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REVIEW: Head Over Heels by Jill Shalvis

Dear Ms. Shalvis:

When I first started the Lucky Harbor series, I wasn’t sure I would like it. I have a visceral aversion to books with cute titles set in cutely named small towns, with covers colored in pastels and adorned with cute dogs or food. But my strong appreciation for your Sierra Nevada-set series pushed me past my initial resistance, and once I started the trilogy of Phoebe Traeger’s estranged daughters, I was just a little bit hooked. There is a basic affability to your books I cannot precisely articulate, and it often sweeps me along past issues I see more clearly in retrospect. Head Over Heels, the third book in the series, is probably my favorite, affably flawed as it is.

Head Over Heels by Jill ShalvisChloe Traeger has always been the wild child of the sisters, more like her mother in her unwillingness to settle in one place and follow what she perceives to be society’s conventions regarding marriage and family.  She was working with her two sisters, Maddie and Tara, to restore and run the B&B their mother had left them, but only as long as she could light out periodically on her own. These days, she was traveling to demonstrate and distribute her own line of natural spa products, which was already a small nod to stability, but the travel still nourished Chloe’s somewhat restless soul, especially when the alternative was getting into trouble with local law enforcement for helping her friend Lance “rescue” some abused dogs.

Of course, local law enforcement represented more than legal trouble for Chloe; if she let him, Sawyer Thompson could put her into far more danger than Lance’s latest scheme — danger to her body, mind, and heart. Reformed bad boy turned sheriff, Sawyer has watched his two best friends, Jax and Ford, fall under the spell of Chloe’s sisters, and he knows he is a very short step away from the same fate with Chloe. The hell she could raise around town with Lance was nothing compared to the havoc she wreaked with his internal sense of order and control, and the worst thing was that Sawyer couldn’t make himself stay away from her:

 

[Chloe] wore a soft, black hoodie sweater that clung to her breasts and dark, hip-hugging jeans tucked into high-heeled boots that gave off a don’t-fuck-with-me air but made him ache to do just that.  There was a wildness to her tonight, hell every night, and an inner darkness that he was drawn to in spite of himself.

It called to his true inner nature, the matching wildness and darkness within him, which he’d tried to bury a long time ago.

As reluctant as Sawyer is to revisit that darkness, Chloe has an even more basic concern about getting involved with Sawyer. She has acute asthma, which makes all types of physical exertion, especially the good kind (and would there be any other kind with a guy like Sawyer?), uncomfortable at best and life-imperiling at worst. So powerful as their attraction and friction-producing flirting is, it’s not until Sawyer’s undercover work for the DEA brings him into conflict with one of the town’s real bad boys – who happens to have a growing interest in Chloe – that things really heat up between them.

Anyone who has read the first two books in this series has seen the smart-aleck flirtation between Chloe and Sawyer intensify over the year or so those books cover, and one of the things I appreciated about Head Over Heels was the way it continued to build on that dynamic rather than radically alter it for dramatic effect. And Chloe’s asthma is a very interesting issue in the relationship, because it forces both Chloe and Sawyer past the somewhat clichéd internal obstacles they have to cope with, as well. Sawyer, for example, has unresolved issues with his father, a man who cannot seem to see Sawyer as anything but the troublemaking teen he used to be, and Chloe pushes him to that fine psychological line dividing past from present. And Chloe struggles with her need to feel unimpeded by a “traditional life”:

She understood that, from the outside looking in, it might seem like she had a secret death wish, but she didn’t.  It was just that when she was in the midst of an asthma attack, she often felt so close to death that she, well, dared it.  But she just wanted to run or dance or laugh hard, or have sex without needing an inhaler and possibly an ambulance.

Not exactly a common problem, but one that often left her straddling a fine line between socially acceptable behavior and the wild yearnings her mother had always encouraged.  Her sisters wanted her to stop pushing those boundaries and settle down a little.  And it was that which bothered Chloe more than anything.  The message was simple: if she wanted to be accepted, even loved, by those she’d come to care about, she’d need to change.  But dammit, she wanted to be accepted just as she was, imperfections and all.

Sawyer and Chloe’s mutual need for acceptance is somewhat standard Romance fare, but the addition of Chloe’s asthma creates an opportunity for more emotional intimacy between them. The asthma becomes a means through which Sawyer can show true care and concern for Chloe, and it allows Chloe to become vulnerable with Sawyer in ways she might not otherwise allow. The book does not treat the condition as a gimmick, nor does it become an all-consuming issue for the couple.

I’m sure there will be many, many readers who adore the way Shalvis resolves the conflicts between Sawyer and Chloe. I have a number of quibbles with the book (the “sayings” introducing every chapter seem gimmicky now, and the tendency to use humor to deflect seriousness can feel diminishing), but my most substantial issue is with the way Chloe’s struggle between settling down and setting out is resolved. Without giving away a spoiler, I will say that for me Chloe’s free spirited nature was somewhat betrayed by the resolution, and the reason this matters for me is that so much of the book – of the series, in fact – is constructed around the character of Chloe as a woman who truly enjoyed her freedom and was not just running from something. And while I could lay out the logic of the movements made in the book, I still find them a problematic compromise, and one that highlights the theme of “settling” the series repeats as a chorus.

Throughout the series there is an attempt to distinguish settling down under the right circumstances from just plain settling. One difficulty, of course, is that Romance tends to favor traditional or conventional endings, so an untraditional heroine is already at risk of being made somewhat traditional in the end. The Lucky Harbor series seems especially fond of wrapping things up rather neatly for its main characters, and in Chloe’s case I think the neat wrap-up sells Chloe (and Sawyer) a bit short. And while not a deal breaker for me, it was a disappointment, despite my overall enjoyment of the book and the series. B-

~ Janet

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isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

20 Comments

  1. Vorkosigrrl
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 13:50:41

    I’ve read several of Ms. Shalvis’ books, and while I’ve enjoyed them, there are so many common elements between them, that I’ve pretty much given up on her. I get bored with authors who repeat the same plot over and over, no matter how good the writing may be.

    All the plots I’ve read involve siblings (or people who are like siblings in their relationships) whose parent (or parent figure) has died, and the siblings are trying to make a go of a commercial enterprise, in a small town or rural setting.

    Nothing wrong with any of that, but doing the same thing over and over . . . . just makes me check out.

  2. Jane
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 18:37:29

    Of the three, this is my favorite book in the series. I loved the slow build of romance and sexual tension between the two. I thought that the way in which asthma was used to provide conflict and then resolution of conflict was really well done but, like you, the domestication of Chloe was a disappointment.

    The fact that she wondered whether she could actually love and be loved without the “normal” life was heartbreaking if you think about how the answer of the book was no. She conformed to the expectations of her sisters and her happy ending was as traditional as they come. I felt that did a disservice to the idea that you could be a free spirit and have love. I didn’t even think that it was in keeping with Sawyer’s desire and love for her. I won’t say it ruined the book for me but it was a definite disappointment.

  3. Robin/Janet
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 22:01:44

    @Vorkosigrrl: I agree that the current crop of books have a sameness to them, although I still find them amiably enjoyable. Some I like more than others, of course, and ideally I wish Shalvis would slow down a bit, since she seems to be writing an awful lot of books right now. I guess I’m still looking for the great experience I had with the Sierra Nevada series.

    @Jane: I think the disappointment for me was intensified by the fact that this is the last book and I’ve been anticipating Chloe’s book for a while now. Also because I really saw no compelling reason for things to work out the way they did with Chloe’s domestication — I mean, what would have been diminished if she hadn’t been tamed to the degree she was?

  4. Mary G
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 23:37:49

    I love humor & it’s a high for me when there’s shared laughter. It takes a delicate touch when humor is added unexpectedly such as in a romantic suspense or here when it’s added to an emotional scene or a love scene. When it’s at that point where I’m starting to tear up or steam up and then comes that funny banter & it’s quite satisfying. That shared laughter adds another layer of bonding for the characters (for me anyway).

    On Chloe’s remaining the wild child: There’s a scene at the end where Sawyer tells Chloe to stay the way she is. No changing.I never got the feeling that she was going to change much. What did change was the geography perhaps. No more roaming like a gypsy but in that case she wanted the stability. I think Sawyer changed more than Chloe did IMHO.

  5. Jane
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 00:16:36

    @Mary G I agree that there is a lot to love in this book. I particularly heart the scene where Chloe spots the inhaler on Sawyer’s table. That was heart melting.

  6. willaful
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 00:23:48

    Huh. I completely agree about the quotes, which I found unbearably trite, but I didn’t see Chloe as diminished by the ending. I don’t think anything happened that she didn’t choose, and that she was trying to make that choice was apparent all through the book and had nothing to do with her relationship with Sawyer. It was more about her relationship with her sisters.

  7. Kaetrin
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 04:15:21

    I agree with Mary G and Willaful. I didn’t see the ending as diminishing Chloe at all. I took her wanderlust as being about her lack of having a true “home” and not trusting in the “stickability” of those who used the word “love” as an excuse or a band aid. One of my favourite parts was where Chloe was thinking about how people can throw around an “I love you” while not behaving in a loving way (plus it had a cute reference to that stinker movie Armageddon). I think she was the one who decided she wanted to stick. I think she felt finally there was something worth sticking for. What was most important to me was that Sawyer didn’t want her to change or “calm down”.
    I would have liked more about how Sawyer got from “I can’t do this” to “I love you” but I really enjoyed this one. Shalvis is an auto buy for me. I like her style and I like how she writes guys. I gave this one a B+.

    (with apologies for the overuse of quotation marks)

  8. Jayne
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 05:08:27

    She has acute asthma, which makes all types of physical exertion, especially the good kind (and would there be any other kind with a guy like Sawyer?), uncomfortable at best and life-imperiling at worst.

    Just how much of an issue is this? And has Chloe been to see a competent pulmonologist? Sorry but I know a lot of people with asthma – some severe – and they all seem to have happy, vigorous sex lives.

  9. Mary G
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 07:54:11

    @Jane:
    Oh yes Jane, definitely a melty moment. I have to confess to a bias here. I loved these two from the very beginning. I adored the first two books but they also served as a long running foreplay for Chloe & Sawyer.

  10. Mary G
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 07:57:52

    @Jayne:
    I’m not an expert but I know different people have different triggers (like my son-colds & hubby-cold air). Chloe’s was more that any excitement & change in the pattern of breathing could trigger it like hyperventilating. It was serious for her but it didn’t take over the book & provided some sweet, funny moments. The “inhaler worthy” scene was pure genius.

  11. Pat L.
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 12:16:27

    Would love to win this book. Happy Thanksgiving.

  12. Jane
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 13:38:51

    @Kaetrin I think I would have agreed with you, Mary G and Willaful had it not been for Chloe’s angst over the fact that she struggled with normalcy as defined by her sisters and being deserving of love. I thought that the end should have been everyone accepting Chloe for the different kind of person she was rather than her conforming to their lifestyle. It kind of validated her emotional angst – that she only deserved love when she conformed.

  13. Kim
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 18:27:59

    I had never read Jill Shalvis before and finally tried Animal Magnetism and Animal Attraction. I thought the books were good, but not must=read territory.Is the Lucky Harbor series similar or completely different?

  14. Kaetrin
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 18:33:22

    @Jane: I certainly see your point. As I’m a fairly traditional person myself, I guess I’m less likely to pick up on such things. Nevertheless, I thought the book showed that Chloe did things/made changes for her own reasons – eg, how she decided to remove the nipple piercing. I don’t think that Chloe (and we’re likely to see her popping up in the next lot of Lucky Harbor books even though they’re not about the Traeger sisters anymore) will ever be “conformist”. She might have decided to open her own day spa but I saw that as a logical extension to her wanting to put down roots in LH. Also, I thought the book did a good job of showing that much of Chloe’s “wildness” was a reaction to the restrictions she felt due to her asthma and because sometimes she needed to do somewhat outrageous things because she wanted to “feel”. Those things were, by the end of the book, more resolved and so it made sense to me that she would be more settled in herself. I think she’ll still do things like go hang gliding and rescue dogs in danger of abuse and skinny dip in mud pools. I don’t see her as becoming June Cleaver. I agree with you that the love from her sisters did seem to be tied to her conforming (which I didn’t love) but Sawyer never asked for any changes from her – the whole day spa thing had nothing to do with Sawyer at all.

    Gack, I still have to write my own review. Perhaps I’ll save time and just put up a link to here! :D

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  16. Jane
    Nov 24, 2011 @ 09:46:52

    @Kaetrin I agree re: Sawyer. He cared for Chloe and didn’t require her changing or settling down even. He seem completely unaffected by her going off and doing odd jobs away from Lucky Harbor.

  17. Jane
    Nov 24, 2011 @ 09:47:09

    @Kim Similar.

  18. Tabitha
    Nov 30, 2011 @ 11:23:44

    I always pick up Jill Shalvis’ books even though I haven’t always enjoyed her stories. She’s one of those authors I just keep on following…and I don’t know why. But I digress. I wasn’t a fan of Chloe in the first two books in the series and so the third book wasn’t one that I was anxious to read. But so many reviews (and the quotes!) are giving chloe’s book thumbs up that I’m looking forward to reading it now. Thank goodness the digital release is out tomorrow. Here’s another book where the digital release date differs from print…even despite the same pricing on both book formats. I can understand a different release date when the digital copy is less expensive than print but they cost the same! Okaay, I know I’ve complained about this before but I needed to vent. Again. LOL

    Thanks for the review!

  19. Jane
    Nov 30, 2011 @ 13:37:52

    @Tabitha I’ve heard that Grand Central is working on simultaneous releases next year. It is very frustrating.

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