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REVIEW: The Girl Most Likely To by Susan Donovan

Dear Ms. Donovan:

031293951501lzzzzzzzYour new book, The Girl Most Likely To reminded me very much of your first two books (Knock Me Off My Feet and Take a Chance on Me), which are my clear favorites of the Donovan oeuvre.   The likeable hero, the quirky heroine, the family secret, and the goofy dog are all back for another round in a highly readable if slightly troubled tale of retribution, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

For almost twenty years Kat Cavanaugh has been thinking about how her best friend and first love Riley Bohland would react when he found out that he had a son.   Dumped on the very night she was going to tell him that she was pregnant, and unceremoniously hustled out of town by her mother (who was fearful of Kat’s stepfather’s reaction), Kat hitched a ride with a truck driver who dropped her off with his kindly protective sister in Baltimore.   Meanwhile, back in Persuasion, West Virginia, Riley had no idea about Kat’s pregnancy or why she left town.   You see, he was under a lot of pressure from his father and his coach to put some distance between him and Kat, so Riley got the not so bright idea that he would break up with Kat for just a little while to get everyone off his back.   But Kat didn’t wait around to hear all that, and Riley, along with the rest of Persuasion, seemed to have no idea what became of Kat.

Until, that is, she shows back up in Persuasion to give Riley a much belated dressing down for dumping her and leaving her alone and pregnant.   All grown up and newly rich (thanks to Phyllis – her Baltimore savior – leaving Kat her substantial investment earnings), Kat is completely dumbfounded when Riley – who is still as hot as ever – tears into Kat first for running away and keeping his son away from her.   Confused, enraged, splattered with mud from the construction site where she turned up to confront Riley (who she mistakenly believes is a construction worker), Kat feels that she’s been rejected and humiliated all over again by the only man she ever loved.   With her mother dead, her noted sculptor stepfather no refuge (he was terribly abusive to Kat’s mother), and her son blissfully unaware that Kat even knows who his father is, Kat retreats to the town’s single bed and breakfast to lick her wounds and commiserate with her best friend and sidekick Nola, who has accompanied Kat on the trip.   And when Riley shows up that night to actually talk to Kat, twenty years of hurt feelings and unresolved longing spill out, making it obvious that their relationship is far from over, despite the significant obstacles they face as a couple.

Those obstacles include the distrust between Kat and Riley (not to mention their son, Aidan’s, reaction to the news that he was deprived of his father for almost 20 years), Riley’s unbalanced ex-fiancée and her refusal to be “ex-ed” out, the emotional and financial wear from Riley’s failed year-long search for his son, Kat’s feelings of abandonment, betrayal, and anger toward her own family, and Kat’s bitter and unbalanced stepfather.   It is clear that Riley and Kat are still deeply in love with each other, but they have a great deal to work out if they are to ever move forward as a functional couple.   And one of the book’s major strengths is that the characters actually recognize the complexity of their situation:

“I want another chance with you,” Kat said sud ­denly, before she lost the nerve.

“OK-”
“I want to get to know you again-as the com ­plex grown man you are, not the kid of my memo ­ries.     I want you to know me, too, all of me, including my darkest mistakes and my brightest hopes.”

“I want that, too,” Riley said, his voice warm and gentle.

“I want to see if there’s a future for us. I’m so sick of wondering and guessing and fantasizing about you and me-I just want there to be a you and me.”

Unfortunately, one of the book’s major weaknesses is that despite these protestations the actual resolution is quite simple and a bit simplistic.   Despite, for example, the fact that these two have so many mistakes between them, not to mention a son who has his own feelings of betrayal to deal with (which are quite rapidly put to rest), right after this heart to heart talk Kat and Riley have unprotected sex and Riley begs Kat to have another child with him.   In fact, as far as I can tell, all of the sex they have in the book is unprotected, including the night they spend together right after Kat returns to Persuasion and absolutely nothing has been resolved between them (most of it hasn’t even been broached or adequately discussed).   This quality (which has appeared in other Donovan books) undercuts both the intelligence and complexity of the characters, because it becomes difficult to trust the awareness they seem to possess, undermining the distinct pleasures of watching two supposedly smart and self-aware people fall (back) in love.

This weakness is both substantial and a shame, because Kat and Riley are both likeable and interesting characters in their own right.   Kat has been betrayed by her family or origin and the man she trusted first and most, which leaves some real scars on her heart, making her actions at the beginning of the book (her fleeing, at sixteen, out of town by herself instead of under the guidance of her aunt, as her mother had intended) realistic and understandable.   Riley has undergone his own disappointments, his own regret taking a significant toll on him, despite the support of his loving family and close-knit hometown (his brother Matt is a strong secondary character, although the romance between Matt and Nola seems predictable and predictably convenient).

These two characters have real, substantive reasons to be hurt and wary, and there is so much potential in their reconciliation that gets brushed past or pushed out of the picture by the external conflicts manufactured to keep their relationship on the wire.   For example, Carrie, Riley’s ex-fiancée, is somewhat flat as a character, at least until she has to face the reality of her situation late in the book.   Then there is Kat’s stepfather, Virgil, who is a truly unsavory character, a quality that serves some purpose in terms of justifying Kat’s total break with everyone in Persuasion, but also seems needlessly perverse.   In fact, one of the things that has always bothered me in Donovan’s books is that her villains tend to be either gay or sexual predators (or both), and this book offers no break in that disturbing pattern.

The Girl Most Likely To is, on the surface, a pleasing reunion story with many signature Donovan touches, from the goofy dog to the quirky heroine, and its readability is connected largely to the likeability of the characters, the competent prose, and the swift pacing of the narrative.   Yet it is also a book that does not settle as well as it initially goes down, with so much of its amiability masking some substantial problems in character development and conflict resolution.   There is an unveiling at the end of the book that I suspect will cause some disbelief in the way that it so perfectly ties so many elements of the book together, for example, and the incredible eagerness of Kat and Riley to repeat the very same actions that brought them so much pain does not offer remedy but merely undermines their integrity as “older and wiser” versions of their teenage selves.   This characteristic is especially insulting to Kat’s character, because it both undermines her credibility and makes her seem downright desperate.

Although in so many ways The Girl Most Likely To surpasses Donovan’s last book, The Kept Woman, it still gave me a mixed reading experience.   In fact, I really struggled with the grade for this book, because the enjoyment I got from it was almost as strong as the disappointment I felt with its problems, and I wavered between a C+ and a B-.   Ultimately, I think The Girl Most Likely To is more a C+, a true mix of highs and lows, virtues and weaknesses.

~ Janet

This book can be purchased in mass market from Amazon. Because this is a SMP book there is no digital copies.

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!

8 Comments

  1. Nicole
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 15:29:07

    Hmmm….I bought this today along with For the Love of Pete. But we’ll see how I like it.

    ReplyReply

  2. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 16:33:47

    Until, that is, she shows back up in Persuasion to give Riley a much belated dressing down for dumping her and leaving her alone and pregnant. All grown up and newly rich (thanks to Phyllis – her Baltimore savior – leaving Kat her substantial investment earnings), Kat is completely dumbfounded when Riley – who is still as hot as ever – tears into Kat first for running away and keeping his son away from her.

    This is why I don’t–often–read contemps. I’m sooooooooo with Riley on this one (HTF was he supposed to know?). I don’t like women like this, and I don’t want to read about them getting their HEA. Heck, I'm not sure I think they deserve one.

    ReplyReply

  3. Chicklet
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 16:58:02

    These two characters have real, substantive reasons to be hurt and wary, and there is so much potential in their reconciliation that gets brushed past or pushed out of the picture by the external conflicts manufactured to keep their relationship on the wire.

    Oh, I know this would bug the snot out of me if I were to read this book. In this case, it sounds like the emotional conflicts between the hero and heroine would be fascinating if they were fully explored, instead of relying on external elements like the crazy ex. It feels like a cop-out.

    Also, I’m asking yet again if the contemporary subgenre could just stop it with the goofy dog. Please?

    ReplyReply

  4. Robin
    Dec 30, 2008 @ 21:02:12

    Nicole: I’d love to hear what you think of TGMLT when you’re done.
    And I hope my review doesn’t suggest that I hated the book. For me, it was just one of those that felt much better going down than digesting. But OMG it was so much better than the last one, IMO (The Kept Woman). That one actually made me angry.

    Kalen: I really think Donovan validates Riley’s position, although IMO Kat gets off too easy for her deception, especially in depriving her son of a father for so many years. He forgives her way to easily, IMO, and has far too few emotional complications from the deprivation.

    Chicklet: I have found this pattern in all of Donovan’s books, and it confuses me a bit, because if you’re going to acknowledge the difficulty of the problems, then why have them solved so easily? And I struggle trying to decide whether half credit is better than no credit for acknowledging the problem. I have to say, though, that I’m still largely a fan of the goofy dog (although it can even be too much for me, lol).

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  5. Moth
    Dec 31, 2008 @ 05:26:54

    The goofy dog thing is probably a byproduct of Crusie’s massive popularity. Didn’t she kind of start that trend?

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  6. Chicklet
    Dec 31, 2008 @ 09:32:11

    The goofy dog thing is probably a byproduct of Crusie's massive popularity. Didn't she kind of start that trend?

    Janet Evanovich uses a goofy dog in a lot of her early categories that are being re-released as single-title books, too, and I think those date from the late 1980s? I’m nowhere near as well-versed on the history as I should be.

    Regardless, the contemporary author who writes a cat-owning heroine gets an autobuy from me. *g*

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  7. Bev Stephans
    Dec 31, 2008 @ 11:47:24

    My copy should be delivered today. I’ll let you know how I like it. I liked all of Susan Donovan’s other books and I’m hoping that this will be no different.

    ReplyReply

  8. Diane/Anonym2857
    Dec 31, 2008 @ 21:32:51

    I finished it today, and thought it was an okay read. However, I was expecting a great one, so I was disappointed.

    I was, like you, dissatisfied with a lot of it, for a lot of the same reasons.

    I can suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy a book even when the plot insults my intelligence, as long as I am entertained in the process. The oblivious-ness and/or over-the-top-ness of a lot of the characters, as well as the way she wrapped up the story at the end, left me dissatisfied.

    I think what was missing most, for me, was that a lot of the humor wasn’t there to keep me entertained. As a result, much of the hijinx that went into the book (actions of bad guys, resolution of plot, ass-hattery of characters, etc) left me unimpressed and rolling my eyes a lot of the time.

    It was well-written on one level, but not so much on others. It also suffered from a lot of ‘yeah, buts’ afterward. This is a book that loses a lot of its charm when one starts to really think about it afterwards. LOL You’re right… it goes down okay, but doesn’t digest well. (Note to self: remember that very apt description for future use, as it’s a good one.)

    I was really looking forward to this book. It was good enough on some levels, but I expected better. I have to agree with your grade. Damn it. It was an okay read, but not up to Donovan’s earlier caliber. I wonder, if I hadn’t been familiar with her earlier stuff, if I would have been disappointed in this one?

    I don’t remember being dissatisfied with The Kept Woman, tho I can’t say I’ve had any great desire to re-read it, either. I’ll have to do that sometime, just to see. Maybe it had more humor in it? Or maybe it just didn’t push the same buttons for me as it did for you, Robin.

    I don’t want to say it wasn’t a nice diversion for a few hours — it was. It just could have been so much more. I live in hope the next one will be.

    Diane :o)

    ReplyReply

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