Love Around the Corner (New Milton #1.5) by Sally Malcolm

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Real life enemies, online lovers. Two lonely men, destined for each other–if only they knew it.

Alfie Carter grew up in New Milton, caring for his sick father and keeping their auto repair shop on its feet. He’s touchy about his poor education and doesn’t take kindly to snide remarks from the town’s prickly bookstore owner—no matter how cute he looks in his skinny jeans. Leo Novak’s new life as owner of Bayside Books is floundering. And he could do without the town’s gorgeous, moody mechanic holding a grudge against him after an unfortunate—and totally not his fault— encounter last Christmas.

Left to run the family business alone, Alfie spends his lonely evenings indulging his secret passion for classic fiction and chatting online with witty, romantic ‘LLB’ as they fall in love over literature. Leo’s still reeling from a bad breakup and struggling to make friends in New Milton, so seeks comfort instead in his blossoming online romance with thoughtful, bookish ‘Camaro89’.

But as the holidays approach, ‘LLB’ and ‘Camaro89’ are planning to meet, and realities are about to collide…

Rating: A

The Shop Around the Corner is one of my favourite films.  Set around Christmas time, it tells the story of two co-workers who don’t get on and bicker all the time in spite of the attraction that sparks between them – and which they ignore. He thinks she’s stuck-up, she thinks he’s crass and in any case, they’re both completely in love with their respective pen-pals… who are, of course, each other.  (The film was remade in the 1990s as You’ve Got Mail, but it’s not a patch on the original, IMO.)  Sally Malcolm gives the story another update in Love Around the Corner, set in the fictional Long Island resort of New Milton which was also the setting for her earlier novel, Perfect Day and which she will revisit in her upcoming release, Between the Lines.

In this version of the story, Alfie Carter – who owns the local garage – has been corresponding for around a year with someone he met online in a group dedicated to the works of Jane Austen.  He and LLB hit it off right away and text each other several times a day, enjoying discussions about anything and everything, bonding over their love of books and of discussing them in depth.  On the day we meet Alfie, he’s excited and nervous because that evening, he and LLB have arranged to meet face-to-face for the first time.  He’s never had a long-term relationship before, but he’s ready for one; the connection he feels with LLB is like nothing he’s ever experienced with anyone, and Alfie is absolutely ready to take things to the next level.

Leo Novak moved to New Milton after the long-term relationship he’d been in crashed and burned, and owns a small bookstore there.  He and Alfie met at the previous year’s Christmas party at the Callaghan’s and didn’t hit it off at all, their encounter resulting in an exchange of insults which saw Leo assume Alfie to be dumb and Alfie take Leo for an unmitigated snob.  They’ve avoided each other ever since and nothing they’ve seen of one another in the interim has served to change either of those initial impressions.  Leo is a bit of a loner; he knows he’s prickly – “but when you grew up too smart, too sensitive and too gay for the tastes of most people, you learned to defend yourself.”  Like Alfie, he’s looking for love and companionship, and he thinks he may have found it with Camaro89, the guy he met online a year earlier and has been corresponding with ever since.  He’s nervous about their first real-life meeting – what if Camaro89 is disappointed with what he sees?  Or vice-versa? – but he knows that they have to meet if their relationship is to progress, which is something he wants very much indeed.

LLB and Camaro89 have arranged to meet at a pub in Manhattan, and as they haven’t exchanged photographs, have agreed that they’ll both carry a copy of Persuasion so they can identify each other.  Alfie arrives first and secures a table by the window, laying his copy of the book down so it can be clearly seen and waits eagerly for LLB to arrive.  And waits.  And waits.  Almost a half-hour later, filled with disappointment, Alfie has to accept that LLB isn’t coming, and is about to leave when he sees Leo Novak coming towards him.  Immediately defensive, Alfie makes it clear Leo is unwelcome and they quickly end up sniping at each other and part on bad terms. Again.

When Leo arrived at the pub to meet with Camaro89, the last person he’d expected to see sitting there with a copy of Persuasion in front of him was Alfie Carter.  How can the witty, well-read man he’s been corresponding with be someone who can’t even put an apostrophe in the right place? (His garage is called Alfie’s Auto’s).  Worse, could Alfie actually have known who LLB is all this time, and be playing a joke on him?  When he has recovered from the initial shock, Leo admits the latter is unlikely – but what does he do now?  The man he loved is nothing but a figment of his imagination, but even so, he can’t bring himself to leave Camaro89 – his friend – sitting there waiting for someone who’s never going to show.  Still not sure what to do, he makes his way over to Alfie’s table – but the other man’s obvious hostility leads to more insults and another acrimonious parting.

Heartbroken, both men make their way back to New Milton, and to an existence that’s so much less colourful and hopeful than it was before.  But an offhand comment makes Alfie start to think that perhaps Leo is lonely, and he decides to reach out to him in a small way by inviting him to take part in the Christmas Market that is being organised by the townspeople.  Surprised, but pleased, Leo accepts the invitation, and the pair is detailed to go shopping for decorations the next evening.  The trip turns out to be a lot of fun; Alfie is surprised to find Leo’s sense of humour matches his own, and before long they’re chatting about books – and audiobooks, Alfie prefers them to print and promises to make Leo a list of recommendations – and other things, and end up having dinner together.  From here, things only get better;  Alfie realises he’s fallen hard and fast for Leo, while Leo is doing the same… but Leo still hasn’t told Alfie the truth, and he worries that if he does so now, he’ll lose him forever.

I make no secret that I’m not a big fan of novellas; I find so many of them lack depth and are rushed that I usually go into them with fairly low expectations, but Love Around the Corner confounded all of them – it’s wonderful. Romantic, sweet, sexy, tear-jerking and uplifting, it works superbly as an update on an old favourite or a completely new story if you’re not familiar with either of the movies.  As in Perfect Day – which was an updated retelling of Persuasion – Sally Malcolm has taken the premise and character-types of the original story, breathed new life into them and made them her own.  Their flaws, their hopes, their dreams and insecurities all combine to make Leo and Alfie into very real, relatable individuals, and Ms. Malcom creates such a strong emotional connection between them that it leaps off the page.  She’s also incredibly good when it comes to delivering a palpable gut-punch in the angstier moments.  I had a lump in my throat several times towards the end, and I have to say that Leo’s grand romantic gesture rivals Captain Wentworth’s in the swoonworthy stakes; I loved the literary treasure hunt and what it represented.  Although the events of the novella take place over just a couple of weeks, the romance is easy to buy into, and when Leo and Alfie become physically intimate, it’s something that evolves naturally and doesn’t feel rushed or as though the author has shoe-horned in the sex scenes for the sake of it.

Gorgeously romantic and utterly charming, Love Around the Corner is the perfect way to while away a couple of hours on a winter afternoon and with it, Sally Malcolm is two-for-two on my keeper shelf.

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