Better Luck Next Time

Written by Julia Claiborne Johnson
Review by Kristen McDermott

This clever evocation of Hollywood screwball comedies has “soon to be a major motion picture” written all over it, and if Tom Hanks isn’t angling to direct the film and play the role of the folksy narrator looking back on his glory days in Depression-era Reno, I’ll eat my hat. As to the casting of Ward himself, a Yale-educated ranch hand with a heart of gold and the masculine beauty of Cary Grant, I’ll leave that to the imaginations of the readers who will fall in love with this wisecracking, heart-tugging novel.

Ward introduces us to a group of glamorous yet disillusioned clients of a guest ranch that has been carefully designed to distract and comfort them during their enforced six-week stay prior to obtaining divorces. The divorcées-to-be are rich and world-weary, but their regrets and fears are treated with sympathy by Ward and the other hosts of the Flying Leap Dude Ranch. The reader sees young Ward through the eyes of his sadder-but-wiser future self, and in comparing the romantic innocent he was in 1939 with the empathetic doctor he becomes, Johnson creates a remarkably real and lovable narrator. The other characters – the women he befriends and cares for – are equally vivid and well-drawn, especially Nina, a raucous aviatrix who upends the usual routines of the ranch with wry observations gained in the course of three failed marriages.

Johnson writes with economy and humor, and it’s a treat just to spend time with these witty, attractive young people. Their experiences are given a poignant context by the narrator’s voice, and Johnson achieves a perfect balance between the comic and the nostalgic that will make the reader want to start re-reading this novel as soon as it’s finished, just to see how she pulled it off so well.