People say that timing is everything in romantic relationships. It’s a well-worn aphorism, but one endorsed (at least partially) by psychologists, life coaches and parents alike. Romances that center unexpected babies therefore have massive conflict built in. Bringing new life into the world is always a monumental task, but doing so while you’re forging a new connection with another human being amps up the degree of difficulty to 10. While unplanned parenting would be a game changer for any couple, characters with already challenging lives in both Life’s Too Short by Abby Jimenez and Knit, Purl, a Baby and a Girl by Hettie Bell meet new partners at the most inopportune time, and fall inexorably in love nonetheless.
Soapy rather than frothy, Abby Jimenez’s first two novels, The Friend Zone and The Happy Ever After Playlist, seamlessly combined romance, comedy and drama. Life’s Too Short, in which a globe-trotting YouTube star with a deadly neurodegenerative disease becomes guardian of her sister’s baby and falls in love with her workaholic neighbor who’s afraid to fly, further showcases Jimenez’s masterful blend of genres and tone.
For Vanessa Price, “yolo” (you only live once) is more than a catchy slogan; it’s the philosophy she lives by. At 28 years old, with a family history of ALS, she’s seen what the disease can do firsthand—the survival time from onset of symptoms averages just three years—and she’s determined to make the most of the time she has. Vanessa roams the world as a travel YouTube star, broadcasting her latest adventures and donating the bulk of her hefty earnings to ALS research. Neither settling down in one place nor long-term romantic commitments are part of the plan. And parenting is out of the question. So when her younger sister drops her infant daughter, Grace, on Vanessa's doorstep, Vanessa is very believably not equipped to take on the parental role.
One particularly challenging night, help arrives in an unexpected package. Grace won’t stop wailing and her meltdown brings Vanessa’s sexy next-door neighbor, Adrian, to her door. Their first meeting demonstrates Jimenez's flair for character and conflict. A thoroughly lovely hunk, Adrian is smart, supportive and just a little wounded, coming off a yearlong relationship with a woman he didn’t realize was married. He’s as buttoned up and controlled as Vanessa is spontaneous and risk-taking, but he’s a natural baby whisperer and they make a great team. Though her chaotic family sees Adrian as a “Fancy Hall Cop,” Vanessa gawks admiringly at his calming effect on Grace—a “sorcery” that makes her “clutch a hand over [her] heart.” Impulsive jetsetter meets attorney who’s afraid to fly works well as an effective and creative variation on the idea that opposites attract, but the angst could easily be overwhelming. Instead, Jimenez successfully plays up the contrasts for welcome comic relief, as seen here in Vanessa’s first thought about Adrian:
"This is the hottest guy in my building. Maybe the hottest guy on my block. He is so attractive that if he rolled up on me in an alley in a windowless white van, wearing rubber gloves and waving duct tape, claiming he had candy—I’d get in."
Adrian and Vanessa's vibrancy, paired with Jimenez’s funny and irreverent writing, carry the reader through. The banter, mutual adoration and chemistry between Adrian and Vanessa are more than enough to trigger a swoon. These are irresistible characters, and Life’s Too Short will win readers over with its charm.
In Knit, Purl, A Baby and a Girl, single mother-to-be Poppy Adams’ life is much less glamorous than Vanessa’s. But they have one essential thing in common: becoming a parent was not part of their plan. Poppy is not in a good place emotionally, even before she learns that she’s pregnant. The 22-year-old is insecure, isolated and struggles with negative self-talk and self-loathing. Finding out that she’s pregnant after a drunken round of sex with her ex is the last thing she needs. After drugstore tests come up positive, she goes to Planned Parenthood almost set on having an abortion (though she’s internally unsure as to why), but comes out encouraged and determined to have the baby. Impending motherhood also leads her to join a knitting group where she runs into the very cute and supportive Rhiannon, who also happens to have been her kindly clinic escort.
In her first contemporary romance, Canadian author Hettie Bell (who also writes as Heidi Belleau) creates a sensitive, information-rich portrait of the experience of visiting a Planned Parenthood clinic in the early stages of pregnancy and all the factors that affect what happens next. As Poppy arrives at Planned Parenthood, Bell describes the gauntlet of protest many clients have to face just to get to the front door, the clinic escorts who help them navigate it and the counselors inside who clearly outline the options. Though she is strongly pro-choice, the conclusion Poppy arrives at is this: It’s time to grow up, and she wants to be a parent.
This is a particularly big step since a lifetime of harsh parental criticism has left Poppy with a damaged sense of self, and she struggles with social comparisons and a kind of failure to launch syndrome as a result. You know someone's not in a good place with their family when an innocuous declaration that she’s taking up knitting triggers the response of “Yeah sure, good luck with that” from her sister. Bell paints a consistently convincing portrait of Poppy as someone whose biggest challenge is psychological well-being and maturity. But Poppy also recognizes that she has the fundamental stability needed to take care of a child. Though she beats herself up for being a college dropout, that’s largely due to her family’s expectations. Financially, she’s doing ok. She has a small but comfortable home and a reliable job with health insurance. Similarly to how director/writer Gillian Robespierre’s rom-com Obvious Child normalized abortion, Knit, Purl shows the experience of choosing to become a young, single mother in a complex, loving, but still pro-choice way.
Maturity and a combination of family and pregnancy-related complications end up being the biggest barriers to Poppy’s relationship with the wonderfully sweet and hot Rhiannon, who leads the knitting group. There’s no question that they’re drawn to each other, and Rhiannon likes and appreciates Poppy from the start. They enjoy undeniable sexual chemistry, which Bell brings to vivid life on the page, but Rhiannon is understandably cautious about jumping into a committed relationship with a pregnant woman she’s just met and committing to being part of a child’s life. They’re mulling over the potential for co-parenting before they’ve even begun to formally date. The primary push-pull centers on the complexities of forging a new relationship under those circumstances and Poppy’s instinctual desire to make Rhiannon an instant partner.
Poppy’s loneliness and insecurities are palpable and vividly rendered. But she’s given no support system outside of the new knitting group and her girlfriend Rhiannon. All the spotlight is on the emotional growth of this one character whose near total isolation and alienation are confusing given her personality. As a result, Bell’s romance is largely a coming-of-age story about a woman on the cusp of adulthood as much as it’s a love story between Poppy and Rhiannon.
Knit, Purl, a Baby and a Girl is an imperfect but original and emotionally engaging story that is worth reading for its messy but realistic portrayal of unplanned pregnancy and a young woman coming into her own.