Jea Hawkins’s charming romance, Must Love Chickens, bonds two women over, among other things, the love of a precocious chicken named Esmerelda. It is Esmerelda who truly tips the scales between Jess Morgan and Natalie Wells, two women who have seemingly nothing in common.
Natalie is at dead ends with her job as director of a small art gallery in New York City. Several exhibitions have failed to generate interest and commissions (the life-blood of the gallery’s existence). Throw in a dash of phoning it in, an ambitious underling… and Natalie finds herself packing up for a job interview as a farm hand at an orchard. Owner and operator of Morgan Orchards, Jess couldn’t be happier with her bountiful McIntosh apple crop. However, the increased work exhausts both her and her long-time hand, Joe. When Jess reviews Natalie’s qualifications, or lack thereof, she is quick to scratch her name off the short (and uninspiring) list of applicants.
At first glance, Natalie and Jess are city and country, two women with lives lived on polar ends of the universe. However, it becomes quickly apparent that both women possess a strong drive and desire for meaningful lives. What starts off for Natalie as just a job, something to exhaust her in mind and body, becomes a surprising avenue for fulfillment and love. The attraction and rapport between them develops easily as they bond over chores and chickens, though their initial assumptions of each other and baggage constantly pull at them.
While Natalie has fled the trappings (and suffocation) of her city life, she is unable to ignore it. Newly found purpose, love, and confidence help her confront the boogeyman of her life: her grandmother. Jess, on the other hand, drowns out her pain in hard work. What ultimately makes this romance work is that they bring out the best in each other. They try to uncover what they really want out of life, as well as what they are willing to invest in the world.
The cast of rural, community folk give the setting a lived-in feel. Chosen family, Joe and Kate, who works as the orchard’s manager and part-time matchmaker, form a support network for both women and add much needed prodding and levity. Only a few hours from New York City, the town is a small, tight-knit community where folks know you by name and lend a hand if you need it. It’s not without flaws; privacy is often at a premium. Yet, it is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon or a weekend.
Must Love Chickens is the kind of comfy romance that I read with ice cream, tea, and/or pizza (or homemade mac ‘n cheese, etc.), curled up on a futon with my cats. And it doesn’t hurt to imagine Diane Lane in a starring role, either.