Janice Kay Johnson
No Matter What
Harlequin / October 1, 2012 / $5.50 print, $3.99 digital
As a high school vice principal, Molly Callahan is used to being the one with all the solutions. Not this time. Her teenage daughter’s pregnancy has Molly questioning her own choices and unable to make the tough decisions. Figuring out what’s right and wrong isn’t so simple anymore, and now, more than ever, she needs someone to trust.
Little does she expect that person to be Richard Ward. Their teenagers’ dilemma has forced them to meet, but something much more powerful is pulling them together. This is hardly the time for Richard and Molly to think about themselves…yet she can’t stop this attraction. Letting herself count on him is one thing. Letting herself fall for him? That’s guaranteed to make things very complicated.
I’ve been a fan of Janice Kay Johnson’s Superromances for quite a while now. What attracts me to her work is that she’s not afraid to portray characters who are dealing with complex issues. She’s written about the adult children of abusers, adults who were separated from their siblings in childhood and adopted, single parents, and a former soldier suffering from PTSD. Often she will explore conflicts, in a realistic way, that most other writers wouldn’t even consider, such as “what happens when two people discover their children were switched at birth?” Or, “What happens when a woman serves as a surrogate mother to her sister’s baby?” Or in this case, “what happens when you start to fall in love with the man whose teenage son fathered your teenage daughter’s baby?”
Johnson begins No Matter What with this seemingly impossible situation, which then grows even more complicated. Her layered characters must learn to understand their situation on all its levels with all its potential outcomes, deal with their emotions surrounding it, and make a plan of action to deal with it, however flawed. While all that is happening, Molly and Richard are also exploring romantic feelings, and sometimes physical attraction, to someone who might at first appear to be an enemy.
The protagonist, Molly Callahan, is vice principal of a high school and a single mother. When the book opens, she’s dealing with a disciplinary issue, a boy named Trevor Ward.
With his physique, dark good looks and sullen temperament, he was the Heathcliff of West Fork High School. Didn’t it figure that his brooding stare had turned to Cait, Molly’s bright, perky, academically advanced, sunny-tempered, beautiful, fifteen-year-old daughter.
The meeting doesn’t go well, and Trevor’s father Richard isn’t very helpful at calming the situation.
Mr. Ward also didn’t appear to be any happier than his son, and it was Molly who was the target of that angry, frustrated stare, not the son who deserved it. Her favorite kind of parent—the “my son can’t possibly be responsible” variety. The “I am pissed at you for interrupting my day and attempting to hold my kid accountable” variety.
However, in a Janice Kay Johnson novel, as I mentioned, there are always multiple sides to any story, and a lot of emotion cluttering up the characters’ logic. It’s even more tense because both their children are involved.
“In other words,” she said icily, “you’d like to blame the teachers and students here for somehow, in a startlingly swift few weeks, driving your son to rage that inspires him to attack another boy without provocation.”
At his sides, Richard’s hands flexed briefly into fists that he forced himself to relax. I’m not handling this well. But goddamn it, couldn’t she say something helpful? Offer some guidance? Where was the school psychologist? Or didn’t they have one? “No,” he said reluctantly. “Of course I don’t. Trevor’s attitude hasn’t been great at home, either.” Major understatement. “All I can tell you is that I’m trying to get to the root of it. I’d appreciate some sense that you and his teachers care about Trevor rather than seeing him as nothing but a disciplinary problem.”
When she encounters Richard later, she’s able to reflect more on their first meeting, and once again the reader gets a new view of what’s happening.
Mr. Ward did not care for her. What ate at her was the knowledge that she deserved his dislike. He’d been a jerk, but she hadn’t behaved any better. In fact, she’d been a jerk first. She’d had a headache, Trevor had quite honestly scared her and because of Trevor she was losing all closeness with her daughter, her only family. She prided herself on being a professional, but she hadn’t been where either Ward was concerned.
And then the plot grows even more complicated….
If you love complex stories about family life, stories with no easy solutions, definitely give Janice Kay Johnson’s work a try.
Victoria Janssen is the author of three novels and numerous short stories. Her World War One-set Spice Brief is titled “Under Her Uniform” and is a tie-in to her novel The Moonlight Mistress. Follow her on Twitter: @victoriajanssen or find out more at victoriajanssen.com.