Four years into her marriage, Jenna is blindsided when her husband asks for a divorce. With time on her hands and her life in flux, she agrees to accompany her eccentric grandmother Evelyn on a road trip to the seaside Massachusetts town where much of their family history was shaped.
When they hit the road, Evelyn spins the tale of the star-crossed teenage romance that captured her heart more than seventy years ago and changed the course of her life. She insists the return to her hometown isn’t about that at all—no matter how much she talks about Tony, her unforgettable and forbidden first love.
Upon arrival, Jenna meets Tony’s attentive great-nephew Joe. The new friendship and fresh ocean air give her the confidence and distance she needs to begin putting the pain of a broken marriage behind her.
As the secrets and truths of Evelyn’s past unfold, Jenna discovers a new side of her grandmother, and of herself, that she never knew existed—and learns that the possibilities for healing can come at the most unexpected times in a woman’s life.
This is not the kind of book that I read. I knew that when I picked it up. I don’t do romance. But the cover looked fun and it was free as an Amazon First Read and it seemed a perfect fit for summer (if I read romance. Which I don’t.) So I picked it up and gave it a try… and found myself staying up late to finish it one night because, by the final chapters, I had to know what happened.
At first, I thought the book was going to live down to my expectations. I couldn’t take to Jenna. Her limp, curl-up-in-a-ball-in-my-childhood-bedroom-for-six-months response to her husband’s infidelity and surprise demand for a divorce didn’t endear her to me. Not that I couldn’t see that as a possible reaction, I just wasn’t up for a pity party.
Then, in chapter four, I met her grandmother, Evelyn and everything changed. Evelyn is irrepressible. She has her own agenda which she’ll tell you about when it’s time for you to know. She plays up being the confused old lady when it suits her and lies whenever she thinks that will help and she always has a plan. I’d happily have been a fly on the wall for any road trip she was making happen.
But the road trip didn’t happen right away. Instead, chapter five took me to Hereford, Massachusetts in February 1950, when Evelyn was seventeen and the most impish of her mother’s five daughters. I watched as she hooked up with an unsuitable (not Jewish) boy from a local Portuguese family and I could see the connection between this confident young woman and the unstoppable grandmother of the previous chapter. I can also see that the boy she’s so enamoured of is not the man who would become Jenna’s grandfather. So what’s happening here?
From that point on, it was Evelyn, not Jenna who kept pulling me back to the book. She was the bridge between the two timelines that the story is told in and I wanted to know how she got from being a seventeen-year-old woman in love with a Portuguese boy to being the widow of a respectable Jewish businessman. But most of all, I wanted to know why she was going back to Hereford and why she had made sure that her granddaughter would be there with her.
It turned out that ‘She’s Up To No Good’ wasn’t a romance in the typical meet-cute / instalove followed by misunderstandings, followed by a Happy Ever After or Happy For Now ending. It was a Romance in that it invited you to believe in love and the way it shapes people’s lives. Some of the situations had a hard-to-believe symmetry to them but the way in which they were written made you wish that life worked that way. There were moments of hardship and tragedy in the book but it was mostly an uplifting read with enough suspense and tension in it to keep me eagerly turning the pages.
Often, when I read a book told in two timelines, I find myself bored with the present-day timeline and eager to get back to the back-then timelines, where all the interesting things happen. This time, that didn’t happen. Both timelines held my attention but the one I was most eager for was the present-day timeline. Why? Mostly because of Evelyn. Even though it is Jenna who is the narrator in the present-day timeline, it’s Evelyn’s energy, cunning, and zest for life that sets the tone of the narrative.
Evelyn is centre stage in the back-then timeline, but that’s when all the bad stuff (as well as some good stuff) happens. It’s where most of the tension and all of the angst come from. It’s where I got to see Evelyn grow up to make a life that she loved even if she couldn’t have the love of her life.
On the journey to Hereford, Evelyn starts to share her story with Jenna, always holding important things back to pique Jenna’s interest and give her the occasional surprise In Hereford, the present day and back then timelines start to wrap around one another as Jenna meets the present day adult versions of the people who were children in her or teenagers in her grandmother narrative.
Jenna eventually became more interesting as she stopped mourning the loss of a marriage she’d already partially abandoned and discovered her family’s links with the people in Hereford, her grandmother’s life story and her own desire to embrace life again.
One of the things I liked most about the book was that the eighty-something Evelyn that I met in chapter four wasn’t a faded version of the seventeen-year-old Evelyn that I met in chapter five. I liked both of them but it was the older version of Evelyn that I liked the most. She’d done more than survive. She’d never stopped making things happen.
So, I still don’t read romance but I will be reading Sara Goodman Confino’s next book.
Sara Goodman Confino teaches high school English and journalism in Montgomery County, Maryland, where she lives with her husband, two sons, and miniature schnauzer, Sandy. She published her first novel For The Love Of Friends in 2021. She’s Up To No Good is her second novel.