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The Last First Kiss
Ace Sinclair, now in his seventies, has one eye on a hurricane churning up from the south and the other on his old high school sweetheart, J’nelle Reade, whom he has invited to his Outer Banks beach house for a sentimental journey into their pasts. But the past is with them more than they know, and they are soon pulled into a haunting search among old memories for betrayals, mistakes, missed chances and ultimately the hard truths of their lives. As a dangerous hurricane turns in the Atlantic and heads their way, time runs short, and they must choose between the tidal pull of old dreams and the future’s wide unknown.
In this warm and reflective septuagenarian love story, Bennett (Leaving Tuscaloosa) brings readers to the Outer Banks of North Carolina for the intimate beach-house tale of long-ago sweethearts rediscovering each other as a hurricane bears down on the coast. At age 75, widower “Ace” Sinclair meets his first love, J’nelle Reade, at his family vacation home, the first extended encounter the one-time couple has had since high school. Tentative at first, their weekend of wine and lost time soon finds the pair facing both their shared and individual pasts, their own looming mortality, the feelings that have never quite gone away, and the possibility that maybe, despite all that’s messy and resolved in their lives, they can open themselves to each other.

Bennett proves adept at stirring together past and present, plus feelings of doubt and trust, in an evocative natural setting. As “the squeal of the wind around the eaves and distant boom of the surf fade away” the couple find themselves dancing despite Ace’s nervousness about how she’ll respond to his trembling hands and aged flesh. With exquisite tenderness, Bennett writes, “And then she does that thing she used to do that melted the space between them and transfigured everything, that erased time: that soft sigh of her body into his.”

Much of this short, affecting novel’s page circles those feelings of “erased time”: As Bennett’s protagonists look back on their short time together long ago, and face together all the life and love that each experienced in the interim, the gulf between youth and age never quite vanishes. It can’t, and Bennett is wise enough a writer to acknowledge the challenges this possible couple faces. But the joy of that coupling, and their long-ago comfort and arousal in each other? That’s the same as it ever was, dramatized with a lyric power that will thrill readers of grown-up romance.

Takeaway: This stirring grown-up romance finds old flames rekindling a full lifetime later.

Great for fans of: Anne Tyler, Pat Conroy.

Production grades
Cover: B
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A