REVIEW: Waiting On You by Kristan Higgins
I read and reviewed your 2010 book, The Next Best Thing, last year and liked it quite well; when I came across Waiting on You I decided to pick it up (it’s the third in a series but I’ve become less concerned with such things lately; unless there’s an overarching plot that needs to be read chronologically, I really don’t care that much about reading in order).
Waiting on You is a second chance at love/reunited lovers story, which is…kind of really not my favorite theme, honestly. A lot of times such stories strike me as too bittersweet; the h/h have lost valuable years together, after all. It’s a little more palatable in stories like this, where very young lovers reunite a decade later; after all, there’s something to be said for each of them getting some life experience before they settle down. That ended up being a bit of an issue in this book, though, in that I felt like only one of the characters really did much living in the 10 years they were apart.
At 31, Colleen O’Rourke has a pretty good life – she has the bar she runs with her twin brother, Connor, in Mannisport, NY, the small tourist town where she grew up. She has friends, many of whom she’s known pretty much all of her life. She’s confident, attractive, and she has a great dog, an Irish wolfhound named Rufus.
What Colleen doesn’t have is love. She’s great at fixing up others; as the book opens O’Rourke’s (the bar) is celebrating the engagement of two locals, an engagement Colleen helped bring about. But Colleen, though she’s had a few flings over the years, hasn’t been able to quite get over The One That Got Away, Lucas Campbell.
Lucas came to Mannisport to finish his senior year in high school. He lost his mother when he was six to ALS, and his father to prison as a teen (his father apparently dealt meth as a way to get out from under crushing debt caused by his wife’s medical bills; he didn’t want to lose their house). After his dad went away, Lucas was sent to live with his uncle Joe, his wicked witch aunt Didi, and his worshipful cousin Bryce. The family moved to Mannisport just as Lucas was getting ready to graduate and move onto the University of Chicago. But in Mannisport Lucas met Colleen, a meeting that changed both of their lives.
Colleen was the most popular girl in the senior class, but she didn’t date because she just didn’t feel a spark with any of the guys she went to school with. Lucas was fresh meat for the small senior class at their high school – handsome and slightly exotic (he’s half Puerto-Rican, which I guess qualifies as “ethnic” in Mannisport). He held himself aloof from his classmates, though, while secretly admiring Colleen from afar. Colleen was very attracted to Lucas, too, but she was so used to playing it cool and being the pursued rather than the pursuer that she didn’t seem to know what to do with her attraction. Things came to a head on the night of the prom, when Lucas rescued Colleen from a bad situation (specifically, from a possible impending rape, which I kind of wish the book hadn’t brought up just to drop like it was no big deal). From then on, they’re a couple.
Lucas and Colleen are actually together for four years, until secrets, bad decisions and excessive pride conspire to part them. He ends up marrying a university classmate and moving up in the world, finding success in his father-in-law’s company as a project manager for large construction in Chicago. Colleen stays in Mannisport, gets a nursing degree, and opens O’Rourke’s with Connor. They haven’t seen each other for 10 years when Lucas returns to Mannisport at the request of his dying uncle Joe. Joe wants Lucas to stay in town until he passes; specifically, he wants Lucas to be there for Bryce, who is thirtysomething but has the emotional maturity of an adolescent and absolutely no ambition or drive to ever get out from under his mother’s thumb. Sparks fly and tempers flare from the moment Colleen and Lucas see each other again.
I wanted to like this book better than I did – on paper, there was a lot to like: an unusually confident, self-possessed heroine and relationships and characterizations that felt more nuanced and complex than those found in the average romance. But the story almost seemed to have a split personality – it veered between slapstick humor with broad characterizations and more subtle, intelligent depictions of the characters and their relationships.
For instance: Colleen’s parents divorced when her father got his mistress pregnant; Colleen and Connor now have a 9-year-old half-sister named Savannah whom they love. While Connor could never forgive his father, Colleen has a far more complicated relationship with him – always a daddy’s girl and temperamentally much closer to her father than to her mother, Colleen was devastated by his betrayal of her mother and their family. But she came to realize that if she made her dad choose between her and Gail (the mistress, another paint-by-numbers villainess until near the end of the book), she’d lose. I really liked how real this felt: Colleen is a grown woman and a fairly well-adjusted one but she isn’t able to let go of her need for her father’s affection and approval.
Which is why it’s disappointing that some of the other characterizations are *so* broad. Aunt Didi is a paper-thin, nasty stereotype – the overbearing mother/emasculating wife who treats Lucas like dirt for no apparent reason. Colleen’s father’s wife Gail is the oversexed trophy wife who doesn’t even seem to love her own daughter very much – she’s instead disappointed that Savannah isn’t a girly mini-Gail (a role Gail cluelessly tries to force Savannah into, so we can see Colleen fight for her sister’s right to be a tomboy). It’s only near the end of the story that Colleen sees Gail in another light, and while I appreciated that Colleen was able to recognize some truths about her father and about Gail and her treatment of Savannah, it came so late and after so much demonizing that the epiphany just about gave me whiplash.
Lucas’ cousin Bryce is portrayed as a mentally challenged man-child. I mean, he’s not actually supposed to suffer from any sort of disability, but his lack of emotional intelligence, maturity, ability to read social cues and ambition to do anything other than live in his mother’s basement for the rest of his life is played way over the top.
I don’t really go for broad and slapsticky in my romances in general; it’s almost more irritating when the ridiculous moments are mixed with sublime ones, like when Colleen’s mother Jeanette admits that her behavior is ridiculous and pathetic (she openly pines after the husband that betrayed her, after 10 years apart), but that she just hasn’t ever been able to get over Colleen’s father and still loves him, even though he’s not worthy of it. I would have liked this book so much better if there were more of these moments and fewer (many fewer) of the characters acting in such unrealistic, buffoonish ways.
Actually, when I think about it, it’s mostly the women who are played for laughs: Colleen, her mother, Gail, Didi, Colleen’s friend Paulie. Bryce is about the only male who acts in a broadly comedic, unrealistic way (well, there’s Jeanette’s suitor Stan, but he’s barely a blip in the story). The men for the most part play it straight: certainly Lucas, who’s never made to look foolish or not in control, Colleen’s brother Connor, her father (in spite of the fact that he’s clearly an asshole who does *sort of* get his comeuppance at the end). Even Joe, who granted deserves some sympathy because he’s dying, gets what felt to me like an unreasonably good edit – he’s depicted as the evil Didi’s innocent victim, rather than a grown-ass man who chose to stay with a nasty woman who mistreated his nephew and emotionally stunted their son.
(I think it’s interesting to contrast Jeanette and Joe: both hung onto – or tried to – partners who were unworthy of them. Joe is blameless and lovable; Jeannette is pathetic and bitter for most of the book. She’s not an unlikable character – though Colleen finds her understandably exasperating – but she’s at best pitiable and rather silly.)
As for the reunited lovers angle – I felt like Lucas had had a more complete life, somehow, than Colleen. I mean, both were sort of biding time with their lives in the decade they were apart, but…the book is called “Waiting on You”, and that’s how it felt to me – like Colleen was just waiting for Lucas to come back and sweep her off of her feet again. I really hate that in a heroine. There’s a sort of interesting conflict that pops up near the end that I had mixed feelings about:
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
In general, I just didn’t like Colleen that much. I found her irritating. I didn’t like that her favorite Austen heroine was Emma (yuck). I didn’t like the way her favorite curse word was “sphincter” (I think this was supposed to be cute but it really, really wasn’t). I got annoyed with her calling Lucas “Spaniard” and comparing him to Heathcliff or a pirate or whatever damn immature girlish fantasy hero she could think of. I didn’t think it was cute when she decided to cook him dinner in spite of the fact that she apparently couldn’t cook and managed to ruin the whole thing in a supposedly adorable, bumbling way. Geez, I don’t even cook (or eat) seafood, and I know you don’t cook scallops two hours ahead of time (or wander out onto the balcony with a glass of wine while they’re cooking). Part of the problem was that I felt like she went from being a somewhat fully-formed character to a parody of a girlish ditz. But even that doesn’t quite explain why by the end of the book I felt such antipathy towards Colleen. I just know that I really didn’t like her.
Lucas was a lot simpler – he was sort of a collection of characteristics: tragic childhood, nice guy but a little emotionally closed off, good at everything, very hot. That was pretty much it with Lucas. He was essentially perfect, especially when contrasted, as he frequently was, with his equally hot but dumb and shiftless cousin Bryce. Lucas bored me.
In summary, Waiting on You started out with a lot of potential and had surprising moments of nuance and depth of feeling. Unfortunately, those moments only glancingly touched the main characters, who were annoying (Colleen) and dull (Lucas). As a result, my grade kept dropping the longer I read. My final grade for Waiting on You is a C-.