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REVIEW: Love the One You’re With by Emily Giffin

Dear Ms. Giffin,

book review Exactly one hundred days to her marriage to her husband Andy, Ellen Graham literally crosses paths with her ex-boyfriend Leo. Ellen describes their encounter this way:

From the outside, say if you were a cabdriver watching frantic jaywalkers scramble to cross the street in the final seconds before the light changed, it was only a mundane, urban snapshot: two seeming strangers, with little in common but their flimsy black umbrellas, passing in an intersection, making fleeting eye contact, and exchanging stiff but not unfriendly hellos before moving on their way.

But inside was a very different story. Inside, I was reeling, churning, breathless as I made it onto the safety of the curb and into a virtually empty diner near Union Square. Like seeing a ghost, I thought, one of those expressions I’ve heard a thousand times but never fully registered until that moment. I closed my umbrella and unzipped my coat, my heart still pounding. As I watched the waitress wiped down a table with hard, expert strokes, I wondered why I was so startled by the encounter when there was something that seemed utterly inevitable about the moment. Not in any grand, destined sense; just in the quiet, stubborn way that unfinished business has of imposing its will on the unwilling.

Although Ellen is happy in her new marriage to Andy, when her cell phone rings only minutes after the encounter and it turns out to be Leo, asking where she is, she tells him. He arrives shortly. Since they haven’t seen each other in several years and their breakup was painful for Ellen, she’s pleased to tell him she’s now married. Leo, who says he has missed her and apologizes “For everything,” suggests that they try out being friends and despite her better judgment, Ellen hears herself agreeing.

Ellen gradually tells the reader the story of her past. She is originally from Pittsburgh. Her mother, a junior high school math teacher, died of lung cancer, leaving thirteen year old Ellen, her older sister Suzanne and their salesman father bereft.

When it was time for Ellen to go to college, she applied to Wake Forest, a school in North Carolina. The roommate she was assigned could not have been more different in her background. Margot is the daughter of a rich and prominent Atlanta attorney and a beauty queen from Charleston. She has flawless manners and a fondness for the color pink. Yet despite their differences, the girls hit it off and became fast friends, and it was through Margot that Ellen met Andy, Margot’s older brother. For many years, though, she thought of Andy as nothing more than Margot’s brother.

After graduating, Margot and Ellen headed for New York, where they got an apartment and started looking for work. Nothing great panned out for Ellen, so she took up waitressing to earn her keep and photography because it interested her.

Margot encouraged Ellen to treat her photography as more than a hobby, and eventually Ellen found a job as a film processor in a photo lab. She was twenty-three year old and working there when she got summoned for jury duty and was immediately intrigued by one of her fellow prospective jurors.

Leo was then in his late twenties, originally from Queens and working as a reporter for a small newspaper. He had dropped out of college after three years because he could not pay for a fourth year, and his brothers and father were firefighters. Leo has dark hair, olive skin, high cheekbones and deep-set eyes, and Ellen felt a powerful sexual pull toward him right away.

When Leo was selected for the jury, Ellen disregarded all the advice she got from Margot’s brother Andy, an attorney, on how to avoid jury duty. Instead, she did everything she could to get selected, too. She was chosen, and eventually their mutual belief in the defendant’s innocence drew Leo to her. When Leo suggested that he visit her hotel room, against the rules for the sequestered jury members, Ellen tried to refuse, but what came out of her mouth was the word yes. As she observes, “It would be the first of many times I couldn’t say no to Leo.”

From that point on, Ellen and Leo became nearly inseparable. Ellen made herself completely available to Leo and did everything she could to impress and please him. At first, it appeared they were both passionately in love. They spent months in deep conversations and intense lovemaking, revealing everything to one another and comforting each other over their losses and vulnerabilities.

But after about a year of this, a gradual shift took place, and Ellen began to feel that while her feelings for Leo were as powerful as ever, Leo’s were becoming less so. He made it clear to Ellen that marriage was not for him. And then, after New Year’s Eve of 1999, when he failed to meet her at a party and did not call her that night or the next morning, Ellen suggested that they break up, thinking it would lead to the confrontation she wanted. Instead, Leo agreed with relief, and Ellen left his apartment feeling dumped.

In the wake of her breakup with Leo, Ellen found herself in a tailspin. She kept hoping Leo would change his mind and come back to her and spent her days listening to sad songs, staying in bed, neglecting her appearance, eating junk food and generally wallowing in her misery.

After months of this, Margot stepped in, telling Ellen that Leo made her “needy, spineless, insecure and one-dimensional,” that the pictures she took during that relationship were some of her worst, and that in essence, she needs to stop wasting her time on him.

Margot’s words snapped Ellen out of her self-pity, and she bought herself a new camera the next day. During the next year, Ellen learned all she could about photography, and got a job as the second assistant to a respected photographer. In the two years that followed, she learned even more and her confidence grew. She also dated a little bit, and healed a lot.

Then, while in Atlanta to celebrate Thanksgiving with Margot’s family three years after her breakup with Leo, Ellen ended up washing the dishes alongside Margot’s brother Andy. He asked after her and her family, and then if she’s single, and that is when Ellen realized Andy was interested in her and that she could fall in love with him.

Andy and Ellen had a smooth courtship that ended in marriage after three years of dating, and as the book begins, Ellen is doing well as a photographer and very happy with her husband. Andy, is as she says “approachable, friendly and somewhat goofy,” as well as “very cute” and “very successful.” Ellen says of the way their romantic relationship began:

It might not be as titillating as striking a love connection with a dark stranger while sequestered on a murder trial, but in some ways it was even better. It had substance. A sweet, solid core. A foundation of friendship and family–the simple things that really mattered, things that lasted. Andy wasn’t about mystery because I already knew him by the time he asked me out. Maybe I didn’t know him well, and the knowledge I did have was mostly filtered through Margot–but I still knew him in some fundamental, important way. I knew where he came from. I knew who he loved and who loved him back. I knew that he was a good brother and son. I knew that he was a funny, kind, athletic boy. The sort of boy who helps with the dishes after Thankgiving dinner, ulterior motive or not.

But when Ellen returns home from the diner, she decides not to tell Andy about her encounter with Leo, because Andy knows that her relationship with Leo was, in her own words, “intense,” and she is afraid he might be hurt. Instead, Ellen makes passionate love to her husband, trying to obliterate Leo’s presence from her mind.

When Ellen and Andy fly to Atlanta to visit the pregnant Margot and her husband Webb, Ellen is disturbed to find a message from Leo on her cell phone, one in which he says he has a question for her. She resolves not to return the call, but changes her mind when her preoccupation with what Leo’s question might be interferes with her ability to enjoy her visit with Margot and her in-laws.

So Ellen finally calls Leo back, and he reveals that he has a great opportunity for her — he’s arranged for her to photograph rock legend and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Drake Watters for the cover of a magazine. It is a huge career break for Ellen, but she does the right thing and calls back to leave a message on Leo’s machine turning it down.

But several days later, when Ellen’s agent calls about the same job, Ellen, assuming that Leo has taken himself out of the picture and is being generous, feels that she can accept the work.

Since Ellen’s sister Suzanne is a huge Drake Watters fan, Ellen allows her to tag along to Los Angeles for the photo shoot. But when Ellen arrives at the shoot’s location, she discovers Leo is waiting there. Will Suzanne, who always liked Leo and is less than approving of Ellen’s wealthy new family, prove an adequate chaperone, or will Ellen give in to her attraction to Leo?

Love the One You’re With is written in Ellen’s nicely conversational voice. As was very much the case with your first book, Something Borrowed, you do a very good job at portraying your heroine’s moral dilemma, her desire to do the right thing and the attraction she finds difficult to resist.

The book is propelled by a great deal of suspense surrounding the question of what moral lines Ellen will cross and what lines she will remain behind. Even as I wondered if Ellen would cheat on Andy, or even if not, what the fallout might be from her keeping secrets from him and from Margot, I found myself liking all the characters. There are no bad guys here, just imperfect human beings.

I also liked the way Ellen’s mother’s death and her lower middle class background affected the romantic conflict. Ellen had reinvented herself by going to Wake Forest and befriending the wealthy Margot. There were times when I wondered if she hadn’t married Margot’s brother Andy partly because his family was warm and loving and she did not have a mother. Leo’s background was more similar to Ellen’s, in that neither of them had rich parents, and they also both shared a love for New York.

But it was clear that Ellen did love Andy, despite the powerful attraction and unresolved feelings she had for Leo. As I read, I found myself torn between Andy, who was such a nice and committed guy, and Leo, who was more sexy to me, and who clearly also had feelings for Ellen.

In the end, I was mostly satisfied with Ellen’s choice and with the resolution of the story.

I also liked the way you portrayed the characters. Ellen is the star of this book, and she is mostly likable and understandable. There are a few times she behaves immaturely, but since she knows she is being immature, it was easy to forgive those instances. I thought the way she interrogates herself about her own choices, and the way she tries to justify or rationalize some of her more questionable actions was very lifelike and real.

Leo has a kind of charismatic appeal that makes it easy to understand Ellen’s attraction to him. He has just a little bit of the brooding loner and the dangerous bad boy in him, but at the same time, he also shows a very human and sympathetic side that makes it tempting to forgive him for the rough breakup that he put Ellen through, and for coming on to a married woman.

Andy is the quintessential nice guy, and he is mostly sweet and thoughtful, calm and calming, and clearly committed to Ellen. I have to say though that I wish that Andy’s courtship of Ellen had been shown more in the book, because I think then I might have found him as romantic and appealing as I did Leo, whereas without that, Andy’s slight goofiness did not always charm me, and I did wonder whether he and Ellen had enough in common.

Margot and Suzanne were interesting characters too, so completely different from one another yet both important to Ellen, in her corner at times, but far from perfect themselves. Ellen’s friendship with Margot feels almost as central to the story as her relationships with Andy and Leo, and I love the way you emphasize female friendships in your books, and make them as interesting as they are in real life.

While I found the ending of Love the One You’re With a bit rushed, I enjoyed the book much better than your most recent one just before it, Baby Proof, and almost as much as Something Borrowed. Something Blue remains my favorite of yours, but since Love the One You’re With was suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable, I recommend it to our readers and give it a B+.

Sincerely,

Janine

PS for readers. Since the spoiler of who Ellen chooses in the end has been requested — Ellen ends up with Andy.

This book can be purchased in hardcover from Amazon or Powells. No ebook format.

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character-driven books. Examples include novels by Shana Abe, Loretta Chase, Patricia Gaffney, Cecilia Grant, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Laura Kinsale, Julie Anne Long, Alison Richardson, Nalini Singh and Pam Rosenthal. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, "Kiss of Life", appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com. or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

29 Comments

  1. Jenyfer Matthews
    Jun 10, 2008 @ 00:30:39

    I’m taking names…these sound like just the sorts of books I enjoy. Thanks!

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  2. Janine
    Jun 10, 2008 @ 10:14:00

    If you haven’t read any of them, I would recommend starting with Something Borrowed, Giffin’s first book. My favorite is the second book, Something Blue, but it’s a sequel to the first book and you really need to read Something Borrowed first to get the most out of it.

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  3. Jennie F.
    Jun 21, 2008 @ 01:32:10

    I just finished this and would give it between a B and a B+. I also felt the ending was a bit rushed. Also, Ellen had built up the attraction to Leo so much, it made her relationship with Andy seem tepid in comparison. Even though she made it clear that she felt both attraction and love for Andy, there was a lack of tension in their relationship that made it feel a little weak (and safe or “settling” in Ellen’s own parlance) compared to her relationship with Leo.

    It reminded me a bit of Megan Hart’s Tempted – very different set-ups, but both first person tales of a woman caught between two men – one the easy-going laid-back husband, and the other the intense and unattainable lover.

    I thought Ellen’s point (paraphrased) about how maybe she didn’t recognize the depth of her feeling for Andy because their relationship was too easy was a good one, and rather true to life. Romances tend to reinforce the choice of the difficult “bad boy” over the safe, nice guy as being correct, and, well, romantic. Love isn’t real, or isn’t as intense, unless you suffer for it. So in some ways I thought Love the One You’re With was an anti-romance, though it was romantic.

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  4. Gus
    Jul 30, 2008 @ 16:06:57

    This book GRATED AT MY NERVES!

    Seriously? Why would it have been a big deal to tell her husband that she ran into him? And, had a drink with him?

    I am secure enough in my eleven and a half year marriage that I wouldn’t even think of NOT telling my dh that I ran into an old boyfriend…that I loved. And I was secure with it at 1 month and I was secure with it at one year…I still would have told him. I know by dh would have asked if it was fun and how he is doing. And…I’m pretty sure Andy would have done the same.

    I kept getting so frustrated with Ellen, actually it was on the second page I knew I was going to have a problem with her character and the story, but I am not the type to start a book and not finish it.

    I would not recommend this book. Maybe I just don’t get it, because this wouldn’t be an issue in my marriage.

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  5. Janine
    Jul 30, 2008 @ 16:13:55

    I’m sorry that my recommendation didn’t work for you, Gus.

    I think Ellen wasn’t that secure in her marriage partly because of her past with Leo. She didn’t want to hurt Andy by revealing the intensity of her past relationship with Leo — which I think in some ways was more passionate than her feelings for Andy. I also think that because of Leo’s previous rejection, she was hungry for attention from him. If she’d said something to Andy, she might have inadvertently revealed that, too. Ellen’s situation is pretty far from my own and her choices are too, but I could understand how someone could end up in such a position and make those choices.

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  6. Reader
    Aug 10, 2008 @ 19:11:51

    So could you leave a tiny spoiler at the end? I’m assuming she ends up wih Andy.

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  7. Janine
    Aug 10, 2008 @ 19:26:48

    So could you leave a tiny spoiler at the end? I'm assuming she ends up wih Andy.

    I think the book is far more suspenseful if you don’t know the answer to that question. But since you asked, I have added the spoiler as a post script to the review. If you hover over the black stuff with your cursor, you will find out who Ellen ends up with.

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  8. Jeff
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 09:10:16

    This is a tough one for me as this almost exactly relates to the situation with my wife and I. I am “Andy”, and 9 years into our marriage, my wife revealed to me that she ran into her “Leo”, only she took it way to far at that time. She has let it go since then, but just last winter she ran into “Leo” again and sparked up those feelings all over again. I just started reading this a few days ago only because of how closely it relates to my own life. This could be interesting from the “Andy” point of view.

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  9. Janine
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 11:17:39

    Hi Jeff. It sounds like a tough situation to be in, and you have my sympathy. I don’t know if the book will offer reassurance but it may provide some insights into what your wife is experiencing.

    It is great to see male readers contribute to our blog. We don’t often get guys commenting on our reviews of m/f books, and the last time I remember it happening was when Carl commented on the conversational review we did of Megan Hart’s Tempted, a book about a married couple that has a sexual relationship with the husband’s friend, which then strains their marriage. Carl commented that the book was an unsettling one for him for personal reasons also.

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  10. Jeff
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 12:13:54

    It is very tough. The hard part is that she, or we aren’t over the situation yet. We’re trying to make things work and she is getting better, but she doesn’t regret what happened in the past, and still isn’t sure which way to go. As of now, we’re both reading it, so we’ll see what kind of impact it may have.

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  11. Janine
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 12:52:04

    Right after the death of my grandmother, I read a book in which the main character was grieving for her grandmother. I’m sure it affected my reading of the book and my feelings about my personal situation as well. Still, though fiction can be illuminating and comforting in times of personal crisis, nonfiction books about how to deal with that type of personal situation may be even more helpful, and so may counseling. I think those might be worth considering in your situation.

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  12. Jeff
    Sep 25, 2008 @ 14:14:04

    I appreciate your advise, and as of now we are in the process of trying everything, including what you mentioned.
    As I move along in the book, I will try to provide a some insight from Andy’s point of view, and maybe a little from my wife’s point of view after she reads it.

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  13. Janine
    Sep 26, 2008 @ 01:03:25

    I wish you the best of luck with all that you’re trying, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on the book, Jeff.

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  14. Liz
    Mar 24, 2009 @ 16:19:31

    I really enjoyed this book as I did with all Giffen’s books (Something Borrowed being my favorite) It kept my interest and I truly did not know who Ellen would choose at the end. Really the only problems I had with it was I thought the ending of her and Andy living apart in New York and Atlanta and seeing each other on weekends was a little ridiculous and I just can’t see happening in real life and working out (even though they had the money to make it happen). I literally rolled my eyes when I read this. I would have liked it better if they made a clear choice together- New York for Ellen, or Atlanta for Andy. I understand it was a compromise but it just seemed a little silly to me. Also, the rushed ending I completely agree with. I kept thinking to myself that the end when she is in the crux of her dilemma with Leo should have been somewhere in the middle of the book. I kept looking at the few dwindling pages left and wondering how on earth this story would be done in time and keep me satisfied with the result.

    Overall I would also give this book a B+ it was enjoyable besides those couple of critiques.

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  15. Janine
    Mar 24, 2009 @ 18:28:58

    Liz, I’m glad you enjoyed this book too. It looks like our grades matched.

    S
    P
    O
    I
    L
    E
    R
    S

    I do feel that it is the height of luxury for a couple to live in two cities like that. I guess I didn’t view it as a permanent solution, but as something that would change when they got tired of all that commuting after a few years.

    I also felt that neither one was ready to make that sacirifice yet, but they were willing to put off the decision. Maybe Ellen’s new friends in Atlanta will make living there full time more okay for her, or maybe Andy will have enough of the law firm at some point and be willing to move away again.

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  16. ami
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 00:36:41

    I started out with Something Blue, which I loved, and hated Baby Proof. I didn’t go back to read Something borrowed, because I actually loved Darcy and the way her romance turned out. Should I continue on to this one or go back to read something borrowed then this one?

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  17. Janine
    Apr 03, 2009 @ 00:41:25

    Ami — I like Something Blue best of all of Giffin’s books but my second favorite is Something Borrowed, so I do recommend trying it. It is funny, I also know someone who started out with Something Borrowed and won’t read Something Blue because she thought Darcy was a real piece of work in the first book and doesn’t want to read about her getting a happy ending. I loved Darcy, though. Hands down my favorite Giffin heroine.

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  18. Julie
    May 07, 2009 @ 15:22:40

    The first 331 pages could have been taken from my diary – if I kept one.
    I’m “Ellie”- not wealthy but married for 11 years to a fabulous dad and terrible husband. I think an “Andy” like husband would make it easier for me to make the choice Ellie did. My “Leo” is still in the background and I’m thankful that the physical distance separates us. I loved the “Can you be friends with an ex” debates in the story. and would add “If you really truly love someone does it ever really go away?” I am searching for many answers and reading up a storm on why we make decisons we do. I know “my story” will be at least 600 pages long because the choices I have to make (or not make) are not as easy as they were in the last 10 pages for Ellie.
    Until you are in a turblent situation in your marriage, you cannot understand or appreciate how hard decisions are for people.

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  19. Janine
    May 07, 2009 @ 23:42:34

    @Julie: I think it is a testament to the realism of Giffin’s writing that readers like you are able to relate to her stories.

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  20. richie kock
    Jul 31, 2009 @ 11:26:45

    Love the one you’re with is a dragging nag!
    I also would be a best selling author if only I had the patience to write such a nonsensical and empty piece of soup du jour!

    This book shows once again that you may throw anything on the female shelf which has to do with romantic ‘I still love my ex’ novels and they would go for it everytime…

    Jane Austin

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  21. Andy-Clone
    Aug 15, 2009 @ 14:12:20

    Like the Jeff who commented earlier, I am my wife’s Andy. My wife finally got over her Leo over a decade ago. But only after the old feelings swept over her during a clandestine lunch and she ended up in a hotel room with him. I have not read Griffin’s novel. Not sure it would be helpful to me or my wife. But I have read enough about the plot to know that Ellen’s dilemna is not unrealistic. Fortunately, my wife never really considered running off with her ex-boyfriend. But he was her first love and she had had some strong unresolved fealings after he dumped her at a tender age. So when he claimed to still love her and insisted that he had become a better person, she thought she would give friendship a try. Bad mistake. Her epiphany finally came in that hotel room. She did not like who she became when she was with him. And he was really still the same (emotionally abusive) person who made her life miserable in high school. So for those who might think the Ellens of the world are facing a choice between safe (but boring) love and passionate love, please think again. The choice is really between self destruction in an addictive but toxic relationship, and the kind of deep mature love that makes you feel good about yourself AND the person you love.

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  22. Kallyn
    Sep 16, 2009 @ 10:57:07

    The book is called Love the One You’re With, its clear from that who she ends up with. LOVED THIS BOOK WITH ALL MY HEART!

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  23. Book Review: Love the One You’re With « ReviewsbyLola's Blog
    Oct 13, 2009 @ 18:42:11

    [...] Dear Author (this review includes a hidden spoiler at the end for those of you who want to know who Ellen ended up with) [...]

  24. Pressure Sensors
    Nov 24, 2010 @ 10:58:09

    the best beauty queens are coming from south america, i really love latinas .*~

    ReplyReply

  25. Ralph W. E.
    Mar 05, 2011 @ 17:18:40

    Richie Kock,

    Your critique would land more if you actually spelled Jane AustEn correctly. Sadly, you come across as illiterate.

    Stick to reading cereal boxes.

    ReplyReply

  26. Melissa
    Jun 01, 2011 @ 05:21:27

    I’ve read 3 of Emily Giffin’s books in the last 3 weeks, and am now just over half way into “Love the one you’re with”. I must say I am not enjoying it as much as “Something borrowed”, “Something blue” and “Baby proof”. All her book do wrap up way to fast in neat little packages. But are great to read if you like book that always end the way you expect them to. All so far have the feeling at the end as if she was running out of time or pages to fit them in. Apart from that they are wonderful book and hope this one improves as I keep reading hoping that it will turn around and be just as enjoyable as the others. I so far have been sad to come to the end of a book that I’ve enjoyed so much and have rushed out to buy her next book.

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  27. gaylie
    Aug 16, 2011 @ 23:23:57

    I’ve read this book and came into realization that even though I’m not yet a married person, I somehow can relate to the situation Ellen’s into. Andy is my love for the Lord and others and Leo is my love for myself. With Andy, the best word to describe it-beyond safe and good-is ‘right’. With Leo however, ‘guilty-pleasure’ is I think what it is. It’s like an open cookie jar that when you see it, it almost borders under the need category to taste it more than just want and the worse part is it comes when you least expect it or when you can’t have it at all. I know how hard it is for Ellen to choose what’s right-and true- over what feels right-and intensely good and the feeling of wanting to be suspended between both worlds -between both love. But as the title commands, ‘love the one you’re with’ for Ellen and for me as well because it’s the true love that lasts.
    PS I admire the character Emily built on Ellen. She’s weak at some point and but came out strong in the end.

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  28. Leo
    Nov 02, 2012 @ 14:03:12

    I stumbled upon this book while scouring the web for stories about “the one that got away”.

    Just recently I had this sudden feeling of longing for my college sweetheart whom I consider as my “Leo”. The feeling was so intense that I couldn’t resist looking her up online. Thanks to the wonders of social media I wasn’t that hard to find her. In the process of catching up, I then eventually found out that I was her “Leo” too, and that she also has been missing me for quite some time already. Sounds perfect right? It does, but not if both of you are already married for 5 years.

    I am married to an “Andy” of a woman. Perfect, no drama life as some would say, but I felt like something was missing. On the other hand, she wasn’t so lucky. She admits being unhappy in her current marriage.

    While reading this book, deep inside I was actually rooting for Ellen to pick Leo. The bias most probably due to my current dilemma. But upon finishing the book, it has somehow put things in a clearer perspective. Especially upon reading this line:

    “Love, not as a surge of passion, but as a choice to commit to something, someone, no matter what obstacles or temptations stand in the way. And maybe making that choice, again and again, day in and day out, year after year, says more about love than never having a choice to make at all.”

    The next time I get a chance to talk to my “Leo”, I’ll tell her maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

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  29. Janine
    Nov 02, 2012 @ 14:14:10

    @Leo: I’m glad the book was helpful to you. It seems to be one of those books that has really affected people in a similar situation to that of the characters. I’m fortunate to be happily married but yeah, I agree that marriage is something one recommits oneself to every day.

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