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REVIEW: You Make Me (Blurred Lines, Book 1) by Erin...

youmakeme_300Dear Ms. McCarthy,

Let me say right off the bat that I had a hard time grading this book; its ultimate grade was not a reflection on the writing, plot (well, mostly not) or characterization, but rather my dissatisfaction with the ending. I am not sure I can say a lot without getting into spoiler territory, but I’ll just say that this is a romance, and it has an HEA, and that’s what I was not happy about. Based on the story and the actions of the characters, I didn’t think the HEA was appropriate.

Caitlyn Michaud is a starting her junior year at the University of Maine as a Business major. She’s well-liked, a member of a sorority, has a best friend (Aubrey) and a steady boyfriend (Ethan; he happens to be Aubrey’s brother). Her life is well-nigh perfect, and the night of the Homecoming Dance she reflects on how far she’s come from where she grew up.

Cat (as she was known before coming to UoM) was raised on a small and remote island of Maine; her family was poor and somewhat notoriously dysfunctional. Cat’s mother was mentally ill and permanently disabled due to electroshock treatments she’d received for her illness when Cat was a baby; her father was a fisherman who lost a hand on a lobster boat and afterwards went on disability. Cat’s only sibling, her brother Brian, is a ne’er-do-well and alcoholic. Growing up, Cat’s family took in a succession of foster children; the income helped support the family and hold the dilapidated family home together. Cat was a lonely little heathen for much of her childhood, unkempt and friendless. Her life changes at 15, when the family welcomes a new foster, 17-year-old Heath. Heath and Cat become friends and then more, but right after they make love for the first time, Heath disappears. The only explanation Cat is given is that Heath is now 18, and has aged out of the foster care system, but she doesn’t understand why she doesn’t hear a word from him, after all they had shared.

Cat goes to college, becomes Caitlyn, and puts the past behind her. Her father dies; her mother is confined to a nursing home, and Cat no longer speaks to Brian after his disgraceful, drunken behavior at their father’s funeral. The night of the Homecoming Dance, Ethan proposes to Caitlyn in front of all of their friends and assembled sorority and fraternity members. It’s as she accepts that Cat sees a familiar face in the crowd. Yes, Heath has returned.

It turns out that Heath has been in Afghanistan, among other places, and has only just gotten back to Maine. And oh, he wants Cat back. His explanation for leaving without a word is not very strong (later revelations don’t make it much more defensible, IMO). He’s not happy to find Cat engaged to another guy, but really, what did he expect? She didn’t know where he was, and didn’t know if she’d ever hear from him again. Still, he declares his intentions to fight for her, and Cat doesn’t entirely discourage him.

Not a lot really happens in this book; most of the focus is on Cat’s internal struggle. Ethan is a mostly good guy who seems to really love her; I kept expecting him to lapse into predictable villainy, but he never does. He does let Cat down, which in some ways makes her decision a lot easier (and thus less dramatic, and less of a choice at all).

The central problem with You Make Me is that it doesn’t work as a romance. Cat’s conflict is set up as very black or white: Ethan and upper-middle-class respectability and a finance job OR Heath and a return to an island she really doesn’t seem to care for (Heath wants live there and be a fisherman). The central Ethan v. Heath conflict is pretty much a no-brainer, from a romance perspective, anyway. Ethan is safe and boring and Heath is Cat’s “other half” – exciting and a little dangerous. But the reality of Heath is that he:

  • Left Cat without a word for four years
  • Tells Cat he wants her back but still flirts with and hooks up with other girls while he’s waiting for her to come around
  • Does something very morally questionable late in the book, but justifies it because it was done to an unsympathetic character (Cat’s brother) and that he did it partly for Cat’s benefit (though he doesn’t tell her about it, of course; she finds out from Brian)
  • Expects Cat to live the life that *he* envisions for her – the Cat that’s interested in living in a city and working in finance isn’t the “real” Cat (i.e. the Cat he knew when she was 16)

It’s not that Heath is a villain – he’s really not. He’s someone who has had a hard life, even moreso than Cat, and is after all still very young (about 22 or 23, I think). I definitely think he acts like a jerk sometimes – the same could be said for Cat herself and for Ethan. It’s realistic in a way, but it points up the problem with trying to tack an HEA on a NA story, especially one about young people who are already kind of screwed up. None of these people are stable or mature enough to marry, and why do they have to be? If they were real 20- and 22-year-olds, I’d tell them to date around, have some flings, spend some time alone. But the strictures of romance and the conventions of “one true love” stories dictate that Cat has to make a choice, and that choice has to be made within the confines of the story and has to be for all time (the “ever after” part of “happily ever after”).

I don’t know; maybe this is a problem I’d have with all romances if I thought about it too much. But in historicals, where characters are expected to marry younger, and presumably not to divorce, it’s just not something I question. In contemporaries where the characters are 10 years older – hell, even five years older – the shakiness of the HEAs just don’t feel as glaring. In a story with characters this young, and with as many signals that both the hero and heroine have issues that need to be worked out before they can be in a healthy relationship – the HEA feels both unlikely and just plain inadvisable. For that reason, I’m giving You Make Me what feels like a harsh grade – a D. It’s not badly written and it held my interest, but as a romance it just doesn’t work.

Best regards,

Jennie

P.S. Proving that I’m a hypocrite and/or a glutton for punishment, I have already bought the sequel, which deals with Tiffany, a foster child who lived with Cat’s family for a time and is a friend of Cat’s (she appears briefly in You Make Me). I was drawn in by the excerpt at the end of the first book, in spite of the fact that it sounds like this one could be even more problematic. It pairs 20-year-old Tiffany (who in You Make Me is 17 and apparently looks much younger) with a 30-year-old playboy millionaire who is apparently still married (I think?) to his evil estranged wife. This sounds more like a Harlequin Presents than a New Adult novel, and I have no idea why I want to read it, but I do.

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has been an avid if often frustrated romance reader for the past 15 years. In that time she's read a lot of good romances, a few great ones, and, unfortunately, a whole lot of dreck. Many of her favorite authors (Ivory, Kinsale, Gaffney, Williamson, Ibbotson) have moved onto other genres or produce new books only rarely, so she's had to expand her horizons a bit. Newer authors she enjoys include Julie Ann Long, Megan Hart and J.R. Ward, and she eagerly anticipates each new Sookie Stackhouse novel. Strong prose and characterization go a long way with her, though if they are combined with an unusual plot or setting, all the better. When she's not reading romance she can usually be found reading historical non-fiction.

24 Comments

  1. cleo
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 11:12:42

    Thanks for a thoughtful review. It confirms that my author break up with Erin McCarthy was best for both parties (although I still re-read some of her earlier, light-hearted romances).

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  2. Janine
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 11:19:51

    Great review. I can relate — for personal reasons I think it’s best not to commit yourself to something as important as marriage while still in your early twenties, and that in a nutshell is why I’ve only tried a handful of New Adult novels.

    It sounds like you might like this book better if it ended with a HFN or even a separation. Is that the case?

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  3. Ridley
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 11:23:09

    I can’t help but wonder who hurt Erin McCarthy and why she hates working class people so much.

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  4. Jackie Barbosa
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 11:27:54

    This is a retelling of Wuthering Heights, surely?

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  5. Karen D
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 11:45:36

    @Jackie Barbosa: That was my thought too. It has to be with Cat(hy) and Heath(cliff).

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  6. Jackie Barbosa
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 12:20:53

    @Karen D: Plus the fact that Heath becomes her family’s foster child.

    I also think that origin helps explain the unsatisfactory HEA.

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  7. Mary
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 12:49:29

    As a college student, I don’t read NA because a) even though I am the age of the protagonists I am never able to sympathize with them and b) neither I nor most of the people I know are ready to be in a steady, committed relationship. I mean, some people are definitely ready at 22 to get married, and that’s fine, but the NA characters never seem to be stable enough. If they were my friends, I would want to sit them down and be like PRIORITIES.
    Also, I intensely dislike this trope: “Expects Cat to live the life that *he* envisions for her – the Cat that’s interested in living in a city and working in finance isn’t the “real” Cat (i.e. the Cat he knew when she was 16)”
    It appears in all sorts of romances and I especially hate it when the conclusion is that the guy is right. Uhh, maybe at 15 all she wanted to do was live on an island and be a fisherman’s wife BUT PEOPLE CHANGE.
    Arggh. The “I know what’s best for you” thing drives me bonkers. BONKERS.

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  8. Janine
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 14:22:27

    @Jackie Barbosa:

    I also think that origin helps explain the unsatisfactory HEA.

    Yes. Thank goodness Emily Bronte didn’t see fit to give Catherine and Heathcliff one of those.

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  9. Isobel Carr
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 15:03:42

    Someone approved a home with a mentally ill to the point of disabled mother for foster kids? Am I the only one sputtering in disbelief? I have quite a few friends who’ve been/are foster parents, and the review to get approved is kind of grueling (at least where I live).

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  10. Audra
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 15:33:52

    They gave a license for foster care to a mentally ill woman who’s illness was so severe she was treated with ECT? I live in Maine, and there 675 (give or take) hoops to jump through to get a license, and the money is not that good.

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  11. Laura Jardine
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 16:52:15

    In addition to the above comments regarding the probability of someone like her mother becoming a foster mom…

    She was disabled as a result of ECT? Modern ECT is quite safe, and although there are memory and other cognitive side effects, these typically clear up a few weeks after stopping treatment. I am sure it is possible for someone to become disabled as a result (anything seems to be possible, after all) but it just sounds very unlikely.

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  12. Liz Mc2
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 16:56:59

    And the next book is Jane Eyre.

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  13. Jennie
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 17:21:38

    @Janine: Yes, probably. Jeez, even a sequel set when the characters were a little older would be better. I really don’t understand the need to marry characters off at 20 or 21. I’m not saying all such marriages are a bad idea, but in contemps, it’s just not something I find that romantic. I think you can have an HEA of sorts without ending in marriage.

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  14. Jennie
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 17:29:02

    @Jackie Barbosa: Yes, but it took me like an EMBARRASSINGLY long time to realize that – in fact, I think the light bulb finally only went off yesterday, when I was finishing Live for Me, the second book in the series. I had figured out that Live for Me was a retelling of Jane Eyre slightly quicker, though to be fair there are more similarities between those two books than between You Make Me and Wuthering Heights. The single strongest argument for YMM as a WH retelling is the h/h names. Yes, there are some plot points that are similar, but YMM does not begin to approach the WTFery that is Wuthering Heights (as if anything could).

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  15. Jennie
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 17:34:48

    @Mary: I don’t know if it’s the author or NA in general but one of the things I like less about these books (not just the two I’ve read in the Blurred Lines series, but the books I’ve read in McCarthy’s True Believers series) is the very traditional kind of view of women and their “place” and being a “good girl.” Invariably the heroines are contrasted against others girls/women who are glitzier, more promiscuous, less plain Jane and self-effacing than the heroine, who is of course the ideal. In the books where the heroines have become a little more polished (like this one) or mildly wild (a couple from the True Believers series) they have to go back to being demure, not wearing makeup or heels, etc. as part of their transformation into worthy heroines. It does kind of bother me.

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  16. Jennie
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 17:38:28

    @Isobel Carr: I wondered about that. It was clear that the heroine’s parents only took in the kids for the money (though they weren’t horrible people or anything, and the mother mostly seemed zombie-like rather than unstable). I think it’s one view that some people have of how foster care works, and maybe it’s true in some places (I have no idea). It’s certainly not a flattering one.

    (Apropos of not much, I know I watched part of one of those true-crime shows a few weeks ago about a missing foster child who, it turns out, had been killed by his foster parents. The father turned out to have some convictions for domestic violence – I think? something like that – so I guess there are places where these things aren’t well regulated, unfortunately.)

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  17. Jennie
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 17:41:03

    @Laura Jardine: And I wondered about that as well. She brought to my mind Rosemary Kennedy, but I remembered that she was damaged by a lobotomy, not ECT, which I thought was considered safe and beneficial in some instances. (Also, I don’t believe Rosemary Kennedy was mentally ill, but rather mentally retarded with some attendant behavior problems.)

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  18. Bronte
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 19:39:26

    The degree of dysfunction following ECT is variable depending on whether they perform unilateral or bilateral ECT. While its true that most of the side effects wear off quickly some can be very prolonged. My mum had to relearn how to use an ATM and how to drive whereas other things weren’t lost. The other problem (as I understand it fRom my mum’s case) is that by the time you use ECT for illnesses such as schizophrenia etc (not depression) the patient is often very refractory to medication and their underlying illness may be very severe

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  19. Turophile
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 21:42:43

    Thank you for writing this. I try to review all the books I read on goodreads and haven’t had time to do this one yet. You’ve done it for me. (I’d cut and paste, but not a fan of violating copyright laws!)

    Seriously, I know it’s a younger generation but the hero’s behavior is just creepy/stalker like. So messed up.

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  20. Kaetrin
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 22:45:41

    I agree about the HEA for New Adult. It doesn’t have to be marriage. I’m happy if they’re together and in love. At that age, I don’t think there’s any need to rush into marriage. I have read a few books where I felt it suited the characters but I’m not super widely read in NA. My favourites are ones where the endings are definitely happy but more open-ended in terms of the formalities.

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  21. Kaetrin
    Aug 14, 2014 @ 22:52:33

    I also wanted to add that Wuthering Heights is not a romance – if anything it’s a tragedy so I’m a bit at a loss as to why it should appear in the romance genre as a “retelling”.

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  22. Loonigrrl
    Aug 15, 2014 @ 04:34:12

    Yeah, I had multiple issues with this book- first and foremost: the character of Cat and her roller coaster of indecision which she inflicted upon the readers. Will she, won’t she, will she, won’t she. She makes a decision, but changes her mind, and then again. Ack!!

    Plus, that ending… *shakes head* this was definitely one of those endings where I could picture the characters divorced and bitter in five years. I would definitely have preferred a hfn ending than what we got.

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  23. Jennie
    Aug 15, 2014 @ 17:59:16

    @Kaetrin: I think Heathcliff’s obsessive “love” is seen as romantic. People don’t seem to see that an HEA in that story is impossible because Heathcliff and Cathy are both AWFUL people, and pretty crazy to boot. Like, I imagine their ghosts on the moors even acting horribly towards one another and pretty much bickering all day.

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  24. cleo
    Aug 15, 2014 @ 19:31:02

    @Liz Mc2: OMG, I was sure you were joking. But no, you weren’t. I’m definitely not ready for the NA version of Jane Eyre, especially as written by Erin McCarthy. I’ve lost all of my author trust in her.

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