REVIEW: Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai
Dear Ms. Rai,
Every year since the decade-old rift between their once close-families opened up, Nicholas Chandler and Livvy Oka-Kane have met in secret on Livvy’s birthday, each time in a different location, to spend one night together. Every year but the last, when Livvy did not text Nicholas the coordinates for their meeting, as she usually does.
Now Livvy has returned to their hometown of Rockville for the first time in a decade, to care for her mom, who has a broken hip. When Nicholas learns that Livvy is back, he goes to the tattoo parlor where she works, to find out her reasons for coming home. As usual, Nicholas and Livvy spark off each other. Anger, heartache and heat have marked all their reunions.
It wasn’t always this way. Once, their families were close. Their grandfathers, Sam Oka and John Chandler, had started the successful store chain C&O together. The Oka-Kane and Chandler fortunes were intertwined, and Livvy and Nicholas were a young golden couple, their lives filled with promise—until the day Livvy’s father, Robert, and Nicholas’s mother, Maria, died in a car crash.
In the aftermath, Brendan Chandler, Nicholas’s dad, blamed Robert for the accident and persuaded Livvy’s mother, Tani, to sell him her half of the company for far less than it was worth. Livvy’s brothers, Jackson and Paul, saw this as theft. When the company’s flagship store, now called Chandler’s, was burned, Livvy’s twin brother Jackson was blamed by the Chandlers.
Despite all the bad blood between their families and their long-ago breakup after the accident, Nicholas and Livvy have never been able to forget or let go of each other. They might have had other, short-lived relationships, but when the time came for their annual reunion, they’d always be single.
Livvy’s presence in Rockville changes things. When they run into each other again, after interference from a family member who wants to keep them apart, they end up in bed together once more. And with every subsequent encounter, each learns more of who the other has become in the years since their separation.
Each is initially convinced the other is bad for him/her, unhealthy. But is it what they feel for each other that is bad for them, or the obstacles that keep them apart? Can their families ever understand and support their desire to be together, or will they only come between Livvy and Nicholas if they learn about their secret relationship?
Hate to Want You is a composite of romance genre elements I have never seen brought together in one book. There’s the passionate push-pull between Nicholas and Livvy and the emotional toll their secret encounters take on them. There’s the sex, which is hot indeed. There’s the progressive sentiment behind a conflict at Chandler’s, Nicholas’s workplace—protestors are taking issue with products made by prisoners for no pay. There’s the family scandal and drama, which reminded me of soap operas and family sagas. Last but absolutely not least, there’s the thoughtful examination of family dynamics and mental illness.
The main characters are both lovely. Livvy has a tough shell, but a soft, very vulnerable interior. As the book progresses more and more layers to that vulnerability are revealed, without diminishing her strength. She has been running away for years, but now she has the opportunity to face all that she ran from, and she emerges as a woman who is learning to ask for what she needs.
Nicholas might not have run away like Livvy, but instead he gave up, sacrificed their relationship, because he didn’t feel there was a choice. He was young when that happened, and now he is older, better able to stand up for himself and for his relationship with Livvy. Unlike her, he has suppressed his emotions and his needs, so when he finally starts to express them to show Livvy he cares, it’s like watching a creaky tin man come to full-blooded life.
The cast of characters is diverse: Livvy is half-Japanese American, half-Hawaiian, as is her twin brother Jackson; mom Tani is Japanese-American (there is a great mention of her late father’s imprisonment in internment camps during World War II), aunt Maile is Hawaiian, and Livvy’s sister-in-law and best friend Sadia is Pakistani-American and Muslim.
Sadia, Jackson and Nicholas’s sister Eve are worthy of their own stories, while Livvy’s aunt Maile and Nicholas’s grandfather John are heroic figures in their own way, but I also really appreciated Tani, for her struggles with depression and the way her full dimensions only gradually emerged over the course of the story.
Livvy has faced a similar struggle, one that we readers get to see her deal with. She counters negative self-talk with affirmations like “I deserve compassion.” I appreciated this aspect of the novel—in my experience it’s rare to see mental illness portrayed not just in terms of how it affects a character, but also in terms of how people with mental illness can use strategies like these to cope with their illness.
I have just a few criticisms. First, the balance between the family saga elements and the psychological exploration is sometimes uneasy, particulaly when it comes to the scheming villain, who felt flat compared to the other characters in this book. I am hopeful that we’ll come to understand him a bit better in upcoming books, though. Second, some of the dialogue contained self-analysis that was too on the nose, especially for those characters who are not, as far as the reader knows, in therapy.
On a more minor note, Tani’s process of healing from her broken hip was glossed over a bit. Also, in one of the sex scenes it’s mentioned that there’s no condom in use, but shortly after the sex is over, Nicholas disposes of that non-existent condom.
Overall, though, there’s much to appreciate and enjoy in this book, from the passion and yearning between Livvy and Nicholas to the way they must learn to navigate not only external obstacles, but also internal ones. Hate to Want You is not only compelling, sexy and romantic, but also different and fresh. B+/A-.