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 He’s being kind of insistent in an incredibly outdated way about her changing her name when they get married.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.

_________________________________________

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

Save

Save

Save

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

_________________________________________

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

Save

Save

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!

_________________________________________

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

Save

Save

Save