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The Best-Laid Plans

Jeff Zentner’s new novel signals a change in literary direction

With Colton Gentry’s Third Act, award-winning YA author Jeff Zentner tries his hand at adult contemporary romance with a Southern flair. Complete with a cover blurb by bestselling romance writer Emily Henry, Zentner’s new book marks a turning point in his storytelling journey.

Photo: Jeff Zentner

In a note posted to Goodreads earlier this year, Zentner explains that although writing YA has been “a blast,” he ultimately found the genre limiting because it didn’t allow him to tell a story “where someone plans for years on taking one path, and his dreams wither on the vine and force him to take another path …. My story.” Much like Colton Gentry, Zentner began his career as a musician who dreamed of stardom. When that didn’t go according to plan, Zentner pivoted to writing. Colton, on the other hand, eventually finds moderate success as a country music singer-songwriter and ends up married to a world-famous pop star. But when his best friend Duane is killed in a mass shooting, everything in his life starts to unravel.

“Grief undermines your structural integrity. It crazes your foundation,” Zentner writes. “Alcohol does the same from another direction. Sometimes they meet in the middle, and when they do, once-solid things crumble. When the crumbling begins, it quickly becomes catastrophic. Somewhere, deep inside himself, where the ember of good judgment still smolders, Colton Gentry knows he’s about to make a terrible mistake. But he just doesn’t care.” Colton’s terrible mistake is to advocate for gun control, first during an interview on Fox News, and finally in a drunken, profanity-laced rant in front of 20,000 people at a country music concert.

Colton loses his tour, manager, recording contract, radio station airplay, and wife in quick succession and becomes the main attraction of at least one album-smashing party that features a bounce house for the kids and a bulldozer. He is done in the music business, so he retreats to his hometown of Venice, Kentucky. There he begins his recovery from alcoholism, grief, and self-loathing.

The first half of the novel alternates between his current situation and flashbacks to his life in Venice as a high school student, when he was the homecoming king and star quarterback with a football career ahead of him and a girlfriend he truly loved named Luann. Those promising starts ended badly, too, and music was meant to be his saving grace. So Colton is definitely ready for a new chapter but doubts he will be given another chance.

As he reconnects with friends from his past and makes amends for his neglect over the years, he finds a bit more peace. Inspired by the AA serenity prayer, he even goes so far as to rescue a dog, telling the shelter rep he wants their “sorriest, most broke-down-ass dog,” figuring he can at least have the courage to change some other poor creature’s life for the better. “I’m gonna take care of you, buddy. And that’ll be one good thing I don’t screw up,” Colton tells Petey. (In several charming asides, Zentner reassures readers via footnotes that “Petey will not die in this book.”)

But the book wouldn’t be a romance without romance, so naturally Colton runs into Luann, divorced with two adorable children and a wildly successful field-to-table restaurant that she’s passionate about.

Their original teenage love affair took place against a backdrop of smoldering Southern charm: “Firefly-bedazzled, star-swept nights; lightning against purple thunderheads; chirring of crickets. Driving backroads aimlessly, wind the temperature of a fever on their faces; lying on a blanket at the bluff, tangled like a necklace in a pocket. They gripped one another like they were clinging to the same riverbank root to keep from being swept downstream and parted forever.” It was Colton who let go first, and it’s the regret of his life. But when Luann offers him a job at her restaurant, Colton must decide who he truly wants to be.  

In the first lines of the Goodreads post, Zentner writes, “One of the wonders of moving through this world is how unpredictable it can be. You end up in places you never imagined, doing things that were never part of your plan. And sometimes it all works to your greater joy.” Readers will root for the affable Colton Gentry and his much-needed third act and no doubt wish his creator greater joy in this new venture.

The Best-Laid Plans

Tina Chambers has worked as a technical editor at an engineering firm and as an editorial assistant at Peachtree Publishers, where she worked on books by Erskine Caldwell, Will Campbell, and Ferrol Sams, to name a few. She lives in Chattanooga.