(Disclaimer: Amy Jo Cousins and I are friendly on Twitter. If I didn’t think I could be objective about her book, I wouldn’t review it.)
Dear Amy Jo Cousins,
I reviewed the first book in your Bend or Break series, Off Campus, here a little while ago. A secondary character in it jumped off the page to me. I liked Cash so much he kind of stole the book. I was so happy to read Cash’s book and get even more of him. (*throws streamers*)
In Off Campus, Stephany Tyler and Cash Carmichael were, respectively, the best friends of protagonists, Reese and Tom. Cash and Steph had a bit of a tussle over who was the more protective friend and their banter was snappy and full of sexual tension. Most of their interactions from Off Campus are available free on the author’s website for those readers who have not or do not intend to read the first book, but this one works pretty well as a stand alone anyway. (There is also another book in the series, Nothing Like Paris, but I gather it is largely unconnected to the other novels.)
The Girl Next Door takes up a couple of years after Off Campus. Though Cash comes from a wealthy Boston family, he has ditched the trappings of wealth and is working for a not-for-profit “work for play” association in Chicago (the kids play soccer but only get to play the weekly game if they behave in class). He is supporting himself on his low wage and generally feels good about his merit based achievement. Cash is absolutely a people person and coaching elementary school kids in soccer is right up his alley.
In college back in Boston, Steph was one of the people who pricked at him to live “an authentic life”; not to rely on his family’s money and not to coast doing work that had no meaning for him. It was one of the many “arguments” they had. Cash comes across as a lovable, affable, doofus in many ways. In college and from the outside, he appeared to not take anything seriously and he played on that, often to get a rise out of Steph.
Steph comes from a working class background. She was raised by a single mother after her dad bailed very early. She is a bisexual feminist and enjoyed “educating” Cash about various aspects of these two topics. She doesn’t hesitate to call him on any bullshit and I loved that about her.
I still look damn good naked. He flexed his chest muscles unobtrusively, popping his pecs. Going to a gym was out of his budget these days, but he’d picked up a set of those colorful weights that looked as if they were dipped in liquid plastic and gathered dust like a motherfucker when he went too long without using them. Which seemed like most of the time now that he was wishing his chest were broader.
“Are you flexing your pecs at me?”
He was a truthful guy, but, dude…
“No way.” He duplicated the movement, tried to figure out what else could have caused him to twitch like that. “Stomach cramp.”
In one aspect at least, Cash reminds me a bit of me. He often doesn’t get things (feminism, privilege, etc) and has to be told. However, once something has been explained to him, it sticks. He thinks of himself as stupid (a trait we do not share btw) (also, he isn’t stupid at all) but he is always trying to be better, do better. At heart, Cash is kind. This is so unbelievably attractive to me. He’s charming and sexy, yes, but he’s genuinely caring and kind. It means something to him that friends rely on him. He is endlessly loyal and generous with his time and his things and so open to being wrong about something – I just find that tremendously endearing. He’s not convinced he knows everything about everything. The opposite in fact.
He can come across like a big kid in a Chris-Pratt-in-Parks-and-Recreation kind of way but without being a jerk. His absolute delight in shopping on Craigslist made me smile and his and Steph’s trip to Ikea cracked me up.
Twenty minutes into their stroll around the endless displays of mocked-up living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens, they’d fallen into a clear pattern of Cash pleading for permission to buy things Steph scolded him out of.
“Put that back.”
“Those are tea light candles.”
“Yeah! One hundred of them for five bucks. Isn’t it awesome?”
“Have you ever used a tea light candle before in your life?”
“No, but that’s because I didn’t have these awesome lanterns.”
(I would so do this as well Cash.)
The book succeeded mostly because of Cash. He is funny and interesting and just so damn nice that it was a pleasure to be in his head for a couple hundred pages (the story is told entirely from his third person POV). During his time in Chicago he has learned about being poor and about poverty and how they are different and he’s learned a little about his white privilege and various other things. He’s taking all this in like a gorgeous sponge. There were parts of the story which I felt were too didactic, almost explaining to the reader about these things rather than Cash reflecting on what he’d learned. However, it didn’t go too far over the line to me, mainly because I liked Cash so much. It certainly fit his character that he would need to learn about such things and that he would be interested in doing so. There were just sometimes it felt heavy handed.
Steph is great too. She’s now working in Chicago for a non-profit organisation helping LGBTQI seniors. She relocated from Boston after getting in touch with her dad. She thought being in the same city would make it easier for them to pursue a relationship. (Progress in that regard has been very very slow however and Cash has his doubts about Steph’s father’s sincerity.) Cash and Steph had hooked up regularly from the end of their junior year in college but their arrangement ended when Steph started seeing Amira, a woman she wanted to be exclusive with. Cash didn’t realise it at the time jsut what they had together. Because no-one compares to Steph. She’s always sexy and intriguing to him and he is constantly fascinated and awed by her. She’s also really really good at sex and has introduced him to many things he never thought he would go for. He’s now a card-carrying member of the prostate orgasm club (he doesn’t really carry a card; I made that up) and loves it when Steph plays with (and in) his ass.
He’s confident in his masculinity and he’s not at all threatened by trying new things sexually. Also, he gets off on giving pleasure and he has no problem at all with a girl saying no to him. He doesn’t expect anything and as a result he tends to get lucky more often than not. But, since he and Steph broke things off, he has realised that the person he truly wants to be with is Steph and not just because of the sex.
God, he loved Steph. Most girls he’d met wouldn’t admit they’d ever farted in their lives, under death threats even. He thought they must get home to their own bedrooms and just fart for hours with all the pent up gas.
When his cousin from Boston turns up on his doorstep, having run away from home after coming out as gay to his parents (who thought it was just a phase and basically ignored it), Cash is a little overwhelmed. He wants to help but doesn’t know how. He turns to his buddies Tom and Reese back in Boston and they suggest he get in touch with Steph until one or both of them can come to Chicago to give cousin Denny some advice and help.
Denny is more than a plot point or a device to get Steph and Cash together again – although he does also play the catalyst which brings Steph and Cash back into each other’s orbit. Denny is coming to grips with his sexuality and trying to learn how to go on. The love and support he receives from Cash and Cash’s friends is an important part of the book.
When Cash first meets up with Steph again, she tells him she is single. Amira comes from a strict Muslim family and she decided to stay in the closet and keep her family rather than come out and lose them. Steph is tough and feisty but on the inside she is deeply vulnerable, particularly to feelings of abandonment. Her father bailed, Amira bailed. She feels this happens to her a lot. Cash is a balm to her soul but she wants to be careful not to expect too much of him – so they start up a casual friends-with-benefits thing again. What is different this time is that Cash knows how special their connection is and he wants to make it official. Every time he tries however, she shuts him down. To be fair, she may not know he is trying because a lot of this is in his head.
While both main characters are out of college, I still feel this book fits within the new adult category because both of them (particularly Cash) are still navigating adulthood and working out what they want to do with their lives.
The book is steamy – you write good sex Ms. Cousins! Steph’s and Cash’s sexual connection is vibrant and sparkling and their intimacy is all the more erotic because of it. There is a threesome scene in the book which was Oh. My. God. HOT and I just loved it.
The end is somewhat abrupt but I’m told that Steph and Cash will bob up in Denny’s (forthcoming) book and I’m happy to report that Varun is getting a book too so I expect readers will also see Cash and Steph (and probably Tom and Reese) there too.
I think sometimes the book tried too hard to be inclusive and liberal, as I mentioned above, it does occasionally delve into the preachy and/or over-earnest. If I hadn’t liked Cash so much I think I may have found the lack of any POV from Steph more noticeable. (In Off Campus, I felt that I didn’t know Reese well enough because the book was all told from Tom’s POV.) However, Cash is such an endearing character, I really can’t complain about only being in his head the entire book.
Some of the transitions from one scene/chapter to another were a little jarring for me. This might say more about me as a reader though. I’m not a fan of ambiguity; when a chapter finishes in mid-conversation and then the story takes up days later, I find it a little frustrating. I could see they why of leaving it there and moving on from a narrative tension perspective, even though sometimes I felt I was missing part of the story.
Ultimately, I think the book stands or falls on how Cash works for the reader. For me, Cash is a guy I’d be happy to spend time with any place, any day so it was definitely a win for me and it’s why I recommend. Plus, it’s seriously hot. (I also would like to say you were totally blessed by the cover gods for this book. I would consider giving up chocolate for the model’s hair.)
(Well, maybe not chocolate…)