Title: Learning Curve (Life Lessons #4)
Author: Kaje Harper
Cover Art: Winterheart Designs
Publisher: MLR Press
Buy Link: Amazon.com Learning Curve (Life Lessons #4)
Length: Novel/370 PDF pages/117,000 words
Genre: Contemporary/Romance/Mystery/Police Procedural
Rating: 5+ stars out of 5
A review by LadyM
Life Lessons Series
Review summary: In the last book of the series, Harper juggles many balls and drops none of them.
Blurb: Three months after being shot, Detective Jared MacLean is healing, but he’s afraid it may not be enough to go back on the job. He won’t give up, though. Being a cop is written deep in Mac’s bones, and he’ll do whatever it takes to carry his badge again.
Tony used to wish he could have Mac safely home, but watching his strong husband battle disabilities is far from Tony’s dream come true. When Mac is asked to consult on a case involving one of Tony’s students, both men will have to face old demons and new fears to find a way to move forward together.
Learning Curve is the final book in Life Lessons series (previous books were reviewed here: Life Lessons, Breaking Cover, Home Work). I have to be honest and say that I was a little apprehensive about this book, because there were so many loose ends to tie up, and that feeling didn’t abandon me for well into the novel. There is so much going on in the novel (some of it expected and anticipated, some of it not) that I couldn’t believe the author would successfully manage to end it all. I should have known better.
Let’s get out of the way the only thing that bothered me a little, but was not necessarily a flaw: I missed Mac’s complex cases from the first two books. Too many things happening as well as Mac’s circumstances didn’t allow for something big, but I missed it nonetheless. That doesn’t mean the case was not in the book as Mac consults on the murder case and disappearance of a father of two Tony’s students (one former, one current), but the case is just part of the glue that brings all story lines together rather than being the focus of the story.
The strength of this series and this novel lies in the characters of Tony and Mac. The consistency with which they were written throughout the series is rare. That doesn’t mean that they do not grow, but rather that no matter how their circumstances change or what challenges they face they always remain true to themselves. Three months after the shooting from the previous book, both men struggle with the aftermath: Mac with the possibility that he will never be a cop again or at least not the cop he wants to be and Tony with fear of Mac’s return to work and possible consequences to their family. On top of that, they have to balance all aspects of their married life, fallout from Mac’s previous cases, arrival of Tony’s parents, homophobia, Ben’s adoption and, in the middle of it all, deal with the sudden call from Chicago. It’s painful to finally meet Mac’s family for both Mac and the reader. And, although they are not all “sadists, masochists, and religious loonies” as Tony says, they are a far cry from the average American family. Harper shows a deft hand here, balancing the characterization, revelations and even humor (including the best usage of Shakespeare’s insult ever). And, there is hope that Mac will renew connections with at least some members of his family. I really wanted to know more about his gay brother.
The men’s relationship is more solid than ever, but it doesn’t come easy. It’s a constant work: for Mac not to become burdened by all the family obligations, for Tony not to give into selfishness and fear and issue an ultimatum. They work through grief and fear; they talk even when it’s not easy; they know when to give in and when to make a stand. I liked how playful they are when together, how they were with kids. When faced with the challenge they show united front.
Harper also uses elements of the previous books (Tony’s reminiscence of Marty, fate of the serial killer from the second book, Brittany Lane’s trial) and brings back some of beloved secondary characters – Sandra, Oliver, Detective Ramsey, Walter Sinclair/Lulu, etc. – to put together the final story of Tony and Mac. As always, there is humor to lighten the darker parts of the story (Tony’s “interrogation by blow-job” should go into police manuals, I think).
What I love about Harper’s work is that the ending of the novel is not a fairy tale with rainbow-barfing pink ponies (unless they are for a six-year-old girl’s birthday) and shooting stars. The lives of these men do not become magically perfect – the old hurts and problems remain and they are both flawed, but Harper gives them a very human happy ending – the possibility of future together. And, that is perfect.
While reviewing, we often talk about talent, writing style, character development, etc., but we rarely talk about craft and the hard work that goes into each book. Kaje Harper knows her craft (better with each book, it seems) and pages practically sweat from the work that went into putting every little piece – every thought, every turn of phrase – into its place. It’s a pleasure to read this novel and a privilege to review it. I hope the fans of the series will enjoy it as much as I did and, and, although this is the last novel, I hope that author will not completely abandon these two marvelous characters.
And so, for only the second time since I stared reviewing here, I give a book 5 stars. Highly, highly recommended.