Kristan Higgin’s Always the Last to Know (Berkley) is a smart and comedic contemporary novel about love, loss and second acts. The Frost family comes undone when the patriarch, John, suffers a stroke the day before his dissatisfied wife of fifty years, Barb, had been planning to ask him for a divorce. Barb quickly discovers explicit and cringe-worthy texts on John’s phone, sending her reeling as she reexamines her roles as mother and wife. Her best friend steps in, bolstering Barb and playing wingman as Barb chastises the other woman in a satisfying takedown.

Meanwhile, the Frosts’ two daughters have rushed onto the scene. Using shifting points of view, we soon learn of their middle-aged anxieties and conundrums. Barb’s favorite, perfectionist Juliet — “She was my life’s work,” Barb says — is a highly respected architect who’s lately found herself eclipsed by a younger, glamorous colleague and is now plagued by frequent panic attacks; as the narrator says, “It was chilling … as if architecture were a river, and Juliet had been a whitewater rafter for all these years. Suddenly she’d been turned into a rock, the water flowing around her, the raft way, way ahead.” Juliet soon throws herself into a hilarious and ill-fated scheme for looking and acting younger, while she manages her family of a surly teenager, an exasperated husband and a doting pre-teen.

Juliet’s younger sister, artist Sadie, has long been John’s favorite. As she says of her father, “He told me I was pretty and never criticized my clothes, even in my goth stage. He came to visit me once a month in the city, and still held my hand when we were crossing the street.” Abandoning New York City for an indefinite stint, she returns to the family’s small coastal Connecticut town. As her relationship with a vapid boyfriend unspools, she crosses paths with Noah Pelletier, the love of her life who’s habitually tried hemming her in, locking her into small-town life and motherhood. She says with wry humor, “The heart wants what the heart wants, and the heart can be a real idiot. Ever since I could remember, I’d wanted to leave Stoningham, because even though I loved it, I hated it. It was so smug. So content. So adorable. So assured of itself. In a way, it was like my sister, never questioning its value.”

John slowly deteriorates, bringing to light long-buried family tensions as Barb, Juliet and Sadie reconcile themselves with their present states of life. Ultimately, Always the Last to Know gifts readers with a charming story about female ambition and insecurity, not to mention the bittersweet realities of motherhood and marriage. Higgin’s characters are complex and sometimes maddening — and remarkably human — as they strive for better relationships and individual life callings. Ultimately, this lighthearted exploration of family, friendship and romance ends on a hopeful note. As Barb observes two years after the fact, love doesn’t “have to be romantic to encircle you in its arms.” Broken apart and then mended, the reconfigured Frost family looks both modern and delightfully messy, leading readers to cheer them on.

Photo © 2017 Deborah Feingold

Kristan Higgins is the New York Times, USA TODAY, Wall Street Journal and Publishers Weekly bestselling author of 19 novels, which have been translated into more than two dozen languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Her books have received dozens of awards and accolades, including starred reviews from KirkusThe New York Journal of Books, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, People and Booklist. Her books regularly appear on the lists for best novels of the year. Kristan is also a cohost of the Crappy Friends podcast, which discusses the often complex dynamics of female friendships, with her friend and fellow writer, Joss Dey. The proud descendant of a butcher and a laundress, Kristan lives in Connecticut with her heroic firefighter husband. They own several badly behaved pets and are often visited by their entertaining and long-lashed children.