Dear Ms. McGarry,
Take Me On is the fourth book in your more-or-less connected series that began with Pushing the Limits. Your books tend to feature characters who are dealing with serious issues in believable ways. Whereas in many romance novels there seems to be little reason for couples not to be together, in your books it’s almost the other way around. Take Me On is no exception.
In the year before the book starts, Haley Williams has been through a lot: her father lost his job and medical bills left her family with no money, forcing them first to a homeless shelter and later into a cramped living arrangement with her emotionally abusive uncle and his family. She’s also lost the one thing she loved doing: Haley was a champion kickboxer, but left her grandfather’s gym to train with her boyfriend Matt. Their relationship ended after he beat her up, and Haley remains traumatized by the assault and is unable to fight or even train. In addition, her brother and cousin, with whom she trained before, still feel betrayed by her choices, and Haley feels guilty for what she’s done, too. She also feels that she can’t tell them about the assault, as she fears that it would lead to even worse violence between her family and Matt’s.
West Young (brother of Rachel from Crash Into You) isn’t doing all that great, either. Take Me On takes place concurrent to the final part of Crash Into You, when Rachel is hospitalized with serious injuries following a car accident. West blames himself for the accident, and for a lot of other things, and believes that he’s failed the people he loves. He gets into fights (often against people who are hurtful toward Rachel), and as the book starts he is expelled from his private school for fighting. The Young family is rich and dysfunctional, and with Rachel still in the hospital and West clearly a mess, he gets into a nasty argument with his father. Both of them say some pretty awful things and West’s father ends up kicking him out. West takes almost nothing with him and is too proud and hurt to ask anyone for help.
Haley and West meet shortly before that, when she’s jumped by a couple of guys who want her dad’s medications. West tries to help, but in the end it’s Haley who fights off their attackers – one of whom is Conner, her ex-boyfriend’s drug using brother. Matt’s working theory is that Haley’s family beat up his brother, but West, now attending their school, claims that Haley is his girlfriend and he’s the one who hit Conner. This leads to West agreeing to an MMA fight against Conner in two months, and Haley starts training him, which means returning to her grandfather’s gym. If it all sounds a bit Karate Kid-like, well, that doesn’t go unremarked: the Daniel/Mr. Miyagi vibe is noted by one character, who asks if West has gotten to the wax on/wax off part yet. But West’s training is no joke; Matt and Conner are violent and unpredictable, and West could be in real danger if he’s not prepared. Matt is not a very nuanced antagonist and I wondered at times why Haley had sacrificed so much for him in the past.
Their time training together allows Haley and West to get to know each other and become closer. West is into Haley from the beginning, but after her bad experience with Matt, she doesn’t want to date another fighter. There are also a lot of other problems for both of them to deal with: Haley’s home situation is precarious and she has to be very careful not to set off her uncle, as he might throw her entire family out. West, after being kicked out by his father, is living in his car and gets to the point where he can’t even afford food before finally finding work. When he does return home, there isn’t much of a reconciliation, and dealing with his family remains difficult for him. There are all sorts of secrets being kept by the various Youngs, and West’s father can be controlling. At times it got a bit over the top and reminded me of a telenovela, especially when West discovered something that his mother had been hiding.
To be honest, I was more interested in Haley and West’s personal journeys than in them as a couple. West fell for Haley and moved from attraction to love rather quickly, and I’m not sure I quite bought it, or how much credit he gives their relationship in helping him sort out his life. Haley being the more cautious one did make sense given her experiences and current situation. Both had a lot to deal with when it came to their families and their roles within them and also in figuring out what they wanted for themselves and how they wanted to achieve that. For me their romantic relationship wasn’t as interesting or well-developed in comparison.
Having read the previous books in this series, I can’t say for sure if Take Me On would work on its own. The relevant events from Crash Into You are told from West’s point of view and in terms of their impact on him, so I don’t think that new readers will feel lost. There are some returning characters, and Mrs. Collins, the school social worker, makes another appearance. I’d love to read her story, if you ever decide to write something other than YA.
I don’t think Take Me On is the best book you’ve written, but despite some flaws, I did enjoy reading it and look forward to your next entry in this series. B.