Dr. James Elliot and Dr. Deborah Brody became best friends in medical school, and have maintained that close friendship for twenty years. During that time, Deb was married to Max, who she wed just before meeting Elliot. Even though Deb and Elliot were extremely close and Elliot has been secretly in love with Deb, they never crossed the bounds of impropriety. She was always in love with Max, so they remained "just friends," until the fateful day that Max suddenly died of a heart attack and Deb's world was turned upside down. Deeply grieving, Deb looked to the one person she could always count on, seeking Elliot's comfort and strength.
Elliot is more than happy to let Deb lean on him, but his act of compassion turns into an unexpected moment of passion for both of them. Elliot and Deb battle feelings of guilt over their rash behavior so soon after Max's death, and Deb, fearing that she will loose Elliot as well, desperately wants to return to the status quo. Elliot wants far more than to just continue as friends, so he sets about trying to persuade Deb to his way of thinking. Unfortunately, Deb doesn't seem to want to be persuaded, and when she completely misunderstands Elliot's actions on a hospital budget matter on which Elliot had made her a promise, it may mean not only the end of any potential romance, but the end of their friendship as well.
I am usually a huge fan of best friends romances, so that is what caught my eye and made me want to read When a Man Loves a Woman. With that theme, I really thought I would enjoy the story, but ultimately it fell extremely flat for me. The book got off to a decent start, but the further I got into the story, the more I kept thinking, "Where was the editor?". In my opinion, the book had good potential, and might have actually been good, if it had been about half the length that it was. The storyline was entirely character-driven, and the plot was pretty thin with guilt and a huge misunderstanding serving as the main elements keeping it afloat. Something might actually happen about every fifty pages or so, but everything in between seemed like little more than filler. The two protagonists would spend page after page ruminating about their feelings for each other, their guilt over those feelings, what they would like to say to each other but couldn't, etc., etc., etc. I'm all for characters who exhibit some introspection, but page after page of it is just too much. For two people who had been friends for twenty years, their communication skills with one another certainly left something to be desired. On the seemingly rare occasions when they actually had some dialog, one or both of them would sometimes go off into a half-page or longer soliloquy, and then there was one passage near the end where they literally engaged in dialog for nearly an entire chapter with nothing else happening except a few more random internal thoughts. Unfortunately, I found all this to be about as exciting as watching paint dry.
I had very mixed feelings about how Elliot and Deb's relationship began. They became friends during medical school right after Deb had married her husband, Max. Now I have no problem with married people being friends with someone of the opposite sex, but Elliot and Deb were characterized as "best" friends, who spent a great deal of time together and who leaned on each other a lot for emotional support. There were things that Deb discussed with Elliot that she felt she couldn't discuss with her husband, which in my opinion, is treading on shaky ground. It was also rather apparent from the prologue that there was some sort of attraction between them right from the start, and they admitted as much to each other by the end of the book. They also confessed to having loved each other for the whole twenty years that they had been acquainted, even though Deb adamantly stated that she loved Max as well. This all left me with the feeling that Deb was trying to have her cake and eat it too. Now on the positive side, Max was always aware of Elliot and Deb's close relationship. He seemed to have trusted them implicitly even though rumors ran rampant about them, however, I did not find Max's long-suffering under these circumstances to be entirely believable. Elliot and Deb also never in those twenty years, even touched inappropriately, much less had an affair, so in many ways I admire their restraint and their choice not to break up Deb's marriage or hurt Max, who appeared to be a really stand-up guy. However, in the end this all just left me with the uncomfortable feeling that they were walking a thin line between right and wrong. I think the story would have been better or at least more appealing to me if Elliot and Deb had simply been friends in med school and then parted ways with only minimal contact, reuniting after Max's death, instead of having this ongoing ambiguous relationship for twenty years.
I also had mixed feelings about the protagonists themselves. Deb was a genius who had graduated from every stage of her schooling early, and had worked hard to become a world class pediatric neurosurgeon which I liked. In spite of that though she still seemed like a rather bland character to me. She had a limited home life with Max, no children, no other friends besides Elliot it seemed, and not much going for her except that friendship and her work. It's no wonder that she relied on Elliot in what I would characterize as a dysfunctional way, and felt that she couldn't live without him. Although I don't consider myself a true feminist, this dichotomy seems to fly in the face of even marginal feminism and everything Deb had worked so hard to achieve all her life. I was also extremely disappointed in Deb when it came to the "big misunderstanding." She and Elliot had supposedly been best friends for twenty years and in my opinion, two people who have maintained a close friendship for that long should know each other extremely well. Yet, Deb still believed things about Elliot which no one who truly knows someone ever should have. Elliot was rightfully heartbroken over her belief that he had betrayed her trust, and even though Deb tried to make it up to him when she learned the truth, it just seemed like too little too late. I never was fully satisfied with the way it all ended. Ultimately, Deb was simply not a character who stood out enough for me to truly understand why Elliot fell in love with her in the first place and had maintained that love for so long. Elliot was a little more relatable, but still had some contradictions and problems in my opinion. He was a pediatric trauma surgeon with a really big heart and a great bedside manner, and who was wonderful with kids. All these things made him very appealing to me, but at the same time he was still just a "typical" man, having been something of a womanizer over the years. I suppose this was to help compensate for the one woman he wanted and couldn't have, but it all seemed a little callous to the women he was having the relationships with. As I mentioned earlier, I never quite understood Elliot's love for Deb, and more importantly why he pined over a married woman for twenty years. It just seemed like extremely dysfunctional behavior to me.
On the plus side, I liked that the hero and heroine were slightly older which was a rather unique element. It is rare to find a romantic main character who is above the age of 35, yet both were in their early forties. On the downside though, these two characters virtually carried the entire story by themselves. The secondary characters who did appear, were little more than window dressing, playing very small roles. I was also disappointed in the lack of medical drama. With the principle characters both being doctors, I had high hopes that there would be some good ER-style action, but I was sadly mistaken. There was only one short scene of this type and a couple of other medical crises that played minor roles. Instead the plot contained a heavy dose of hospital politics and budgetary concerns, which quite frankly, was pretty dull by comparison. The book might have at least hit a note with me if there had been some deep emotion, real romance and/or sensuality, but in my opinion, these areas were all lacking as well. The emotions were stunted, because Elliot and Deb spent most of the novel denying their feelings for each other and then feeling guilty about having them in the first place. The romance and sensuality was very minimal with only two fairly non-graphic love scenes (one at the beginning and one at the end), with only a smattering of kisses in between, most of which weren't even that passionate. Elliot and Deb don't even have a "date" until the very end of the book. There were a few moments of tenderness here and there, but nothing that made my heart swell like other romance novels I have read. It was like they were simply too immersed in their respective careers and personal problems to really make that deep connection. While I am sure that there are people who may enjoy this novel, it definitely was not for me. Overall, it was pretty frustrating trying to read it, and I literally had to force myself to finish it. This was my first read by Alina Adams, and even though it appears that she has only written three other romance novels, I doubt that I will be reading them anytime soon.
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