I’m not sure if my difficulty in reviewing Better Luck Next Time comes from the content, the writing from Claiborne Johnson, or my own feelings, but whatever the case this has been tricky to write.
Better Luck Next Time is about a divorce ranch outside of Reno in the 1930’s. Apparently if you were a resident for six weeks you can get an easy divorce so wealthy women flock to the ranch as an opportunity to escape their husbands and lives. Some women have an easier time of the process then others, some can’t go through with it, some have been there more than once. A married couple who by all accounts are deeply in love own the ranch and they’ve hired young attractive men to run it.
An interesting set up right? There’s opportunity for a whole cast of interesting characters under really unique circumstances.
Unfortunately, only one character is particularly interesting and the way she’s described makes her seemed more like a caricature of an interesting person than a real one. Nina flies planes, sneaks out at night, gets raging drunk, goes skinny dipping. An heirs, she’s had multiple divorces and knows her way around the ranch. Except this last split is supposed to be the most tragic because she actually loves him but he’s gay. The only problem was, Nina seems so 2D, I didn’t feel bad. Like, she didn’t seem like she had any emotions so this wouldn’t be a big deal.
Claiborne Johnson sets it up to make it seem like the book is going to be about Nina, told through the eyes of ranch hand Ward, but actually it’s about Ward and Emily. Emily is a first time visitor to the ranch and is really torn about leaving her cheating husband. She has a teenage daughter and feels trapped because she didn’t want to tell her daughter why she’s seeking a divorce. Except now her daughter hates her. So Emily is timid and sheltered except when it comes to Ward (which felt very out of character). She and Nina become fast friends and the three have wild adventures.
Eventually they start hooking up and I think Claiborne Johnson wanted that to be scandalous; Ward’s never done that with a resident and it’s strictly forbidden. Except the circumstances make it seem like an inevitability instead of a shocker so it didn’t really feel like a big deal.
At one point, Ward casually mentions he believed himself to be in love with Emily.
Then Emily’s daughter shows up and things get real complicated.
I won’t give away the ending, but I will say it felt unfinished. The big reveal wasn’t really a surprise (think Daisy Jones and the Six) but beyond that, I didn’t get the point. Love is real? Love isn’t real? You should never move on from your first love? Better luck next time?
I do think I’ve been particularly critical of the plot because of the writing. Claiborne Johnson fell into the same trap that I find in my own writing; trying too hard to sound deep and beautiful and not quite pulling it off.
“Did you win?” Nina asked.
“I don’t see how I could lose if I was the only one in the game.”
“People find a way more often then you’d think.” Nina said.
Like, Emily was playing solitaire or something. And these asides happened a lot.
Something something I’m worried about my divorce. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“All right,” Nina said. “Look how beautiful our little boats are.”
Emily opened her eyes. “They are, aren’t they? They remind me of that poem. The one about the owl and the pussycat, pushing out to sea in a beautiful pea-green…”
Like, real people don’t talk this way. Emily and Nina don’t even normally talk this way. They only did occasionally which made it seem false somehow.
But, as I said, I could spot this trap because I fall in it all the time.
Also, maybe historical fiction just isn’t my jam right now. And that’s ok! If it’s yours, maybe you’ll love it! Read it and let me know! Or if you’re about historical fiction but looking for something more World War Two, check out All The Light We Cannot See.