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Monday, August 24, 2015

'If You Only Knew' by Kristan Higgins

Received from NetGalley 

From the BLURB:

Wedding-dress designer Jenny Tate understands the happily-ever-after business, yet somehow she's still involved in her ex-husband's life. In fact, Owen's new wife may—inexplicably—be Jenny's new best friend. Sensing this, well, relationship isn't helping her move on, Jenny trades the Manhattan skyline for her hometown up the Hudson, where she'll be able to bask in her sister Rachel's picture-perfect family life…and hopefully make one of her own. 

Her timing couldn't be more perfect, since Rachel will need her younger sister. Her idyllic marriage has just fallen to pieces in spectacular fashion after she discovers her husband sexting with one of his colleagues. Second chances aren't in Rachel's nature, but the desire for an intact family has her rethinking her stance on adultery, much to Jenny's surprise. Rachel points to their parents' "perfect" marriage as a shining example, but to protect her sister Jenny may have to tarnish that memory—and their relationship­—and reveal a secret about their family she's been keeping since childhood.
 

During this summer of secrets and lies, temptation and revelation, Jenny and Rachel will rely on each other to find the humor in their personal catastrophes, the joy in their triumphs…and the strength to keep hanging on.

‘If You Only Knew’ is the latest novel from Kristan Higgins – but let me just be clear and say I wouldn’t call this a romance. This is much more women’s fiction, closely aligned with the likes of Liane Moriarty or Jojo Moyes.

I’m still quite new to the Kristan Higgins fandom, considering she’s been steadily releasing books since 2006 and I only read my first one in 2013. But I already have my favourites of her backlist (‘Just One of the Guys’) and find myself eagerly anticipating each new yearly romance release. I’ve come to love Higgin’s masterful balance of heartbreak and humour in her romances, the way she can start a protagonist at the lowest point and build them up from within so that when a fella does comes along, he tends to feel more like the cherry-on-top rather than the whole shebang-sundae. Higgins is such a fine romance writer for paying equal attention to her heroine’s deeper purpose and life ambitions. So, truth be told, I wasn’t all that surprised when I started reading ‘If You Only Knew’ and discovered Higgins’ ventured more to the women’s fiction end of things, with the romance taking more of a backseat to marital crises, family secrets and suburban facades. But in losing the romantic element, Higgins seemed to lose a little spark in her writing, and the seemingly crucial humour element that really makes her work leap off the page and into reader’s hearts.

This is the story of two sisters. Younger sister Jenny is a wedding-dress designer and amicably-awkward friends with her perfect ex-husband and his equally perfect new wife, Ana-Sofia. Jenny thought she and Owen were happy and in love, even if she wanted a family and he didn’t, she was willing to wait for him to be ready … then he dropped the bombshell that he’d fallen out of love with her, and shortly after their divorce he remarried the perfect woman and started a family with her. The thing is, Owen still wants to be friends with Jenny and Jenny, being that she’s still in love with him, is happy to martyr herself;

Owen still asks about my work. He loves my sister and nieces and mother. He thinks I’m pretty and funny and smart. He admires my creativity. We have a similar sense of humour. Conversation comes easily, and since the day I met him, and even through out quickie divorce and his marriage, I have yet to go three days without hearing from him. Even when he’s been in a third-world country with Doctors Without Borders. Even now. 
So. Being Owen’s ex-wife is still better than any relationship I’ve ever had, except for one – when I was his actual wife.

Older sister Rachel is the happy stay-at-home mom of triplet girls, married to her still handsome husband, Adam. Or so she thinks. A sexting scandal erupts in their happy home-life, and Rachel is forced to confront the prospect of being single at forty versus staying in a marriage that has more than a few cracks starting to show.

Meanwhile, a family secret that only Jenny knows could be the secret to her sister’s perspective on what’s really behind the “perfect” marriage.

Cheating – extramarital, and emotional – is a big theme in this book. Now, I love me a good cheating storyline, which makes me a romance reader anomaly I know! But I love the instant emotional connection and gut-wrench that comes with a cheating storyline, when readers are put into a protagonist’s corner and I eagerly anticipate that Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T moment for the wronged party within a crumbling marriage. And I like reading cheating storylines when they’re doubly complicated by children and the seemingly idyllic white-picket-fence marriage. I like poking at that bruise of suburban rot, because cheating storylines are (and probably only in my opinion) the closest that romance stories often get to noir – with the seedy underbelly of a marriage revealed, a femme fatale and damsel in distress. Corny and reductive (especially to women), I know but it’s my guilty-trope and I can’t help liking it. So believe me when I say I’m surprised at how much I hated the cheating storyline in this book.

I found Jenny’s story and complicated post-divorce friendship with Owen to be interesting, and a new take on cheating. But Rachel’s storyline did nothing for me … it read too simplistic and predictable, there was no new territory trod here. Adam was reduced to a caricature of the cheating husband when what I would have preferred was nuance and grey-areas. A future male love interest is glimpsed for Rachel, but he came so far out of left field as to be a bit ridiculous. And I didn’t like the treatment of the “other woman” – ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ are bandied about because she’s as much a caricature as Adam, and one moment in which Rachel shows a glimmer of sympathy for her felt trite.

‘If You Only Knew’ did remind me a small bit of Liane Moriarty’s ‘The Husband's Secret’ … that book is all about marriages and their myriad twists and turns, surprises even for the parties involved. But where I walked away from Moriarty’s ‘The Husband's Secret’ – which also has a strong through line of extramarital affairs – with a feeling that Moriarty had brought something new to the “wronged woman” and “cheating louse” tropes, I came out of ‘If You Only Knew’ thinking only that Higgins didn’t shine any new lights on the topic, and instead trod a careful and predictable path.

There is a small dose of romance in the book for Jenny – in the form of her super Leo, a mysterious man who claims to only be for “recreational” purposes. This romance is so tonally different from what Higgins normally writes … there’s no lightness or humour really in the whole book, and especially not much around Leo and Jenny. Even Higgin’s trademark – a dog in every book – is depressing, with the dog a literal symbol of sadness and loss.

One thing I really loved was Manhattan as a character. When the book begins, Jenny has moved to back to her hometown an hour out of Manhattan, and the move is a break-up in itself, from the city that never sleeps;

What I didn’t quite expect was that as soon as I left Manhattan behind, the beneficent, regal creature forgot me. It tolerated me when I was a student of eighteen, it gave me my chance, it celebrated me when I made it, and it forgot me the second I drove over the Henry Hudson Bridge. You’re always just a foster child in the city that never sleeps. The second you go, someone else takes your room.
 
I did like aspects of this book. I think Higgins’ exploring Jenny and Rachel’s sisterly bond was lovely and nuanced – and perhaps that’s the real romance in ‘If You Only Knew’, between two sisters whose friendship starts out strong and just gets stronger by the end. But I think Higgins also missed an opportunity to explore deeper family ramifications of cheating by choosing to keep a few secrets only to Jenny.

I didn’t love ‘If You Only Knew’, certainly not as much as I’ve come to crave Higgins’ romance books. That being said – I think she’s onto something with a foray into women’s fiction and a step back from her usual romance genre. I just wish she’d remember that writing without the intention of a happily-ever-after man on her heroine’s arm doesn’t mean she should lose that sense of humour that readers have come to love.

3/5

2 comments:

  1. This is one of those book where you just want to find a corner and read it until you finish. A good book for the beach or if you just want to curl up in a chair. I can't believe I'm saying this, but this is one chick lit book I'll read again.

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  2. Kristan Higgins is a rising superstar, thanks to whippet-fast, funny dialogue and sweet plots with a deliciously tart edge.

    Marlene
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