As the heiress to a department store fortune, Meredith Bancroft grew up in a world of wealth and privilege. Her social status, however, couldn't protect her from being an outcast in the school her father sent her to, so she was always acutely aware of those less fortunate than herself. At eighteen, she was introduced to Matthew Farrell, a young man from the opposite side of the tracks, who'd been invited to an exclusive country club by some of her acquaintances. Realizing that these people only brought him there to poke fun at him, Meredith extends a hand of friendship to him. They instantly hit it off, and later, when he takes her home, they share an unforgettable night of passion. When Meredith discovers that she's pregnant a couple of months later, she fears what her strict, conservative father will do when he finds out. She seeks Matthew out, asking for a marriage in name only to appease her father. Having never forgotten Meredith, Matt is more than willing to step up to the plate and be both a husband and father if she'll have him, but he's already signed a contract to work in the Venezuela oil fields and will be leaving in a week. After a quick wedding, they spend the rest of their remaining time trying to get to know one another as best they can before he has to leave, but it isn't well enough to overcome her father's machinations once they've parted.
Eleven long years later, Matt has finally accomplished his life's ambition of becoming a corporate raider. He's known the world over for his business acumen, as well as his highly publicized love affairs. He poured himself into his work in an attempt to forget Meredith, and although he's tried to convince himself that he no longer feels anything for her, she's never completely left his mind. Now he's back in her hometown of Chicago, finalizing the takeover of yet another company. When Matt sees Meredith again, she stirs feelings in him he thought he'd put to rest, but because of the past and unaware of her father's vendetta against him, he believes she's nothing but a snobbish socialite. He decides to get revenge on both her and her father by taking over the department store that means so much to both of them. But when he finally discovers the truth about what happened all those years ago, it places him on a collision course with destiny. Now certain that Meredith still has feelings for him too, he sets about attempting a takeover of a different kind - one that he hopes will win her heart.
Paradise is a beautifully-written epic love story that spans more than a decade in the lives of its star-crossed lovers. Unlike most reunion romances which give only a bare glimpse of the hero and heroine's initial meeting and falling in love before being cruelly torn apart, the first eleven chapters of this book recount their young love affair in quite a bit of detail. I wondered how the author was going to keep their story going for 700+ pages, but she did so with an exquisite dance of them coming together, then repeatedly coming up against conflict which kept them apart. One might think that this would get old after a while, but it never did. Everything that happened made perfect sense in the moment and felt very realistically rendered. I was also extremely impressed with Ms. McNaught's attention to detail. She obviously either has first-hand experience in the business world or did her research very well. All the details led to some rather heavy narration at times, so readers who are averse to this might want to think twice before reading it. I, however, felt that the details really brought the characters and settings to life in a more vivid way. Overall, Paradise was an extremely enjoyable book that I had a hard time putting down.
The early chapters of the story are almost exclusively about Meredith and she's a very compelling character. She's a rich girl who is an heiress to a department store fortune, but she's still an outcast at the school to which her father decided to send her, mainly because it was a Catholic school where most of the students were from lower-class families. Even as a girl, Meredith never saw other people's money, or lack thereof, and was merely hungry for friendship - any friendship. Finally, she got that wish when Lisa Pontini, a girl Meredith's father considered to be from the wrong side of the tracks came to school, and they struck up a friendship that lasted throughout their lives. Meredith is quite simply a sweet, compassionate woman who sees the best in people, no matter where they come from. When she first meets Matthew, she knows her acquaintances have only brought him to the fancy country club party to make fun of his low birth, which makes her want to befriend him all the more. Having been an outcast herself, she understands what he must feel like in that environment. When the others abandon him, she befriends him and treats him with respect. They connect on a deep level almost instantaneously, which leads to a night of unforgettable passion. I'm so glad that when Meredith realized that their moment out of time had resulted in a pregnancy, she did the right thing and went straight to Matthew, instead of trying to hide it from him or assuming that he'd want nothing to do with her and the baby. Even though their young love affair had a rather tragic end that broke her heart in a million pieces, Meredith bravely went on with her life and finished college, working her way up through the ranks at the family's department store. She was an incredibly smart woman, and her ambition had always been to become the CEO of the store like her father and grandfather before her. She had to deal with a lot of sexism though, in order to accomplish that goal. Even after she'd become a successful businesswoman, she never lost her compassion for those less fortunate than herself. Over the years, she followed Matt's rise to corporate super-stardom in the papers and on TV, but she convinced herself she felt nothing for him anymore until he unexpectedly returns to her life. She had her own life all mapped out, and didn't think he fit into her plans, but he very quickly proved her wrong. The one and only thing I found troublesome about Meredith was her frequent defense of her father, especially after she finally discovered the lengths to which he went to tear her and Matt apart. There were times when I thought she should have stood up to him more strongly than what she did, but at no time did I not understand where she was coming from. I simply couldn't have been as forgiving of his misdeeds as she seemed to be.
Matt is a dreamy hero who has certainly earned a spot on my favorite heroes list. From the moment he met Meredith, she stood out to him in a way no other woman ever had. He could have had his pick of women, but her innocence was beguiling to him. Their first time together he was a very considerate lover, and before leaving, he even cared enough to give her his phone number just in case. He would have contacted her himself much sooner if he'd known she really wanted him to. I love that he didn't flinch away from stepping up to the plate when she came to him pregnant and desperate. Even though she was only asking for a temporary marriage to keep her father from going berserk, he didn't think twice about doing the right thing and actually wanted to make the attempt at something more permanent. Matthew was always ambitious and knew what he wanted out of life, but if her father hadn't gotten in the way, I know he would have made room in his plans for Meredith and their baby. After he thought that Meredith had cruelly abandoned him, he buried himself in his work to forget her, but once he'd finally achieved all that he wanted, he was bored with life. There was simply no challenge to it until she came back into it. I was so glad to see that Matt had never really forgotten Meredith, although he's convinced himself he doesn't feel anything for her anymore. I was also glad that he had never married partly because he was badly hurt by her perceived betrayal, but mainly because he's never been able to duplicate the all-consuming emotion with anyone else that he'd felt when he was with her. Even before he knows the full truth and they've reconciled, Matt admires Meredith for her intelligence and business acumen and treats her as an intellectual equal. He's genuinely proud of her accomplishments, which is something her father never was. Even though it makes Meredith incredibly upset, I absolutely loved the deal Matt struck with her in order for her to get him out of her life for good. He was obviously a guy who is totally into his woman so much so that he would do anything to prove his love for her, which is incredibly romantic and sexy to me.
While sharing one night of passion resulting in a pregnancy, which necessitated a quick marriage, isn't the best way to start a lasting relationship, it was obvious that Meredith and Matt were falling hard and fast for each other right from the start. They share an easy rapport that's more like a friendship, while also experiencing an intense desire for one another. In general, I felt that they communicated well, despite their youth, and rarely held back much from one another. In fact, I think the only reason they didn't communicate so well after Matt left for Venezuela was because neither of them knew about her father's machinations and the physical distance between them made effective communication all but impossible. Even though they were starting to mesh well and falling in love with one another, the ease with which her father was able to manipulate them and tear them apart was still quite believable. She, in particular, was young, sheltered, and a little naïve, while he was thousands of miles away. They'd only really known each other for a week before he went to Venezuela, so although they had started to get to know each other, it made sense that they would also doubt each other. It ripped my heart out to see them so happy and then drifting further and further apart, until they almost hate one another. Once they are back in the same city, it was obvious that the feelings were still there, and gradually they find their way back to the love they once shared. Their reconciliation after the truth finally comes out was utterly beautiful, while their love-making afterward was filled with all the emotion and longing of eleven long years. Even though they face a lot of obstacles to a full reconciliation, I always knew they were destined for one another and that they belonged together forever.
Meredith's father was a real bastard, who I hated throughout most of the book. He's a hard, bitter man who's angry about his own failed marriage and trying to control his daughter where he felt he couldn't control his wife. He's also a wealthy snob who can't stand the idea of his daughter marrying "beneath" herself. Yet despite all this, he has her snowed into believing that deep down he truly cares about her and only treats her the way he does because he wants what's best for her. This guy was a total jerk, who treated his employees rather badly, and his business is like an old boy's club. Even though Meredith had proven herself to be a smart and competent businesswoman, he still wouldn't appoint her as his interim successor at first, just because she's a woman. I guess he finally starts to come around by the end, but I felt like it was more circumstances that forced him to come face-to-face with his past mistakes rather than any true desire on his part to change and be a better person. However, I was willing to admit that I believe in second chances, even though I would have preferred to see him squirm more before getting one.
There are a number of interesting secondary characters who help to liven things up. Meredith's best friend, Lisa, is a colorful character who is loyal to a fault. Meredith's childhood crush and eventual fiancé, Parker, is perhaps a tad boring compared to Matt, but he's a good man nonetheless, who tries to make the best of a bad situation when Matt comes back to town. Matt's father is only seen a few times, but he was a key player in getting the lines of communication between Matt and Meredith open again. Matt's chauffeur/bodyguard, Joe, is great for some laughs with his crazy driving and how he's not-so-secretly rooting for Matt and Meredith to get back together. Matt's sister, Julie, really only appears during the early parts of the book, when Meredith goes to Matt for help upon finding out that she's pregnant, but I really liked her. I see that the heroine of Perfect, the next book in the Second Opportunities series, is named Julie, but they don't appear to have the same last name. I'm not sure if they're one and the same character, but if they are, I look forward to reading more about her. In any case, it looks like there are some definite carry-over characters between books.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Paradise. I'd heard a lot of good things about it over the years, and IMHO, all of it was true. This was truly romance at it's finest, and it couldn't have been any better. It had a hero to die for and a relatable heroine I could root for. I'm still amazed that this story was as long as it was, because it certainly didn't feel that way to me at all. In fact, as I neared the final pages, I didn't want it to end. Paradise was my first read my Judith McNaught, but it definitely won't be my last. She has duly impressed me with her writing skill, and I can't wait to dive into Perfect as soon as I get the chance.
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