REVIEW: Somebody to Love by Kristan Higgins
Dear Ms. Higgins,
I’ve read several of your books and, in general, have found them to be a bit too toothsome for me. I did however enjoy one of your earlier books, The Next Best Thing, so I was interested to read your latest novel, Somebody to Love, whose heroine, Parker Harrington Welles, was introduced in The Next Best Thing. I liked Parker in The Next Best Thing and I liked her in this book as well. I also liked James Cahill, the book’s hero. Nevertheless, I did not particularly enjoy the book itself. Again, I found your story to be so cute, so affable, and so neatly completed it left me disgruntled and slightly cranky.
Parker is thirty-five, worth millions thanks to her stock savvy father, a single mother to Nick (his father is Ethan, the hero from The Next Best Thing), and the writer of a truly dreadful series of children’s books called The Holy Rollers. Parker, a Harvard grad, proposed the series as a sarcastic joke to her editor when her first book, Mickey the Fire Engine—which sounded a lot like one of my favorite children’s classics, Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel—was rejected by her editor as being “a little familiar.”
“Got anything else?” George asked, already glancing at his watch.
“Yeah, I do,” Parker said. “How’s this? A band of child angels are sent to earth to teach kids about God. Right? They haven’t earned their wings, though, so they roller-skate everywhere—they’re the Holy Rollers. Do you love it? All they eat is angel food cake, and they live in a tree fort called Eden, and whenever a regular kid is up against a tough moral decision, in come the Holy Rollers and the preaching begins.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s The Crippled Lamb meets The Little Rascals meets The Exorcist.” She sighed and stood up. “Well, thanks for your time, George. Good to see you.”
“Hang on,” he said.
The next week, she’d had an offer and a contract….
The books have sold millions of copies and a 3D movie is being made, but Parker, who loathes the books, has written her last Holy Rollers best-seller. (She’s never made a penny off them—she donates all her income to a charity called Save the Children.) Then, very suddenly, her father is busted for insider trading and she’s kicked out of the mansion in which she grew up and where she and Nicky, when he’s not with Ethan and his wife Lucy (Parker’s best friend), live. Furthermore, her father has raided hers and her son’s trust funds and she’s got $11,000 to her name.
Parker gets this news from Harry, her father, the day before he’s headed to jail. He tells her to have James, his personal lawyer, help her sort out the mess. Parker and James, whom she rudely calls Thing One, have a history. Unbeknownst to Parker, James, now twenty-nine, fell in love with her five years ago, the very first time he saw her. Parker was in the hospital, having just given birth to Nicky; her father had sent James to the hospital with paperwork for Parker to sign. (Her father never shows up for anything in Parker’s life.) Parker has almost always treated James like scum—she sees him as a kiss-ass extension of her self-absorbed, greedy father. I say almost because once, two years ago, at her cousin’s wedding, Parker, after one too many vodka martinis, grabbed James, dragged him into a near-by bedroom, and had wonderful, nasty sex with him. (One of my complaints about this book is you keep the reader firmly outside the bedroom door—your characters talk and think about sex a great deal, but when push comes to shove, you don’t let the reader in on any of the action. It’s an odd choice in a book so filled with lust and banter about sex.) Parker blew James off in a big way after their tryst and, since then, whenever she sees him—her father sends James to all of the family events rather than attending them himself—she acts the snotty, frosty rich girl and treats him as the lowest of the low.
James informs Parker she owns a house in a small town in Maine she inherited several years ago from her dead aunt. (Parker ws so wealthy she’d forgotten about it.) Parker gets her affairs in order, sends Nicky on a three-week trip with Ethan and Lucy—which is weirdly enough their honeymoon—and heads to Gideon’s Cove, Maine to see what she can make of the house. The house, a dilapidated shack about to fall into the sea, is a disaster and, even worse, is in arrears for unpaid back taxes. Parker decides to try to spruce up the cottage and flip it—this seemed unlikely to me given the 2011 real estate market, but, hey, it’s fiction, right? She spends her first night in Maine panicked and sleeping in her car after being attacked by a bird in the kitchen, and is stunned, the next morning, to see James appear.
“So what are you doing here, Thing One?”
He sat on the hood next to her. “Since I’m devoting the next few weeks to overhauling this dump, Parker, you think you could call me by my real name?”
“I seem to have forgotten it.” There. She was getting her old vibe back. Good.
He smiled slowly, his dark eyes crinkling. Dangerous, those eyes. “Again?”
“Is it John? Jason?”
“It’s James. James Francis Xavier Cahill.”
Goose bumps broke out along her arms. It was chilly. Or something. “So what are you doing here, James?”
“Your father asked me to come up.”
James’s explanation is only partially true. Her father did ask James to look after Parker, but it is completely James’s idea to come to Maine, move in with Parker, and, gratis, spend his days rebuilding her shack. James—with good reason—feels somewhat responsible for Parker’s newfound poverty. Furthermore, he grew up in Maine and spent some summers working at his uncle’s bar in Gideon’s Cove. With Harry in jail, James is out of work and sees these few weeks as the opportunity that might finally win him Parker’s love.
James moves in with Parker—she accedes to this so easily it’s unbelievable—and sets about making himself indispensable to her. He cleans, cooks, hammers, paints, shingles, and cajoles his way right past all her defenses. He’s absolutely perfect for her. In fact, in every aspect of his life (including a tragedy in his past), James is absolutely perfect. He’s so perfect, he comes close to being dull. He is saved, as are all the adorable denizens of Gideon’s Cove, by the wit of your writing. I give you credit for taking an archetype and making him engaging. Take this scene where he essentially breaks up with, over the phone, the twenty-two year old he’s been casually dating:
“Hey, Leah, it’s James.”
“Hi there, stranger! How are you doing?” she said, her cheerleader-style exuberance making him hold the phone a little farther away from his ear. She was cute, but best in small doses, which explained why they only saw each other about once a month.
“How are you?” he said.
“I’m awesome! What’s up? You wanna get together this weekend?”
“Well, actually, I’m in Maine right now, and I’ll be here for a while. Six or eight weeks. Figured I’d let you know.”
There was a pause. “Oh,” she finally said.
It was impressive, how much could be packed into a two-letter word. They must teach it at woman school. “Yeah. So, just wanted to say bye and have a nice summer and all.” James pressed his thumb against his eye socket, bracing for the relationship talk.
“What about…you know? Us?”
Ah, mooseshit. Was there an us? Because he’d seen Leah, a very pretty redhead who liked to play pool and flirt, maybe six or seven times since they’d met at a wedding on New Year’s Eve, and if there was an us, it was pretty anemic. There was him, and there was her, and the two of them intersected at a bar once in a while, which generally led to more intersecting in bed, which had always seemed like enough.
I think the trick is everything James does is perfect, but his thoughts and words are wryly human.
Parker is not perfect; in fact, she’s pretty messed up. She’s kept everyone at a distance for years—she was scarred by her childhood. She’s prideful and prickly. She adores her son (who, thank the gods, isn’t perky although he is a wee bit too self-aware for a five-year old), loves Lucy and Ethan, but, other than those three, she’s a very alone person. (This is one of the reasons it makes no sense she allows James to move into her teeny-tiny house with her at the drop of a tool-belt.) She thrives under James’s care and learns to accept the friendship many in Gideon’s Cove offer her. She rejects James a few too many times for me, but, it’s clear, from the moment James shows up in Maine, she’ll finally fall for him. And why not? He’s gorgeous, effortlessly competent, a stellar kisser, and unwaveringly supportive of her and her son.
As I read this book, I wondered why I didn’t enjoy it more. The writing is mostly first-rate (although calling Parker’s quim Lady Land was not a good plan), often very funny, and the main characters are—once I’d made peace with James’s flawlessness—pretty likable. Part of it is surely me—I’m not a fan of sweet and I think nice is overrated. But, part of it is that the book doesn’t take a single gamble. Every painful problem is smoothly resolved. There’s no real tension in the tale; by its finish, everyone the readers care for is living happily ever after and Parker is again donating the proceeds of her best-selling book—apparently the fire engine plot became less familiar when resubmitted to the publishing world—to Save the Children. Somebody to Love would have been a better book with less sugar and more snark. I give it a C+.
* Book isn’t released digitally until next week but may be in stores this weekend