thought it was really interesting that it was so specific. Usually with small town romance, it’s a made up place. And if Howard County is the small town here, none of the places they went to are made up. I assume Maya’s NYC bakery is fake, but…

I: It wasn’t as weird as I thought it would be, but maybe because it wasn’t too detailed and also it’s a throwback setting.

Does this book succeed as a secret baby romance? Was the ending satisfying?

H: I was frankly too irritated that in the epilogue Samantha had married her first boyfriend sweetheart to care about Sam and Maya. I know that really it’s supposed to be about their son that they’re raising together, but I was too irritated about Samantha. YES ERIN, I know that people marry their HS sweethearts and are happy in real life, but generational High School Sweetheart Marrying is Irksome.

I: If it’s a romance, I think it’s a bit frustrating. Because in the end, it’s still about Maya and poor Samantha–how does she feel about the new baby that they have? I immediately thought, oh poor young woman had to watch this second kid get the childhood she should have gotten. As a book I really liked it, but as a romance…I don’t know. And I think with the daughter’s boyfriend, I felt like it was too neatly tied in a bow. I would have been more satisfied if Samantha had been cheering on her little brother, even though she had complicated feelings about it. Also there was so much going on that there should have been more depth to the romance and relationship between Sam and Maya.

H: There’s not a lot of depth to anything in this book. Like, Maya and Sam are both Indian-American, but while their identity is definitely part of the book, it’s very surface. Similarly, Sam plays soccer, and it’s in there just enough to make me think this must be an important plot point or a metaphor or something, it’s not in there quite enough for it to be any of those things.

Backing up to talk about whether this is a satisfying romance in general, I think the main sticking point for me was that there was no physical tension. Even in a closed-door romance, I want to see some physical tension between the main characters. Do they brush hands? Do they feel palpable electricity spark between them when they look into each others’ eyes?

I: It was very well behaved. I agree, it was a fascinating emotional story and she totally nailed some complicated things in this book, but I wouldn’t call it a sweeping romance. Very well-behaved.

H: Except for the interfering mothers.

Buy Now: Amazon | Bookshop

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