Off the Map, by Dorien Kelly, was published in 2006, in the Harlequin Next series. Next was trying to sell stories that were more women’s fiction or chick lit, and less formula romance. It was not a success, releasing only 100 titles before ending in 2008. I’m not surprised. Off the Map is a sunnier story than Learning to Hula, with a developing romance subplot, but this story of a woman reinventing herself left me unsatisfied.
Tessa loses her job and her husband on the same terrible day. He’s not just leaving her for another woman – he’s gotten her pregnant, after Tessa’s been unable to conceive. Tessa’s best friend Kate is fired too, which resolves the tension over Kate being Tessa’s boss, but older tensions remain. The set up is great.
Unfortunately, Tessa’s all too real situation does not lead to any real hardship. She has no urgent financial concerns, thanks to a generous settlement from her employer, her husband buying out her share of their house, and an inheritance. She mopes for a few weeks. Then a friend offers her the use of a luxurious vacation home in Costa Rica, for as long as she wants it, and Kate’s welcome too. Tessa’s worries over not getting pregnant are forgotten, and there’s a handsome single millionaire next door who’s entirely comfortable being Mr. Right Now, or whatever. The relationship is relatively casual and open-ended.
Plot complications revolve around some additional characters and situations at the vacation home, and the overall arc is the tension in the friendship between Kate and Tessa, but it’s hard to be worried about Tessa while she lounges by pool, shops online, and wonders what she should do with her life. When she does decide to try something new, it works out well. We learn that she has reinvented herself before, but this time she’s got it right, apparently. The almost more interesting stories of Kate and two other women in Costa Rica dilute Tessa’s story.
There are lots of follow your dreams messages here, which is great, but it’s a lot easier to follow your dreams when money is no object and luck follows you everywhere. I like happy endings, and I’m okay with the romance being a subplot, but after the opening shocks, Tessa’s path to happiness just seems too easy. At least her happiness comes from independence: She confronts her ex, confronts her friend, and chooses to celebrate her fortieth birthday with sex – which is great, of course.
Kelly writes well, and is an award-winning romance writer. A former commercial lawyer, her own life has interesting twists and turns, and I’m keen to read her other work, where she wasn’t bound by the ill-fated conventions of the Next series.