Take A Peek Book Review: The Accidental Beauty Queen by Teri Wilson

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Charlotte Gorman loves her job as an elementary school librarian, and is content to experience life through the pages of her books. Which couldn’t be more opposite from her identical twin sister. Ginny, an Instagram-famous beauty pageant contestant, has been chasing a crown since she was old enough to enunciate the words world peace, and she’s not giving up until she gets the title of Miss American Treasure. And Ginny’s refusing to do it alone this time.

She drags Charlotte to the pageant as a good luck charm, but the winning plan quickly goes awry when Ginny has a terrible, face-altering allergic reaction the night before the pageant, and Charlotte suddenly finds herself in a switcheroo the twins haven’t successfully pulled off in decades.

Woefully unprepared for the glittery world of hair extensions, false eyelashes, and push-up bras, Charlotte is mortified at every unstable step in her sky-high stilettos. But as she discovers there’s more to her fellow contestants than just wanting a sparkly crown, Charlotte realizes she has a whole new motivation for winning.

My Thoughts:

This is a fun, light read — just enough thoughtfulness to offset the goofiness of spray tans, bedazzled ballgowns, and parading in front of judges in a bikini. Charlotte describes her sister Ginny as the “pretty one” — the Meg to her Jo, the Jane to her Lizzie — but in reality, they’re identical twins. There isn’t really a prettier sister — it’s all about self-image and what each sister does with her looks and her talents.

Charlotte is delightfully bookish and nerdy, dropping Harry Potter lines at a moment’s notice, thrilled at the idea of picking up a sorting hat to bring back to the children’s library where she works. Ginny is Instagram-famous and seemingly all about the looks. By having to literally walk in Ginny’s shoes, Charlotte of course learns that there’s more to her sister’s world than she thought, and also discovers elements of herself that she’d buried for years.

It’s all a bit silly and full of wish-fulfillment. In reality, could someone new to pageant life pull off a successful impersonation of an experienced, trained competitor? Does it make any sense that Charlotte could come up with a talent act that not only works, but wins? Of course not.

Still, it’s fun to see Charlotte apply her geekiness to the pursuit of a crown for her sister. Not unpredictably, everything ends up going wrong, but the sisters’ relationship is strengthened by it all. An unnecessary love story adds a romantic element to the plot, but it really doesn’t need to be there.

On the plus side, The Accidental Beauty Queen is a good reminder that all choices are valid, and that women who compete in pageants are not by default shallow mean girls. The book shows the individuality of many of the competitors and allows them to emerge as strong women rather than as stereotypes. Likewise, we see that there are some worthy causes associated with the pageant world, including a fictional organization that mirrors some real-life organizations that organize pageants for disabled, ill, and special needs youth, enabling them to feel proud and beautiful and deserving of appreciation.

I’ve never been interested in pageants (and would have said that I’m turned off by the idea of being judged based on appearances). My overall feelings haven’t changed, but this book did help me see another side. The twin-switch is definitely unrealistic, but it’s a fun bit of fantasy that makes the book an easy, entertaining read.

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The details:

Title: The Accidental Beauty Queen
Author: Teri Wilson
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: December 4, 2018
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Gallery Books and NetGalley

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Book Review: One Day in December by Josie Silver

 

A love story about what happens after you meet, or rather, don’t meet the one.

Laurie is pretty sure love at first sight doesn’t exist anywhere but the movies. But then, through a misted-up bus window one snowy December day, she sees a man who she knows instantly is the one. Their eyes meet, there’s a moment of pure magic…and then her bus drives away.

Certain they’re fated to find each other again, Laurie spends a year scanning every bus stop and cafe in London for him. But she doesn’t find him, not when it matters anyway. Instead they “reunite” at a Christmas party, when her best friend Sarah giddily introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie. It’s Jack, the man from the bus. It would be.

What follows for Laurie, Sarah and Jack is ten years of friendship, heartbreak, missed opportunities, roads not taken, and destinies reconsidered. One Day in December is a joyous, heartwarming and immensely moving love story to escape into and a reminder that fate takes inexplicable turns along the route to happiness.

It seems to me that your personal enjoyment of One Day in December will depend to a large part on a) whether you believe in love at first sight and b) your overall appreciation of love triangles, finding THE ONE, and other staples of modern-day love stories.

As I’ve mentioned about a zillion times elsewhere on this blog, I’m not usually a romance reader, and while I enjoy a good, frothy contemporary love story every so often, it’s often an uphill battle for me to get past the meet-cute scenarios and the seemingly obvious obstacles that come with the territory.

All that said, let’s focus on One Day in December.

First off, yes, it’s the love-at-first-sight scenario. From the bus, Laurie sees the perfect man. They make eye contact. He tries to get on the bus — but it’s too crowded, the bus pulls away, and Laurie spends the following months pining for the man her best friend Sarah dubs “bus boy”. So naturally, when Laurie finally meets Sarah’s perfect new boyfriend, it’s “bus boy” himself (a.k.a. Jack), and Laurie makes the split-second decision not to tell Sarah.

Laurie and Sarah are true-blue besties, and Laurie wants Sarah to be happy, so she says nothing about her prior encounter with Jack. Laurie and Jack become friends, and she’s always aware of an underlying chemistry — but meanwhile, Sarah and Jack are in the early stages of what will become a years-long committed relationship. Laurie is the best friend, and becomes close friends with Jack, but that’s it… apart from one drunken kiss that they agree to forget ever happened and never, ever tell Sarah about.

One Day in December covers about ten years, starting with the bus encounter, when Laurie and Sarah are in their early twenties, and following the three main characters through to about age 30, when their lives and loves and careers have all dramatically changed. Laurie and Jack both move on, but neither has ever completely forgotten their secret connection, and it haunts every encounter and every relationship they each try to have over the years.

In general, I found this a quick and entertaining read, heavy on the bestie-love, with plenty of wine and silliness to enjoy — not to mention vintage clothing shops, perfect gifts, romance on Thailand beaches, yearnings for babies, and plenty of hot men. But I do have some issues with the plot…

ENTERING MINOR SPOILER TERRITORY – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Here’s the part where I talk about what bothered me about this book.

First and foremost, Laurie — how dumb is it not to say something to Sarah when you’re introduced to Jack? The entire tension could have been defused by laughing, saying “oh my god, it’s bus boy”, and moving on. Either Jack and Sarah continue to date and get serious, or not — but that way, Laurie is upfront with both of them, and the situation could have been dealt with. Instead, the truth comes out years later, and Sarah is rightfully pissed at Laurie for hiding the truth for so many years, to the extent that it almost destroys their friendship for good. Which leads to…

Second complaint, Sarah — you choose to pursue the conversation about bus boy on the eve of Laurie’s wedding, blow up at her, stomp out, and skip the wedding, where you’re supposed to be the maid of honor. Not cool. Having the blow up at this particular junction is unnecessary and over the top.

Third complaint, Laurie’s love interest Oscar — he’s a perfect guy, madly in love with Laurie, gives her everything she could possibly want in a partner, and then seems to have a change of personality and becomes married to his work. Too big a turnaround, too suddenly, in my humble opinion. It would have been easier to accept the gradual decay of their relationship if there’d been earlier signs of Oscar being unworthy or otherwise acting like a jerk.

Final complaint, Jack — I just wasn’t so impressed. He lacks focus and clarity for much of the book, and doesn’t seem worth the adoration that Laurie feels for him. For me to believe that he’s Laurie’s perfect man, I would need to be a lot more convinced of his wonderful qualities.

But most of all, I just don’t buy the overarching concept, that two people can know at a glance that they’re each other’s perfect match, and nothing can ever stand a chance of coming close to that perfection. Nope. Life doesn’t work that way… I mean, yes, it makes nice stories in books and movies, but this ten-year drama seems awfully forced to me.

END OF SPOILERS

All this may sound like I didn’t enjoy reading One Day in December, which isn’t exactly accurate. Like I said, it was quick and fun, and I was never bored or uninterested. It’s a light read, great for a day when you need a bit of comfort and cheer, probably best read while wearing flannel pajamas and drinking a big mug of cocoa (or glass of wine — whatever rocks your world.)

And who knows, someone who’s less of a grouch and much more of a romantic than I am might find this book to be absolutely swoon-worthy!

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The details:

Title: One Day in December
Author: Josie Silver
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publication date: October 16, 2018
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory

 

A groomsman and his last-minute guest are about to discover if a fake date can go the distance in a fun and flirty debut novel.

Agreeing to go to a wedding with a guy she gets stuck with in an elevator is something Alexa Monroe wouldn’t normally do. But there’s something about Drew Nichols that’s too hard to resist.

On the eve of his ex’s wedding festivities, Drew is minus a plus one. Until a power outage strands him with the perfect candidate for a fake girlfriend…

After Alexa and Drew have more fun than they ever thought possible, Drew has to fly back to Los Angeles and his job as a pediatric surgeon, and Alexa heads home to Berkeley, where she’s the mayor’s chief of staff. Too bad they can’t stop thinking about the other…

They’re just two high-powered professionals on a collision course toward the long distance dating disaster of the century–or closing the gap between what they think they need and what they truly want…

Sometimes, a reader just NEEDS light, fluffy, no-fuss entertainment. That was me this week, and The Wedding Date definitely fit the bill.

It’s a cute story, starting with an almost too tropey meet-cute: being stuck in an elevator with the perfect guy/perfect girl, instant attraction, and plenty of cheese and crackers. Drew and Alexa hit it off right away, joking, being a bit flirty, and just passing the time with an attractive stranger. But there is a spark, so Drew asks Lexie to be his wedding date for the weekend, and she throws caution to the wind and accepts.

By the end of weekend, they’ve gone from fake dating to seriously real hot sex. They just seem to connect, and they can’t resist the physical chemistry. And despite the distance — one lives in LA, the other in Berkeley — they’re soon spending weekends together, sending racy texts, and fantasizing to distraction about being together.

I liked the characters, and the fact that this is an interracial couple where they acknowledge their differences and also embrace them. Mostly, though, the book is about two hot people who have hot sex and really, really are into each other. It’s a nice touch to have the perspective shift between the characters, so we get to hear both sides of the story as they think about each other’s actions and how they feel. Drew and Lexie are both a lot of fun to spend time with, and seem really down to earth and overall like good people.

Which may be why the complications in their relationship drove me a little batty. And yes, there have to be complications, or there wouldn’t be much of a story, right? Still, for two intelligent, highly-educated professionals, their relationship communication totally sucks. They spend a lot of time in their own heads, wondering what the other meant by a simple phrase or question, doubting themselves, not being straight with one another, and never actually saying what they mean. If they just had a simple, honest conversation, so much drama and stress (and tears — SO many tears) could have been avoided.

The writing for the most part is light and flowy, but every once in a while there’s a real clunker. Take this scene:

“Has everyone at this table dated Drew?” Shit, she probably shouldn’t have said that out loud. But at least now she’d get an answer.

“Not me!” Lucy said. But Heather, Emma, and Robin all rose their hands. Huh.

I’m sorry, what? They ROSE their hands? No.

In any case, I liked the characters themselves, and found the descriptions of their junk food habits kind of endearing. They’re cute together, and I was glued to the page despite feeling like the characters were making dumb decisions and acting irrationally simply for the sake of having dramatic tension. It’s not a spoiler to say that there’s a happy ending. Just take a look at the cover and tell me you don’t expect it to end happily!

I had fun reading The Wedding Date. After some fairly heavy books and a heap of work-related stress, this cheery romance hit the spot. I’ll definitely check out this author’s upcoming new release as well!

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The details:

Title: The Wedding Date
Author: Jasmine Guillory
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: January 30, 2018
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Library

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Book Review: 180 Seconds


Some people live their entire lives without changing their perspective. For Allison Dennis, all it takes is 180 seconds…

After a life spent bouncing from one foster home to the next, Allison is determined to keep others at arm’s length. Adopted at sixteen, she knows better than to believe in the permanence of anything. But as she begins her third year in college, she finds it increasingly difficult to disappear into the white noise pouring from her earbuds.

One unsuspecting afternoon, Allison is roped into a social experiment just off campus. Suddenly, she finds herself in front of a crowd, forced to interact with a complete stranger for 180 seconds. Neither she, nor Esben Baylor, the dreamy social media star seated opposite her, is prepared for the outcome.

When time is called, the intensity of the experience overwhelms Allison and Esben in a way that unnerves and electrifies them both. With a push from her oldest friend, Allison embarks on a journey to find out if what she and Esben shared is the real thing—and if she can finally trust in herself, in others, and in love.

In 180 Seconds, we experience Allison’s life through her first-person perspective. She has a wonderful adoptive father, Simon, and a best friend Steffi, but apart from these two, Allison travels through life alone. After her years as a foster child, she’s built sturdy walls around herself, and feels safest when those walls are intact. Even with Simon, Allison keeps a distance. He’s warm and loving and supportive, but after all she’s been through, Allison has a hard time trusting that it won’t just all go away suddenly. Better to never let someone close than to risk it and then get hurt.

Steffi, though, is Allison’s soul-sister. They met in a foster home, and over the years, even though separated by circumstances outside their control, they’ve never lost their bond. Steffi, never adopted, attends college on the West Coast while Allison is in Maine, but they keep in constant contact. Steffi is outgoing, bubbly, and mama-bear fierce when it comes to protecting Allison from anyone and everything that might hurt her.

When Allison meets Esben in that fateful 180-second experiment, she’s shattered by the experience. During those three minutes, her walls come crashing down and she and Esben connect in a way that’s immediately shocking and intimate. Of course, being the age of technology, those 180 seconds make her internet-famous, and Allison finds that her private bubble has been blown apart and the world wants in. And then too, she has to figure out Esben — did he feel it too? Is this connection real?

As Allison and Esben finally meet for real and begin to talk, Allison finds herself opening up for the first time in her life. As she comes out of her shell, she and Esben begin a gentle development of a relationship that’s unlike anything she’s ever experienced, and the positive energy she feels lets her take risks, shut off the white noise in her earbuds, and actually reach out and let the world in.

What I liked:

The characters are really wonderful. Allison is fragile and introverted to the point of unhealthiness — but it’s understandable based on what we learn about her childhood and the amount of rejection she experienced growing up. It’s hard to see her keep Simon at a distance. He’s an amazing person who just knew Allison was meant to be his daughter, and he provides her with a safe and nurturing home and so much unconditional love, asking nothing in return. I loved seeing their relationship deepen as Allison’s ability to trust and accept love expands over the course of the novel.

Steffi is a strong, kick-ass young woman, but even she has vulnerabilities that she tries to hide. Steffi’s secrets because central to the plot in the latter part of the book, and I won’t say anything to divulge them here, but just be warned that boxloads of Kleenex are imperative for this book.

Allison’s blossoming is believable and well-written. You can practically feel the glow spreading within her as bit by bit, her relationship with Esben allows her to open up to life and its possibilities and to start believing in herself.

Minor quibbles:

There’s nothing I actually didn’t like about 180 Seconds, but I do have just a couple of minor issues with the book.

My major issue is that Esben is really too perfect. He’s a lovely person, but there are times when it’s just too much. He’s always sensitive, always respectful, always exactly what Allison needs — plus he’s super hot and sexy and has a heart of gold. This is a guy who uses social media for good, so when he finds out that a little girl’s birthday party is going to be a bust, he takes to social media to make sure she has a birthday princess extravaganza. He’s just SO GOOD all the time, and it makes him seem not quite human at times.

My other complaint is that for the first half or so of the book, it feels pretty episodic, without much dramatic tension or building plot. In each chapter, Allison has some new situation to confront or an event to participate in with Esben, and they deal with it, and she learns something, and it’s all good. None of it is boring or pointless, but it starts feeling like just one nice interlude after another.

Wrapping it all up:

I started 180 Seconds as an audiobook, but when I got within about 2 hours of the end, I had to switch to print so I could move faster and get through the rest of the story. Plus, I’ll be honest — this is another one of those audiobooks that probably should not be listened to in public. I got to a certain part and was taken completely by surprise and began seriously ugly crying… while I was driving my car. Not good!

I’m really not going to go further into the plot or explain my ugly crying jag or anything that happens in the last third. It’s heartbreaking and yet also quite heartwarming… in other words, it gives your heart a work-out!

180 Seconds is a lovely book filled with sympathetic, enjoyable characters and complex relationships. Highly recommended.

Also by this author: Flat-Out Love

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The details:

Title: 180 Seconds
Author: Jessica Park
Publisher: Skyscape
Publication date: April 25, 2017
Length: 300 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Always by Sarah Jio

always

While enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner with her fiance, Ryan, at one of Seattle’s chicest restaurants, Kailey Crane can’t believe her good fortune: She has a great job as a writer for the Herald and is now engaged to a guy who is perfect in nearly every way. As they leave the restaurant, Kailey spies a thin, bearded homeless man on the sidewalk. She approaches him to offer up her bag of leftovers, and is stunned when their eyes meet, then stricken to her very core: The man is the love of her life, Cade McAllister.

When Kailey met Cade ten years ago, their attraction was immediate and intense everything connected and felt “right.” But it all ended suddenly, leaving Kailey devastated. Now the poor soul on the street is a faded version of her former beloved: His weathered and weary face is as handsome as Kailey remembers, but his mind has suffered in the intervening years. Over the next few weeks, Kailey helps Cade begin to piece his life together, something she initially keeps from Ryan. As she revisits her long-ago relationship, Kailey realizes that she must decide exactly what and whom she wants.

Alternating between the past and the present, Always is a beautifully unfolding exploration of a woman faced with an impossible choice, a woman who discovers what she’s willing to save and what she will sacrifice for true love.

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

And a disclaimer: This just isn’t my kind of story, and that fact probably influences my reaction quite a bit… but maybe not. I’ll explain, I promise.

I like a good romantic tale every once in a while. A nice, contemporary story about falling in love, or rediscovering love, or the memory of love… what’s not to — you know?

So why didn’t I love Always? For starters, everything was so completely obvious. In chapter one, we see Kailey sitting down to dinner with her super rich, too handsome to be true, perfect gentleman from a fine family fiancé, and I could tell you already that these two will never work out. He’s a developer; she wants to save the homeless shelters in the square of his next big development project. He’s being kind of insistent in an incredibly outdated way about her changing her name when they get married. They seem to read home decorating magazines for fun. There is just no way that these two should ever get married — so when she stumbles across the former love of her life dressed in rags and seemingly out of his mind, there’s really no dramatic tension. OF COURSE she’s going to end up with Cade. I mean, there isn’t the slightest shadow of a doubt about it.

Still, we get the alternating timeline effect, following the story of Kailey and Cade’s first meeting (Seattle in the 90s) and early romance, intercut with chapters set in the later timeline (2008) as she discovers Cade on the streets and decides that she has to save him. The more we see of Kailey and Cade’s relationship, the clearer it becomes that Ryan is all wrong for Kailey. But anyway…

Cade is homeless, begging for food, and clearly has been through something awful. He only shows a glimmer of recognition when he sees the tattoo on Kailey’s shoulder — because of course, he has the same one. She’s desperate to help him, and he doesn’t actually know who she is. Meanwhile, she never tells Ryan the truth, so she’s living a lie, missing work, and disappearing from life with her fiancé — not a good sign.

Plot-wise, there are just too many pieces that make no sense to me. (As I said earlier, SPOILERS!);

  • Cade just up and disappeared 10 years earlier, but it’s not clear whether Kailey actually did anything to find him. A guy, even one who’s been drinking too much, doesn’t just evaporate from his own life for no reason. Did she go to his apartment and notice that all his possessions were still there? Did she call the police? File a missing persons report? Hire a detective? Try to figure out who last saw him? If she’d done any of that, no matter the state of their relationship, I have a feeling she might have actually found him. Although then we’d have no big romantic reunion all those years later, but still.
  • So what exactly was wrong with Cade? “Traumatic brain injury” — what does that even mean? I know this isn’t a medical drama, but a little bit of a reality check might have helped. What part of the brain was affected? What’s the prognosis? And why is the treatment so vague? Living in a facility with unspecified treatments, medications, therapies… and suddenly he can talk and remember? More detail and grounding would have helped sell Cade’s condition better.
  • And what exactly happened the night of the accident? Apparently, Cade was the victim of some sort of crime… maybe? Or hit by a car? Or really, anything at all? We don’t know. And for that matter, why didn’t James, the former best friend, bother finding out afterward?
  • We find out, through Kailey’s barely-making-an-effort detective work, that a John Doe was admitted to the hospital with a brain injury right around that same time, but was checked out by a family member before treatment could be provided. AND THEN WE NEVER GET A RESOLUTION ON THIS PLOT POINT. Who checked him out? Why? Did something nefarious happen? No answers.

Okay, so the more I write, the more I realize how much the plot didn’t work for me. It felt formulaic and utterly predictable, with very little tension (Kailey’s choice is a forgone conclusion), and a romance that gets a pie-in-the-sky ending that feels like it glazes over any and all obstacles. Heck, they even recover Cade’s missing fortune by barely lifting a finger (and the story I expected, of insidious business dealings and a financial motivation, never actually materializes.) The storybook ending is yet another element of a paint-by-number love story that lacks any basis in the real world.

Sure, some may find this an inspiring story of true love finding its way. When two people are meant to be together, nothing (NOT EVEN A TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY) can keep them apart. Love conquers all, yo!

Clearly, this was not a book for me.

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The details:

Title: Always
Author: Sarah Jio
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: February 7, 2017
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: After I Do

after-i-doWarning: This review will include some minor spoilers. Don’t worry — I’ll flag the spoilery parts!

From the author of Forever, Interrupted comes a breathtaking new novel about modern marriage, the depth of family ties, and the year that one remarkable heroine spends exploring both.

When Lauren and Ryan’s marriage reaches the breaking point, they come up with an unconventional plan. They decide to take a year off in the hopes of finding a way to fall in love again. One year apart, and only one rule: they cannot contact each other. Aside from that, anything goes.

Lauren embarks on a journey of self-discovery, quickly finding that her friends and family have their own ideas about the meaning of marriage. These influences, as well as her own healing process and the challenges of living apart from Ryan, begin to change Lauren’s ideas about monogamy and marriage. She starts to question: When you can have romance without loyalty and commitment without marriage, when love and lust are no longer tied together, what do you value? What are you willing to fight for?

This is a love story about what happens when the love fades. It’s about staying in love, seizing love, forsaking love, and committing to love with everything you’ve got. And above all, After I Do is the story of a couple caught up in an old game—and searching for a new road to happily ever after.

I definitely have mixed feelings about this book. I’ve now read all of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s books currently available, and I think she’s an amazing writer. She never fails to convincingly capture the inner lives of seemingly ordinary people What makes her books and characters so special is her knack for revealing what goes on beneath the surface. What’s really happening in the heart and mind of a young woman experiencing first love? What does it feel like to be so annoyed with one’s partner that it’s almost impossible to remember even liking the person, let alone loving them?

Lauren and Ryan have been together since age 19, when they met in college. For all intents and purposes, Ryan is Lauren’s only love and only relationship. She had a high school boyfriend, with whom she lost her virginity, but that’s it. So Lauren entered adult life partnered with Ryan, and her entire experience of being in a committed relationship is with Ryan.

And once the heady rush of lust and wonder and romance starts to wear off in the face of daily irritations like disagreeing over restaurants or calling the plumber, it’s hard for Lauren and Ryan to see a reason for their marriage any longer.

As the synopsis explains, they decide to separate for a year. Neither utters the word “divorce”. They’re going to take a year apart, with no contact whatsoever, to see if they can reset, explore their own lives on their own, and figure out how to reconnect.

SPOILERS AHOY! I can’t talk about the book any further without getting more specific, so skip this part if you’d rather not know.

As Lauren and Ryan are splitting, Lauren asks if this means that they’ll date other people, and Ryan confirms that this is part of the deal. There are no rules at all about their behavior while they’re apart. And not only do they date other people — they sleep with other people. A lot. And somehow still expect to have a marriage to come back to.

I’m sorry, but while I love the writing and zipped through this book, I just cannot buy the premise. This is so unhealthy and dysfunctional. SEPARATING FOR A YEAR, NOT COMMUNICATING FOR A YEAR, AND SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE IS NOT HOW YOU SAVE A MARRIAGE.

They go straight from admitting that they can’t stand each other and don’t think they love each other any more to deciding to separate. What about couples counseling? They never even give it a try. Granted, going to counseling would be a fairly lame plot for a romantic novel, whereas the separation thing is much more dramatic… but in real life? This is a recipe for disaster.

If the goal is to get back together after a year, you do not sleep with other people! No matter how much their separation teaches them about being supportive and respectful and communicating, how do you get past knowing that your spouse spent a year having sex, including some great sex, with other people?

In Lauren’s case, her sex life with Ryan was all she knew, and it wasn’t very satisfying. So she has a no-strings, friends-with-benefits arrangement with a recently divorced man who’s not over his ex-wife, and through their encounters, she learns more about asking for what she wants in bed. Fair enough — but again, counseling, people!

In a key plot element, neither Ryan nor Lauren bother to change their email passwords during their year apart, so they end up reading each others’ draft emails throughout the year, thereby learning about the things that made them bonkers during their marriage as well as their current sexual encounters.

So, no, I don’t believe that they could have actually picked up the pieces of their marriage after all this, or that a year apart without every working on things together would enable them to realize what they need to do to have a healthy relationship going forward.

END OF SPOILERY BITS

What I did find convincing was the fact that Lauren grew up in a household with a single mother. Lauren’s mother raised her three kids marvelously and clearly devoted herself to them. But at the same time, Lauren never saw her mother in a relationship (she kept her boyfriends hidden from her kids), and never had a healthy adult marriage to model her own after. Which is kind of a debatable point, by the way — I by no means believe that children of divorce can’t grow up to have great marriages of their own, as a general rule. But in After I Do, this does seem to be a factor in Lauren’s unhealthy marriage, especially when compounded by the fact that her relationship with Ryan is all she’s ever experienced, and it seems as though the two of them were unprepared for the realities involved when transitioning to adulthood as a couple.

This may all sound very negative, so I want to be sure to point out all the good too. I loved Lauren’s family — her super-close relaitonship with her sister, her flighty younger brother who finds his own unconventional love over the course of the book, the amazing grandmother who influences Lauren’s life, and the family’s oddball quirks and traditions that make them feel unique and special. Likewise, Lauren’s best friend Mila adds another view of adult relationships to Lauren’s perspective, and helps her come to understand that love and commitment transcend daily drama and household nonsense.

As I mentioned to start with, I really enjoy this author’s writing. She has a knack for making her characters feel real. No one is perfect, and even our point-of-view characters are quite openly flawed. She does a great job of breathing life into her characters’ emotional traumas, as well as their silly fixations and disagreements, and realistically shows how relationships either grow or fall apart under the stress of ordinary life.

Do I recommend After I Do? I do, actually! While I disagreed with many of the plot elements, I still found it highly readable and engaging. If you enjoy reading about young adults dealing with the realities of love and romance in the modern world, try After I Do and other books by this author.

Check out my reviews of other books by Taylor Jenkins Reid:
Maybe In Another Life
One True Loves
Forever, Interrupted

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The details:

Title: After I Do
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: July 1, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: One True Loves

One True LovesEmma Blair had the great good fortune to meet her soulmate at age 17. Emma and Jesse fall madly in love, eventually get married, and escape their small New England town for a life full of adventure and travel. They seem destined for a perfect life. But the day before their first anniversary, on a work assignment, Jesse in lost in a deadly helicopter crash in the Pacific Ocean and presumed dead.

Emma’s world is shattered, and she believes she’ll never recover from her grief. Yet with time and with the support of her family, years pass, she recenters herself and finds a new purpose, and finally, meets an old friend with whom there’s an instant connection. With much soul-searching, Emma brings herself to a point in her life where she’s ready to love again. Emma and Sam are in love, and establish a home and a life together. They’re happy.

And then, as the very first line of the book tells us:

I am finishing up dinner with my family and my fiancé when my husband calls.

Jesse is alive, miraculously found again years after his supposedly fatal crash. Not just alive, but coming home. Seven weeks later, Jesse arrives back in Massachusetts after getting his strength back, desperate to reunite with Emma and pick up where they left off. And Emma is a complete mess. She loves Sam, but she loved Jesse with all her heart and soul for so long. If Jesse hadn’t disappeared, they’d certainly still be together. So what is Emma to do?

Jesse was her one true love — but so is Sam. She can’t imagine hurting either man, but she knows she has to choose. Every time she seems to realize which is the person she can’t do without, her heart breaks at the thought of giving up the other.

One True Loves is an emotional rocketship ride, from a powerful take-off through chapters and paragraphs that go zooming by, all the way to the dynamic ending. I read this book in the space of a single day, because I couldn’t stop reading until I knew how it all would work out. The writing just sucked me in as of the very first line, and I simply couldn’t look away.

There are no bad guys here. You can’t look at Jesse or Sam and say that either one is a better person or is more deserving of Emma’s love. In fact, the author makes sure that we see just how special they both are. It wouldn’t really be a dilemma if it was an easy choice. Jesse and Sam are both devoted to Emma, but each represents something very different to her.

The book doesn’t shy away from pain and grief. Emma doesn’t just get over Jesse. We see her torment and devastation, her craziness, her defeat. Grief is a process and there are no shortcuts, and nothing is prettied up here. So when Emma meets Sam and decides to try going on a date, it’s a huge step for her, and one we want her to take. She’s been to hell and back. The fact that she can finally imagine a fresh, new love in her life is amazing, and we readers want her to be happy.

The writing is quite beautiful, exploring Emma’s complicated emotions and thought-processes. Ultimately, she realizes that it’s not a contest between two men or a question of who she loves more. They’re each a part of her; she loves them differently, not more or less. The real issue for Emma is who she is. Being with Jesse and being with Sam represents two very different versions of her life. She’s changed over the years, partly because she was forced to, and partly because she found new meaning for herself. In choosing the man to spend her future with, she’s also deciding which version of herself she wants to keep and nurture.

My quibbles with this book are small and fairly unimportant. One, the title. One True Loves? I’m sorry, but that’s just awkward. I would have much preferred it as Two True Loves, which sounds better from a word-appreciation standpoint (One True Loves just doesn’t flow off the tongue), and also captures the essence of the story. But what do I know? I’m not an editor.

The other issue I have is a plot point (SPOILER ALERT!), so maybe it should feel more major — but I choose to accept is as what it is and not get too hung up on it. And that is — the whole question of Jesse’s survival. Have you seen the Tom Hanks movie Castaway? Okay, this is basically that, but without the volleyball. Jesse floats in a liferaft from the sea near the Aleutian Islands all the way to a small rocky islet in the Pacific near Midway, where he lives for years on fish and rainwater, until he finally swims his way into the path of a passing ship. Um, okay? Really, it’s not the slightest bit believable… but I’m looking at this whole story as a romantic fairy tale of sorts, not a gritty real-world drama. What are the odds of Jesse surviving and coming home again? Slim to none. But hey, the point of this book is not the survival story — it’s about the love stories and the individual choice that Emma makes. How the characters get to where they are is less important than what they do once they get there.

But back to the positive…

Besides the great love story (stories), something that Taylor Jenkins Reid excels at is depicting female relationships in a way that feels real, showing them in all their complicated wonderfulness. Emma’s best friend is Olive, and she’s just a total hoot. Their friendship is a constant in Emma’s life, and even though Olive is in the story as a supporting character, she’s got dimensions and personality that are funny and fully formed. Likewise, the portrayal of Emma’s relationship with her sister feels true to life. Emma and Marie have a pretty typical teen relationship, barely tolerating each other, but we get to see how their commitment and love as sisters matures as they do, until they finally have an adult relationship that’s incredibly close and important.

I’ve read one other book by this author, Maybe In Another Life (review), and loved it as well. Her love stories are emotional but not sappy, and her characters deal with real-life emotions and dilemmas, even in situations that have an element of the fantastical to them. I plan to track down her two earlier novels — I have a feeling Taylor Jenkins Reid is going to earn a place on my “read everything she writes” list!

Check out One True Loves if you enjoy compelling love stories, relatable characters, and interesting, unexpected plots. Since it’s June, I guess this is the right time to say that One True Loves would be a perfect beach read!

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The details:

Title: One True Loves
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: June 7, 2016
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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