One True Loves – Taylor Jenkins Reid

So I will preface my thoughts about Taylor Jenkins Reid’s 2016 novel One True Loves by saying that Daisy Jones & the Six was one of my favourite reads last year. It had all the things: humour, nostalgia, angst. It was my first book by Jenkins Reid and so I knew I would be dipping into her back list and that is how I ended up with a copy of One True Loves.

One True Loves sounded totally like my jam because there is nothing I like more than people who love each other but can’t be together (Buffy/Angel, Sid/Vaughn after Vaughn thinks Sid is dead and marries she who will not be named). In this story, Emma Blair lives with her older sister, Marie, and their parents in Acton, Massachusetts where they own a bookstore called Blair Books.

One day at a swim meet, Emma sees Jesse Lerner, high school swimming star and the boy Emma develops a crush on that lasts until the night at a senior year party where they finally speak to each other. The connection is instant and before you can say “I love you”, they are actually saying “I love you.” And that’s pretty much my problem with the entire book.

Fast forward several years and Jesse and Emma have settled – after years of traveling the world – in Los Angeles. Emma is a travel writer; Jesse works as a production assistant on wildlife documentaries. Then, just before their one year anniversary, Jesse takes a job in Alaska and the helicopter he is on crashes.

Emma’s grief is all consuming. She demonstrates this by climbing up onto her roof with a pair of binoculars to watch the sliver of ocean she can see, sure that she will see Jesse trying to make it home to her. Eventually, though, she decides to return to Acton and takes a job at Blair Books, something she swore she would never do. Then, she runs into Sam Kemper, the other boy from high school whom she’d friend-zoned. Suddenly she has feelings for Sam. I say suddenly because all the relationships in this novel are sudden and soul-mate deep. The pronouncements would be so much more effective if I actually felt as though I got to know any of these characters on anything more than a superficial level.

We don’t see Jesse and Emma struggle. We don’t see any of their travels or any of their growing up. They come face to face at a party in their senior year, then they hide in the bushes when the cops come to bust it up and then they are revealing their innermost selves to each other – and I get it, sometimes chemistry just knocks the wind out of you. Emma explains her feelings like this:

I was madly in love with him and had been for as long as I could remember. We had a deep meaningful history together. It was Jesse who had held my hand when my parents were furious to find out I’d never sent my application to the University of Massachusetts, and in doing so, had forced their hand to send me to California. It was Jesse who supported me when they asked me to move home after we graduated, Jesse who dried my tears when my father was heartbroken that I would not come home to help run the store. And it was also Jesse who helped me remain confident that, eventually, my parents and I would see eye-to-eye again one day.

The boy that I first saw that day at the swimming pool had turned into an honorable and kind man. He opened doors for me. He bought me a Diet Coke and Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey when I had a bad day. He took photos of all the places he’d been, all the places he and I had been together, and decorated our home with them.

And this is the problem with One True Loves: it’s all tell. I never felt invested in these characters and their story because I never really spent any time with them. They are all nice people, but the tension which should develop when Jesse is returned from the dead (not a spoiler, the book blurb tells you) never actually materializes. By this time, Emma and Sam have met, fallen in love and are engaged. What’s a girl to do?

Nice guy Sam is teary-eyed, but stoic about this situation, but he loves Emma and her happiness is all that matters to him. There’s no real angst here because Emma’s feelings for both of these handsome, kind, lovely men (c’mon, really?!) are kinda equal. Like, toss a coin equal. There’s no downside to ending up with either of them.

One True Loves is easy to read, but utterly forgettable. It does not, however put me off Jenkins Reid. I have Malibu Rising on my bedside table and I am very much looking forward to it.

Red, White & Royal Blue – Casey McQuiston

Everyone and their dog got really squishy over Casey McQuiston’s frothy romance Red, White & Royal Blue when it came out in 2019. This New Adult debut tells the story of Alex Claremont-Diaz, 21, and Henry Fox-Mountchristen-Windsor, 23. Although they’ve been in each other’s orbit for years, they hate each other; well, at least, Alex hates Henry. It’s problematic because Alex’s mother is the president of the United States, and Henry’s grandmother is the Queen of England. Yes, this is a fantasy. In every category.

When the novel begins, Alex is just wrapping up his final year of university, determined that he is “not going to be the youngest elected congressman in modern history without earning it.” Alex is academically brilliant and politically savvy, but perhaps not quite so clever when it comes to his personal life. He and his older sister, June, spend their free time flipping through the tabloids to see what the world is saying about them, or hanging with their best friend, Nora, the Vice President’s granddaughter. The three of them are known collectively as the White House Trio.

When the Claremont-Diazs are invited to attend the wedding of Henry’s older brother, Philip, it’s clear that there is some rivalry between Alex and Henry.

The tabloids – the world – decided to cast Alex as the American equivalent of Prince Henry from day one, since the White House Trio is the closest thing America has to royalty. It has never seemed fair. Alex’s image is all charisma and genius and smirking wit, thoughtful interviews and the cover of GQ at eighteen. Henry’s is placid smiles and gentle chivalry and generic charity appearances, a perfectly blank Prince Charming canvas.

When that acrimony lands them on top of the eight-tier wedding cake, it causes an international incident that must be squashed with a carefully constructed ruse: Henry and Alex will act like they are best friends instead of mortal enemies. It’s, of course, a trope as old as time. Turns out, though, that these two have a lot more in common than they thought, and that’s when things get interesting.

Although Red, White & Royal Blue takes a little bit to get going, once it picks up steam there’s, well, plenty of it. Henry is disgustingly handsome. thoughtful, intelligent and kind. And a little bit damaged, too. That’s kind of a given in most romance novels, isn’t it? When Henry finally makes a move, it causes a ripple effect, not the least of which is a sexual crisis for Alex. I mean, he’s straight, right? Um, not so much.

I really enjoyed this book. It was sweet, funny, and romantic. Alex and Henry are adorable, truly. I think the book probably caused such a stir because when it was released Trump was still in office and this book imagines a kinder, gentler and much, much saner post-Obama world. It’s kinda hard to find fault with that. It’s fluffy, for sure, but it’s also a book that promotes the idea that we can live in a world that treats people with respect, that acknowledges and supports their choices, that doesn’t care as much about sexual orientation. When Alex’s mom is running for re-election, her competition is a far-right jerk, and the election comes down to Texas (where the Claremont-Diazs are from). I mean, Texas always votes red, right? See, fantasy.

McQuiston’s book is big-hearted, well-written, smart and optimistic. No wonder it’s the perfect antidote for an imperfect world.

Blind Kiss – Renee Carlino

blindOh dear. Renee Carlino is a USA Today bestselling author, whatever that means. It doesn’t mean much to me after reading Blind Kiss, which was an impulse buy for me and cringe-y on every level.

Penny is in her final year of college when she is railroaded into taking part in a psych experiment where she is blindfolded and made to kiss an absolute stranger.  This kiss made Penny feel as though she is going to “spontaneously combust” and that  even “If he was the ugliest guy in the world [she] would have still been attracted to him.” Of course, Gavin is not unattractive. “He was gorgeous, with warm green eyes and an angled jawline.”

Chemistry doesn’t lie and Penny and Gavin have chemistry up the ying yang, but Penny wants to focus on finishing her dance degree so she friend zones Gavin. Thus begins a ridiculous fourteen year “friendship” where Gavin dates a million other people and Penny marries the most boring dude on the planet. The best friends schtick is fooling no one, of course, but that doesn’t stop these two from denying their feelings over and over, and, quite frankly, acting like idiots for most of the book.

Look, I am all over a book where a couple – for whatever reasons including misplaced honour, or bad timing  – can’t seem to get their shit together. Serve me up a heaping helping of angst and I will fall to my knees, but Blind Kiss  didn’t have that.

These characters behave in ways that are wholly, well, frankly, ridiculous. For example, in the present, when Gavin tells Penny he’s moving to France she “screamed at the top of [her] lungs and then made a guttural sound as [she] hunched over and held [her] stomach.” They’re in a bar. She’s 35. I mean, is this the behaviour of a married mother of a teenager? It was at that point (page 6) that I felt like this story, which I felt might have promise – which is why I bought the book – went off the rails. Every interaction between Gavin and Penny is so over-the-top histrionic that it was hard to take any of it seriously.

Which I didn’t.

Miss You – Kate Eberlen

Well, one positive side effect of  Covid-19 (or ‘the ‘rona’ as we call it in my house) is that I missingyouactually have the time to tackle some of my longer books – you know, the ones that you keep putting off reading because it feels like such a time commitment and time is definitely at a premium during the school year. And, really, what do we have right now besides loads of time?

Miss You  is British writer Kate Eberlen’s debut novel and it tells the stories, in two first person narratives, of Tess and Gus. The novel opens in  Florence; Tess is with her best friend, Doll, and Gus with his parents. They are both 18. They have a couple teensy encounters, but the sort of casual meetings you would have with a stranger. Their paths do not cross again for sixteen years. The story is really about what happens in those sixteen years.

Tess returns from her holiday excited to attend university in London. A family tragedy prevents this, and she has to ditch her plans to look after her fourteen-years-younger sister, Hope. Gus returns from his holiday and does, in fact, head off to university in London. He looks at the opportunity to escape the crushing weight of his parents’ expectations (they want him to be a doctor) and grief (Gus’s older brother, Ross, had died in a skiing accident at Christmas.)

Miss You is really a book about all the little things that can happen to you over the course of a lifetime (or part of a lifetime, at least.) We watch Tess and Gus morph from slightly awkward teens to adults in their twenties. They make mistakes in their personal lives and relationships that have consequences, and in that way they are incredibly relatable. I actually really liked both of them and spending time in their worlds was a true pleasure.

And that makes the next bit hard to say: I wasn’t a real fan of the ending. I mean, we know all along that Gus and Tess are meant to end up together – even though their initial meeting didn’t even allow them to exchange names or seem all that significant. Perhaps we are expected to buy into the notion that Gus and Tess weren’t ready for each other at eighteen. Fair enough. Their individual experiences over the next sixteen years shape them into stronger, more compassionate people, sure. My issue doesn’t really have anything to do with that. Nor does it have to do with the fact that it’s essentially fate that brings them back into each other’s orbit in, you guessed it, Italy. I think my problem was that from the moment they figure out who the other is, they’re both ALL IN. And, of course, if it’s fate, it’s fate. There’s no fighting it. And I have a romantic’s bleeding heart, trust me. It’s just, Eberlen took such care with their individual stories that their reunion should have been  – I don’t know  – something more than it was.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. I love Italy, and time spent there was a delight. I loved these characters. They were human and impulsive and delightful. Probably everyone else on the planet would find their eventual union deserved and perfect. Not disagreeing. I just wish it had been allowed a little bit more breathing room.

Still, a perfect book to settle into.

 

 

We Could Be Beautiful – Swan Huntley

beautifulCatherine West wants a family – which is sort of funny once you get to know her. The narrator of Swan Huntley’s novel We Could Be Beautiful  is vain, spoiled and selfish. It’s hard to imagine  she’d ever be selfless enough to have kids. Plus, she’s pushing the biological envelope: Catherine’s 43.

She thinks she has everything it would take to be a mother, but when she categorizes her success, it feels like having a baby would be just one more accessory.

I was rich, I owned a small business,  I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was tones enough and pretty enough. I moisturized,  I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West  Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.

The only problem is that Catherine’s single. She’s had lots of boyfriends (and a girlfriend), and two broken engagements, but now she’s alone. Her most significant relationship is with Dan, the massage therapist who comes to her house to rub her neurosis away.

Then she meets William Stockton, a “stunning, square-jawed man with gentle eyes and elegant gray hair, full and parted to the side.” There’s something familiar about him, and as it turns out William’s parents and Catherine’s parents used to be great friends. Catherine is several years younger than William, so her memories of him are vague.

Almost immediately, Catherine is smitten and too-good-to-be-true William is moving in. On paper, he seems like a great guy (he’s educated, has a good job in banking, he’s charming and attentive), but readers will clue in that there’s something not quite right. Catherine isn’t so swift on the uptake.

We Could Be Beautiful is billed as a thriller, and it certainly reads like one.  I mean, you’ll certainly figure out pretty quickly that William is up to something, even if you’re not sure what it is. When Catherine mentions William to her mother, who is suffering from dementia, Mrs. West’s reaction is visceral. Then Catherine finds a box of old ephemera, including a letter from a long-ago nanny which alludes to some event that she hadn’t protected Catherine from.

Probably the more interesting aspect of this book, though,  is Catherine’s journey. I found her vapid at the beginning of the book. She doesn’t need to work because her father left her and her sister a pile of money. She owns the West Village house she lives in. She owns a little store called Leaf, which sells – tellingly – beautiful art cards, with nothing printed inside. Her one friend, Susan, is as superficial as she is. She has a strained relationship with her only sibling, Caroline. On the surface it’s a beautiful life, sure, but it’s style over substance. Her relationship with William forces Catherine to do some recalibrating, and that’s interesting to watch.

I enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, the pages turn themselves, and even if it’s less ‘thriller’ and more ‘drama’, it’s still entertaining.

Don’t You Forget About Me – Mhairi McFarlane

Fans of Simple Minds (or the John Hughes film The Breakfast Club) will likely recognize the title of Mhairi McFarlane’s latest novel Don’t You Forget About Me at a glance. The comparison pretty much stops there, though.

Georgina Horspool meets Lucas McCarthy in school. He’s a transplant from Ireland and forgetabout methe two bond over an English project about Wuthering Heights. Soon the pair are inseparable and Georgina admits that “I didn’t know what falling in love felt like, I’d never done it before. I discovered you recognize it easily when it arrives.”

But then something happens at the pair’s ‘leaving party’ (the book takes place in the U.K., so let’s say prom party) and whatever was between them is suddenly over.

The book fast forwards 12 years at this point and we catch up with Georgina just as her life is falling apart. She’s fired from her job at a crappy Italian restaurant and then she walks in on her boyfriend Robin, a minor-celebrity comic, in a compromising position with his assistant. Her relationship with her older sister, Esther, and her mother is prickly. She has good friends, sure, but most everything else in her life is shite. A last minute bar tending job brings her back into Lucas McCarthy’s orbit. The thing is, he doesn’t seem to remember her. Like, at all.

McFarlane’s book depends on the assumption that readers’ patience will last through  400 plus pages. Truthfully, I almost abandoned the book around page 50 because it felt like it was trying so hard to be a British rom com in the vein of Richard Curtis (and, trust me, no one loves Love Actually  more than me!) It just felt disingenuous. But a friend whose reading proclivities are similar to my own said she liked it, so I picked it back up and settled into the book. I’m not going to say that it 100% won me over, but I didn’t find the book as irksome as I did when I first started it.

Georgina, as it turns out, has a lot of baggage. Her life is stuck. Her beloved father died when she was in her first year of university. Her mother’s new husband is a loathsome bully. And then there’s the thing that happened at the prom that  ended Georgina’s relationship with Lucas. When Lucas’s brother, Devlin, offers Georgina a job at the brothers’ new pub, it puts the pair in close proximity. Lucas is “at turns standoffish, slyly funny, dour, mischievous, helpful, haughty. It’s behaviour borne of beauty privilege….”

For me, some of the novel’s moving parts seemed slightly contrived and some of the resulting patch-ups are sort of deflated by that. I also felt like Lucas was, although certainly attractive, not a fully realized character. Georgina is transformed by a beautiful adult coat. Familial relationships are repaired almost by magic.

I don’t read a lot of romance novels. I think Don’t You Forget About Me  is trying for something slightly more complicated than straight-up romance and I liked that about it.  It takes a LONG time for these two to find their way back to each other, but most readers will likely find the journey worthwhile.

 

Tell Me Lies – Carola Lovering

tellmeliesI am SO glad I am not in my 20s anymore. That’s the takeaway from Carola Lovering’s novel Tell Me Lies.  This is the story of Lucy Albright and Stephen DeMarco, East coasters who are both on the West Coast attending Baird, a small college in Southern California.

Told from two different perspectives, both in the past and in the present, Tell Me Lies unspools the story of Lucy and Stephen’s relationship. If ‘relationship’ is actually what you want to call it.

So, Lucy is this beautiful and privileged girl from Cold Spring Harbour, Long Island. She’s traveled all the way across the country, mostly to escape her mother, CJ. Once they were close, but then the “Unforgiveable Thing” happened and Lucy stopped calling her mother Mom, and started using her initials. The “Unforgiveable Thing” weighs heavy on Lucy’s fragile psyche.

Stephen is also damaged goods, but his damage takes the form of sociopathy. Well, at least I think there’s something seriously wrong with him. Is he meant to be charming? Irresistible?  Well, he is to Lucy, at least.

I’ll never forget his eyes. I think I’ll lie in bed years from now, when I have children and my children have children, and I’ll see those two bottle-green orbs, watching me, on the precipice of changing everything.

Okay, I get it. We’ve all been in love with the “wrong one.” The guy you can’t seem to get away from – mostly because you don’t want to get away from them. You chalk it up to chemistry because, hey, in its thrall you are helpless. Been there. Done that. Was I this  big of an idiot, though?

I say idiot because Stephen is a player with a capital D (for dick). His shtick is to reel Lucy in, then let her go. Repeat. He has the ability to make her (and all the other girls he hooks up with) feel validated, understood, listened to. Also, apparently, despite the fact that he is not drop-dead good looking, he is mighty fine in the sack. Moth meet flame.

Tell Me Lies  is well-written, but it doesn’t really have anything new to say on the subject of being with the wrong person. And at the end of the day, Lucy has learned nothing about herself. When the novel opens, she’s hung over, having just spent the night with her super-hot leech of a boyfriend, Dane. C’mon girl. Get it together.

Coming Up For Air – Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry’s heroines all have the same problem: they are women of a certain age at a crossroads in their lives. For Amy, the protagonist in my first Henry novel Losing the Moon, it’s the unexpected reunion with her college boyfriend, Nick. In Where the River Runs  it’s the emotions rekindled by revisiting a tragedy from Meridy’s youth.

Then there’s Ellie Calvin, the main character in Coming Up For Air. Ellie realizes at her coming-up-for-airmother’s funeral that she no longer loves her husband, Rusty. Truth be told, he’s a bit of a douche, a passive aggressive clout from the right side of the tracks. What Ellie really longs for is Hutch, her “bad boy” college boyfriend. Of course, she doesn’t know that just yet. It’s not until he’s suddenly standing in front of her and

…I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn’t passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind.

As a reader, you pretty much know what’s going to happen about then – all that remains to be seen is just how meandering the journey. In this instance, Hutch is an historian and he’s been working on an exhibit at the Atlanta History Centre, an exhibit honouring some of the South’s great dames – in which Ellie’s mother, Lillian,  figures prominently. Ellie has had a prickly relationship with her mother. Much of the acrimony,  ironically, involved Hutch.

Then Ellie finds a journal her mother kept. The entries, one a year, reveal that Ellie’s mother wasn’t always the proper and stiff woman Ellie had grown up. In fact, she’d had a deep and passionate love affair before she’d married Ellie’s father to a man identified only as Him.(Not sure why it’s capitalized.)  Furthermore, she’d been involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously, Ellie and Hutch need to find out what all this means and so they head down to the Alabama coast where Lillian’s best friend, Ms. Birdie, lives. Ms. Birdie also happens to be Ellie’s best friend’s mom…so, see how that all works out? Of course, Ms. Birdie is reluctant to tell Ellie anything much. There’s still half a book to get through, after all.

I read the whole thing, of course I did. It’s not because it’s full of hot sex, either. Hutch and Ellie barely exchange a platonic kiss. It’s not because I particularly cared about any of the characters. Even the revelation of who the mysterious Him was is a disappointment. I was hoping Lillian had been really brave.

I guess I didn’t give up on Coming Up For Air because the romantic in me wants to see the potential for love at a certain age. I’m older than Ellie and I don’t have a marriage to walk away from anymore, but I do – sometimes – long for that chemical connection. Of course, I don’t have pots of money allowing me to step away from my life and go live in a magical cottage on the water. I also don’t have a “one-that-got-away” college boyfriend.

If our lives are a story and we are characters in that story, perhaps Ellie’s Uncle Cotton’s question is valid: “What’s the next best thing to happen here?”

Unfortunately, I think Henry took the path most traveled, but I guess if you like happily-ever-after that’s probably okay.