I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson
Published by Berkley on May 19, 2020
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
When their foster-turned-adoptive mother suddenly dies, four brothers struggle to keep open the doors of her beloved Harlem knitting shop, while dealing with life and love in Harlem.
Jesse Strong is known for two things: his devotion to his adoptive mom, Mama Joy, and his reputation for breaking hearts in Harlem. When Mama Joy unexpectedly passes away, he and his brothers have different plans on what to do with Strong Knits, their neighborhood knitting store: Jesse wants to keep the store open; his brothers want to shut it down.
Jesse makes an impassioned plea to Kerry Fuller, his childhood friend who has had a crush on him her entire life, to help him figure out how to run the business. Kerry agrees to help him reinvent the store and show him the knitty-gritty of the business, but the more time they spend together, the more the chemistry builds. Kerry, knowing Jesse’s history, doesn’t believe this relationship will exist longer than one can knit one, purl one. But Jesse is determined to prove to her that he can be the man for her—after all, real men knit.
This is a rough one. On the one hand, it was really well-written, and I absolutely adored the entire Strong family. The dynamics at play between all of them will be fascinating to watch play out over the course of the rest of the series. And I will be reading the rest of the series. On the other hand, the romance between Jesse and Kerry was lacking that something special that makes you realize that these two people have finally found their person.
Strong Knits has always been a place for the community to gather, and after the sudden death of Mama Joy, the proprietor of the shop, its future, and the future of that community space, is uncertain. I loved this whole story line. The initial reaction of all of the Strong brother, minus Jesse, is to shut it down. Sell of the inventory, the furniture, pay off any debts, divide the profits, and go about their business. And, really, that’s the smartest course of action, if you’re looking at the situation pragmatically. But family matters, and grieving in particular, are hardly situations we look at pragmatically.
Jesse is the outlier. He wants to hold on to the shop, build it back up, keep it running to honor the memory of their late foster mother. Whew. The conversation between the four Strong brothers was brutal. All Jesse wants is to keep the shop running, to run it himself, and keep Mama Joy’s memory and her space going, and not one of the brothers has his back even briefly. Not for one second. And Jesse’s frustration and his resentment at their lack of belief in him was difficult to read because it was so visceral. We’ve all experienced that – knowing we can do something and finding not one iota of belief or trust around us. (Well, I have. If you haven’t, I’m very envious of you)
It’s not until Kerry agrees to work with Jesse to open the shop back up and continue that safe space that the brothers even entertain the idea of keeping the store running. Even then it’s grudging, more of a way to placate Kerry more than because they trust Jesse to manage. They’re all assuming they’ll let Kerry and Jesse work on their little project for a little while, then go ahead and close up the shop anyway as they’d planned all along. They’re very condescending to both of them, but it’s clear that this is the dynamic in the family; the way it’s always been. No one is surprised that this is how it’s working, they’re only surprised that Jesse wants to step up and do the work to begin with.
But the interplay between Kerry and Jesse didn’t work for me. I never felt the chemistry between them as much as I could tell Kwana Jackson wanted me to. They had a solid relationship, but it didn’t strike me as a romantic. Late in the book, during Kerry and Jesse’s breakup, one of Jesse’s brothers says to him:
You’re the one who was all torn and confused in your thoughts, not sure if she was some sort of sister, girlfriend or surrogate mother.
And that’s the issue in a nutshell. Damian, Jesse’s brother, is right. For at least the first three-quarters of the book, Jesse’s thoughts were all over the place, and his confusion about how to even see Kerry, much less to deal with his feelings for her, came through in the book in a way that just wasn’t romantic. There’s a mutual “Holy shit, they’re hot”, but nothing deeper than that; nothing that made me believe these two people needed to be together forever. Based on their interactions, Kerry could have felt the way she did about any of the brothers and I would have believed it as much.
On the technical/writing side of this book, overall I enjoyed it. But the characters tended to just lose themselves in navel-gazing over and over, even in the middle of conversations, which made it hard to keep track of those conversations sometimes. Character A would ask a question, then Character B would ruminate for 5 pages before answering. I’d usually end up having to back to check the question again because I didn’t even remember what they were answering. That was really the only issue
Honestly, I’d read the rest of the series just to watch the relationship between the brothers. Because that part of it is perfect, and as a novel, I loved it. As a romance novel, though, it’s lacking. The romance piece isn’t a slow burn, it’s a non-burn until more than three-quarters through.