By Emily Henry
“You seem pretty pleased with yourself,” he says, “for a woman who just found out she was the inspiration for Cruella de Vil.” I scowl at him. Charlie rolls his eyes. “Come on. I’ll buy you a martini. Or a puppy coat.”
Mom and Libby liked the love stories where everything turned out perfectly, wrapped in a bow, and I’ve always wondered why I gravitate toward something else. I used to think it was because people like me don’t get those endings. And asking for it, hoping for it, is a way to lose something you’ve never even had.
I suspect that many romance authors put the word “book” in the title in order to increase their sales, so I vet a book set in a bookstore or involving novelists very carefully. This one was a no-brainer though because I enjoyed two of Emily Henry’s previous books, Beach Read and People We Meet on Vacation. I was immediately drawn in by the heroine, Nora, comparing herself to “the other woman” in a small town (read Hallmark) romance. That would be the hard-charging, cold and manipulative, career-oriented city-centric woman that the hero dumps for love and marriage with the sweet small-town heroine. Libby, Nora’s beloved sister, a happy but harried and exhausted mom, thinks that she and Nora need a reset in their lives. She, to get some rest and relaxation, Nora to re-examine her lifestyle and perhaps find love. Nora agrees to the plan because she cannot deny her sister anything. Libby decides to take her sister to a highly fictionalized (it turns out) version of the small town in the mountains of North Carolina in which one of Nora’s authors/clients set her recent best-seller (soon to be a major motion picture.) There, Libby presents a list of small-town romance cliches that Nora is to do (attend a festival, save a local business, etc.) before the end of their stay. Being a reluctant and slightly embarrassed Hallmark aficionado, I was hooked. Libby is trying to engineer the flipside of the Hallmark romance trope for Nora: The workaholic big city girl who finds love in the country and changes her ways. But that’s boring. Luckily, a fly in the ointment appears in the form of Charlie, a city acquaintance of Nora’s who is kind of a male version of her and thus not suitable to force Nora out of her rut. Their initial antagonism, based on a past encounter and their mutual reputations, quickly leads to sharp and clever banter, funny wisecracks, and lust.
The entertaining snark flows thick and fast, but I realized, around the 30% mark that nothing else was happening. Nora’s dates with the local swains don’t count because we know those are going nowhere. Her small-town adventures are just amusing window dressing. Nora’s growing lust for Charlie and vice versa is described over and over. Their personal relationship develops while working together on a new book. But it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere.
Things did pick up a little over halfway when it became obvious that Libby, whom I came to like, was hiding something from Nora. Something not good. So the intrigue and mystery of that kept me going. Also getting a lot of pages are Nora and Libby’s childhood, the death of their mother, and how that molded their current dysfunctional relationship. Charlie’s past struggles with his family, and why Nora and Charlie, obviously made for each other, can’t have a sexual fling, let alone a long-term relationship, also get a lot of words.
In the end, it turns out that if everyone had just had frank and honest conversations with each other we wouldn’t have had a book. And why that didn’t happen didn’t make sense. And isn’t that just the ultimate Hallmark cliche? The bottom line is, that if this had been a TV romance movie, this would have been 5 stars. As a novel, it was maybe a shade over 3 stars. There were just too many times that, if this had been a movie, I would have been yelling at the screen, throwing the remote, and rolling my eyes. That’s fun when looking at a Hallmark, not so much in a novel.
According to Emily Henry herself, she wanted to portray what happened “after the credits” to the dumped city girlfriend who is joyless, ruthless, and as Nora is described, shark-like. We are told that is how Nora is, but we never see it. She is kind, nurturing, and patient throughout. Yes, she wants to go back to the city in the end, but she also has a lot of fun in the small town while she is there. So despite the fact that I enjoyed Nora, she was kind of a fail. I would have liked to see her being scary even if just in one token scene.
However, Libby’s secret and the big misunderstanding turned out to be a good one and really made perfect sense out of everything. I really liked the final chapters of the book, and the epilogue was one of the most charmingly written I can remember reading. It was very very well done. To sum up, the banter was good, the wisecracks were funny, Emily Henry is a good writer, the concept was great, I liked the characters with the caveat that we should have seen Nora’s “shark” side and we didn’t, the balance between the romance and the other threads was good, and the last 15% I enjoyed greatly. But see paragraph 4.
July 3, 2022