Dear Ms. Giffin,
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+.
PS for readers. Since the spoiler of who Ellen chooses in the end has been requested —