Online Book Club: THE REALM OF LAST CHANCES by Steve Yarbrough

The February online book club pick was The Realm of Last Chances by Steve Yarbrough. The discussion of that book will take place today here on EDIWTB, with the participants commenting below.

The Realm of Last Chances is about Kristin and Cal Stevens, a married couple who moves from the Central Valley of California to Boston after Kristin is laid off from her college administration job in California. She finds another job at a third-tier college outside Boston, and the two start their lives over again on the East Coast. However, it turns out only to be a fresh start geographically. The couple, who had been growing apart in California, find themselves even more distant from each other in their new home. Cal, who was a handyman  in California, spends his days playing stringed instruments and fixing up their new house. Kristin finds herself embroiled in new but familiar challenges facing college administrators, such as professor plagiarism and tenure negotiations. As the book progresses, we also learn about the skeletons in Kristin and Cal’s closets – failed marriages, broken homes, violence – and how they shaped the main characters.

Matt Drinnan, the Stevens’ neighbor and a man with his own troubled past, meets the couple shortly after their arrival in Massachusetts. Ultimately his relationship with Kristin drives her and Cal further apart, as he seeks his own reinvention and redemption for his own transgressions.

The good: I liked the glimpse The Realm of Last Chances gave into these unusual characters’ lives. I feel like I read so many books about urban thirtysomething parents, and it was refreshing to explore the lives of these struggling middle-aged suburbanites. Yarbrough’s writing is crisp and descriptive. There are themes throughout the book – infidelity, forgiveness, and how well we really know our partners – that I thought Yarbrough skillfully weaved among multiple characters and contexts.

However, I don’t think I really got this book. I found a lot of it implausible – how could Kristin and Cal have been so incurious about each other’s pasts? do people really ask relative strangers to hold them? can one really read lips looking through a window between homes? – and much of the rest of it was either too convenient or just kind of boring. I got to the end of the book, which felt slapped on and too tidy, and wondered what the point was. I didn’t feel very optimistic about these characters’ futures – they just kind of limped off into the sunset.

I enjoyed the beginning of The Realm of Last Chances more than the end. Kristin and Cal’s disorientation upon arriving across the country, her introduction to her new job – those were compelling. As the story progressed, however, it sort of lost me. The plagiarism storyline didn’t make much sense to me – how was Kristin to blame for how the story came to light? – and the grand reveal about Cal’s violent past seemed inopportune.

Depressing-o-meter: 6. It’s gloomy and defeatist at times, but ends on a positive.

Goodreads abounds with very positive reviews of The Realm of Last Chances, so there are clearly many fans of this book out there. I am eager to hear what the other book club participants felt about the book. Did it grab you? Did you find the plot to be plausible? Do tell.

Thanks to Knopf for facilitating the book club!



  • Michelle
    March 5, 2014 - 12:21 am | Permalink

    I completely agree with you, Gayle. I was really optimistic at the beginning of the story that I would love this book. The first few chapters were compelling. But the plagiarism story completely bored me. And I found myself really disliking Kristen. She and Cal had grown apart but I found myself feeling sorry for him and wishing she’d leave him and then he’d find real happiness. I really didn’t understand why she had Matthew hold her on the stairs- it was odd. And Cal seeing the whole scene from the window and having his big epiphany? Didn’t buy it. But yet it was all wrapped up in a bow and I didn’t believe that would have happened and felt let down by the conclusion. But because I really liked the first third or so of the book, I kept turning those pages as I awaited more compelling chapters to return again!

  • Rica Berg
    March 5, 2014 - 8:04 am | Permalink

    I’ve had a very hard time getting through the book. I had to put it down several times.
    I didn’t feel that it addressed Kristen and Cal’s difficult relationship. Why did they move across the country if they weren’t happy together?

    There was a lot of detail about their parents which didn’t have much to do with the story.

    I didn’t think it was plausible that she was close to missing her train & she conveniently runs into her neighbor..( to begin their relationship)

    I just didn’t care about these characters.

  • Tuvana
    March 5, 2014 - 8:28 am | Permalink

    I think I was expecting more substantive character development from this book. Unfortunately, the characters felt hollow to me and I also could not grasp the substance of the relationship between Kristen and her husband Cal.They actually seemed like strangers. Perhaps that was the point of the skeletal development of their relationship. I would have enjoyed experiencing more of Sara’s interior life. Matt Drinnan seemed like the most developed of all the characters.

    I did thoroughly enjoy Yarbrough’s description of the settings – his California and Massachusetts were very vivid. He also captured well the socioeconomic circumstances of each set of characters. Also I enjoyed the glimpse into the inner workings of colleges/universities and the hierarchies within. The plagiarism storyline did grab my interest and seemed somewhat suspenseful.

    I did not care for the long digressions into the backgrounds of secondary characters, however; this seemed almost like filler.

    I would be interested to look at Yarbrough’s other works, though – according to the bookflap, New England was a change of locale for him for his storyline.

  • Amy
    March 5, 2014 - 8:43 am | Permalink

    I completely agree about the beginning and the ending. I had high hopes when I started and they went down hill fast.

    Oh dear. Where do I start with this one? Because I received a free copy, I felt I had to finish it or I would’ve put it down a long time ago. This novel was painful. I dreaded picking it up and reading it.

    The characters are boring. The storyline is boring and wanders aimlessly throughout the book. Very often while reading this I got the feeling that the author just came up with things to add into the book and was winging it as he went. Hey let’s add a robbery and make Cal the guy who beats up other people. For our next trick we’ll have Kristin’s coworkers be plagiarizers. What was the point of THAT? That contributed nothing to the main story line.

    So the basis- Cal and Kristin are married they move across country for Kristin’s job. Cal does nothing with his life, nothing. He plays instruments but don’t go calling him a musician. He is a fixer upper but tends to not finish what he starts. He does nothing but roam around the house aimlessly. He is not social at all and avoids his neighbors. Then one day he is at a store that is getting robbed and his neighbor is there. Cal attacks the robber and almost beats him to death. Now he is friends with this neighbor…so friendly in fact they go there for Thanksgiving. He is giving his neighbors friend music lessons and confesses his deep dark *read: boring* secrets to his neighbors friend wife. Got that? Interested? No I didn’t think so. I can’t say it enough, everything is so far fetched!

    Kristin is the one who cheats. She is a big wig at the local college. Yes she is married to a man who does nothing and cheating on him with Matt an ex-con who works at a sandwich shop. You couldn’t make this stuff up, why does the author try? None of this stuff is believable. They just so happen to get it on at an abandon house right on their block that Matt has a key to (of course he does!) Her husband finds out about the affair when..get this-it’s Thanksgiving and Kristin goes home to let the dog out and calls Matt and says “I love you” on his voice mail and Cal, being next door with his new best buddy, sees her in the window mouthing the words. For REAL? I’m buying this?? Then Cal dumps Matt’s car in a pond. I feel like an idiot even repeating this story line because it’s SO FAR FETCHED!

    I wish I liked this book more because I got a free copy of it and feel like I owe it to the universe to love it because it was given to me. I’m sorry I didn’t. The synopsis wasn’t one that grabbed me but I thought maybe reading the actual book might. It was worse than I expected.

    I was floored to read some reviewers on GoodReads who gave this book 5 stars. Were we reading the same book?

  • Sarah
    March 5, 2014 - 9:13 am | Permalink

    I fundamentally agree with virtually all of the comments above. I felt as though I *should* like this book more than I did. I am a higher ed administrator myself, and I am from the Boston suburbs. But I found the book tedious. Perhaps my biggest issue with it was that I didn’t like any of the characters. I couldn’t find redeeming qualities in any of them, and didn’t particularly care what happened to any of them. Kristin seemed utterly bland to me. Her marriage to Cal made no sense to me. I couldn’t fathom what had ever brought them together. It also struck me as implausible that she would welcome his dead beat way of life –would she really have been so tolerant of him having no plan, aim, or ambition? The novel also left very little to the imagination. Evertyhing — all the interpretations of people’s acts and thoughts — was spelled out. I wish the book had been more subtle.

  • March 5, 2014 - 9:28 am | Permalink

    I think I ended up liking this one a little more than the rest of you but it took some time for me to admit it, even to myself.

    First off, Kristen is very cold. She comes across as business-like, even when it comes to her personal affairs. Her relationship with Matt was strange. I didn’t feel as if she loved him and I didn’t see much love coming from him either. She seemed to be the transitional relationship that he needed to move on, but why Kristen chose to hook up with Matt? Not entire sure. There is a line in there about her wanting to be “sought out” and perhaps, that’s all she wanted from the relationship. Cal, was in his own world most of the time. He explains it off as being respectful to her privacy but what it really was, was an excuse for him to be distant. Matt was ready and willing and that was much more than what Cal was willing to give.

    The plagiarism thing and how she dealt with it gave the reader a tiny glimpse of her warmer side. Her chance meeting with Gwen at the Whole Foods. So what? The ice queen DOES have a heart? Her endless crying about it all. Her “matter of fact” assistant pointing all this out to her. It was meant to give us another side of her but it felt oddly placed.

    Did anyone look up Kristin Lavransdatter? I was not familiar with the book but it’s the series that Matt reads throughout the novel and although it’s not at all what this story is about it shares a lot of the same themes. I wondered if Matt’s reading of it, was supposed to be something other than just a literary reference.

    All of the characters in this novel have hard edges.I liked that they were not open books and since I work at a university, I can tell you all that Kristen’s hard-shell administrator self was pretty spot on. Yes, much of it was too convenient but I didn’t think her hooking up with Matt was all that far-fetched. She wanted to be sought and who is going to do that besides a younger, less-accomplished guy?

    By the end, I did feel as if they both came full circle. Not that their marriage was going to be perfect, but that they were at least going to put some effort into it and that was hopeful.

    Fave character: Vico. He can invite me over for wine anytime. That guy knows how to entertain.

  • Jen
    March 5, 2014 - 9:37 am | Permalink

    I agree, Gayle. Though there were many nicely written passages, all of it seemed unbelievable. I don’t even understand the attraction between Matt and Kristen. Matt was such a strange character; I don’t feel like I got a grip on what he was. A drug addict? A literature expert? No discussion of his relationship with his children and the ending was so abrupt – do we even know what happened to him? There may have been something about it but by that point I didn’t even really care. And what in the world made her decide to stay in such an unhappy marriage with Cal? I would have liked to hear more from the characters who plagiarized the books. That seemed just lazy. Maybe that could have somehow woven the story together better? Or maybe that would have been too convenient. And what a strange story about Cal. All in all, didn’t like it and had to make myself finish it.

    • March 5, 2014 - 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Didn’t Matt end up stealing from the bookstore? He was rubbing elbows with all those writers but in the end, was just a thief with a drug habit.

      I think the sandwich shop was a last resort job since his friend from school ran the place and probably did him a favor by letting him work there.

      At the end, he just made it clear that he wasn’t going to give up. That he was always going to be thinking about her which to me, means the pickings are slim because she had the personality of a wet sock.

  • Lindsay
    March 5, 2014 - 9:45 am | Permalink

    I agree with all of you on the disappointment I felt as I got farther and farther through this book. It was a quick read, but felt flat to me. Frankly, also, I am tired of reading books about people having affairs. There are so many other good topics to read about and this one is getting stale to me. I might have given up on this one, had I not been reading it for the book club. In addition, it didn’t take much time or effort to get through. Even the revelation at the end, though, didn’t make much of an impact on me. It’s too bad, but blah is the best descriptor I can give to this one.

  • Suzie
    March 5, 2014 - 9:59 am | Permalink

    Like everyone else it seems, this one fell flat for me. I did not care about Kristin or Cal. The whole premise seemed unbelievable. I, too, felt like I *had* to finish this for the book club.

    I won’t repeat everything else other reviewers pointed out, but I feel that maybe with some more thought and editing this could have been a better book. Did the author not really consider some of the situations the characters found themselves in were not very realistic?

    Thanks for the chance to read the book- regardless of my review, I do like this book club!

  • Rosie
    March 5, 2014 - 12:15 pm | Permalink

    The book was about 2 or 3 stars out of 5 for me. The characters were sort of boring. The story line was boring. The intrigue around the affair and plagiarism were not enough to hold it together. I really didn’t want to finish the book but did force myself to read it (although I have to admit to some skimming). The robbery scene happened too far into the book and I started to think something interesting may happen after that scene. I think more dialogue and less description about the characters may have helped the characters seem more real and more differentiated. The absence of anyone that had children in their lives also seemed a bit unrealistic.

    I also have a bias against books about writers and movie scripts about actors. Seems so overdone and safe to me. I couldn’t recommend this book to a friend.

  • Shannon
    March 5, 2014 - 12:19 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t love this book either. It was unrealistic in many ways. I do think Yarbrough accurately began describing Cal and Kristin on page one. We were told how Kristin’s friend’s had question her and Cal’s relationship, and that she was previously married. He also explained what a jerk Cal was. I think the two lived as strangers. Sad story, yes, but author had huge opportunity that was wasted.

  • March 5, 2014 - 12:53 pm | Permalink

    I wanted to add one more thing, let’s consider the title a bit. We catch them in their last chance at fixing things. By the time you get to this point, you are not in a good place and have usually given up hope. That is most definitely what I felt when I opened the book. That these people were going along for the ride to say that they gave it a shot but that they were at the end of the line. It’s not pleasant to visit people at this point in the process.

  • gayle
    March 5, 2014 - 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, everyone, for their comments! I am sorry that this book wasn’t more of a hit. Ti, I think you make some good points about the title and the stage of life. These are defeated people who have given up on trying to change or improve, which explains the lifelessness and lack of effort that I think many of us were frustrated with.

    My mom read Kristin Lavransdatter over the summer. I will ask her about it! Clearly there’s a connection.

    Jen – good point about Matt – who was he supposed to be, drug addict or book critic? He seemed to have a lot of contradictions that didn’t add up.

  • Miriam
    March 5, 2014 - 3:47 pm | Permalink

    Thank you and Knopf for this book club. I liked this book but like so many did not love it. Growing up in New England I liked the setting and all the descriptions of the changing seasons. I did like the writing and there were many sentences that were so beautiful!
    However I like so many did not “get” the characters. And the slow reveal of all their secrets seemed just done for the plot- not what would happen in real life.
    I think the title was wonderful and the whole idea of this being everyone’s last chance was really good.
    This book was no Longbourn by Jo Baker but they can’t all be that good.
    It did have moments of good writing and memorable scenes.

  • Marcia
    March 5, 2014 - 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I didn’t love this book either but found myself liking Cal and Kristin a little better at the end of the story. I felt all of the characters were sort of adrift.
    I felt this part very telling, “no one could write a symphony everyday, and no one could live one either”.
    Like the other readers, I found myself not really liking these people. However at the end, there was a resolution of sorts and you felt that the characters were at least trying to get it right.
    I too loved the title as when Matt says “he felt as if he’d stepped into the realm of last chances, where the ice is thin and apt to break and caution is no currency”.
    Enjoyed the opportunity to read the book and be part of this book club.

  • March 5, 2014 - 5:15 pm | Permalink

    I’m late to this party, sorry about that.
    I think I liked this book more than everyone. I thought Kristin was still struggling with her first husband leaving her. I think he just came home one night and said he was leaving at a time when she thought things were going well so she was really surprised by this. I was confused for a little while about why she remarried. But I think she liked being married and she was attracted to Cal. But I also thought Kristin felt that Cal spent more time with his musical instruments than with her, kind of like he abandoned her. He seemed happiest with them and then when giving lessons to his friend, Dave. I expected Cal to leave Kristin.
    I thought the incident in the grocery, when Cal beat up the thief explained Cal. He had a lot of pent up anger from a bad relationship with his father. I understood him even more after the story he told Dave’s wife.
    I did think it was odd that Kristin didn’t ask Cal much about his past. But he commented at one point that she was not observant and he seemed okay with that.
    I felt like Kristin and Cal’s relationship was just very different than others that I’m familiar with. And I thought moving to Massachusetts gave them a chance to get to know each other better and in a new light. Dave’s wife seemed to open Kristin’s eyes to Cal’s love for her and to help her see how Cal felt for her. I think that’s what helped her to break up with Matt. I also thought Kristin and Cal showed a desire to make things work out better when he began picking her up from the train station after work and she willingly went home with him.

    I also expected, based on the title, that Kristin and Cal were in a bad place in their marriage and it was a kind of “do or die” situation we were going to see.if they could work it out or not.

    I could talk about this book quite a bit I’m realizing. I thought the characters were quirky and weird but I liked that and I thought a lot of what happened made sense! But that’s just me!

    • March 5, 2014 - 5:39 pm | Permalink

      It’s weird because Dave’s wife did open Kristen’s eyes about Cal loving her, but then she went right next door and called Matt to say I love you! I was so confused by that. I think she really just enjoyed the fact that she was his everything. Cal had this take it or leave it attitude
      that I think bothered Kristen much more than she let on. Such a conflicted character.

  • Shannon
    March 5, 2014 - 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Gayle ~ In my previous post I failed to thank you and Knopf for hosting and putting the book club together. Thank you! I also enjoy your blog! Please keep reading and blogging!

  • Pat B
    March 5, 2014 - 9:20 pm | Permalink

    It’s late in the day and looks like I have very little to add. When I first started the book, I found it a bit intriguing and a fast read. In terms of description, the author did a fine job. My biggest problem was that I coud not feel empathy for ANY of the characters. I had to put the book aside for about ten days when I was halfway through. Unfortunately, I found the second half drudgery. The several “story lines” seemed so implausible and disconnected. In spite of what some of the others thought, I did not feel the ending provided either closure or catharsis. I appreciate being part of this on line book club and enjoyed the other comments.
    I have so many reading friends, but can’t think of any to whom I would pass this book on.
    Thanks, Gayle!

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