REVIEW: You Deserve Each Other by Sarah Hogle
Dear Sarah Hogle,
Months ago, my friend Elyssa Patrick recommended your debut contemporary romance, You Deserve Each Other, to me. I was intrigued by the blurb and the concept, so I requested the ARC from Netgalley. Here is the description that caught my attention:
When your nemesis also happens to be your fiancé, happily ever after becomes a lot more complicated in this wickedly funny, lovers-to-enemies-to-lovers romantic comedy debut.
Naomi Westfield has the perfect fiancé: Nicholas Rose holds doors open for her, remembers her restaurant orders, and comes from the kind of upstanding society family any bride would love to be a part of. They never fight. They’re preparing for their lavish wedding that’s three months away. And she is miserably and utterly sick of him.
Naomi wants out, but there’s a catch: whoever ends the engagement will have to foot the nonrefundable wedding bill. When Naomi discovers that Nicholas, too, has been feigning contentment, the two of them go head-to-head in a battle of pranks, sabotage, and all-out emotional warfare.
But with the countdown looming to the wedding that may or may not come to pass, Naomi finds her resolve slipping. Because now that they have nothing to lose, they’re finally being themselves—and having fun with the last person they expect: each other.
The book has a rough start but that’s absolutely necessary—for Nicholas and Naomi to find their way back to each other they have to start in an awful place. Still, for the first couple of the chapters, Naomi’s character was alienating. Nicholas, a dentist to whom she was engaged, irritated and annoyed her in multiple ways, but canceling their wedding would have cost her an arm and a leg (his parents were paying for the wedding and they would have charged her) so she just put up with it.
Worse, she pretended she was still wholeheartedly in love with him on Instagram and to their friends. In reality she had mentally checked out of their relationship to such a degree that she couldn’t even remember how they met. And she didn’t think that Nicholas could tell the difference.
But when the last straw falls (Nicholas is rude and almost contemptuous to her friends on game night), she starts letting her anger show through, and that allows Nicholas and the reader to engage with the real Naomi, the person she has suppressed for so long.
And when Naomi comes to the conclusion that Nicholas can not only tell the difference between the two Naomis, but has been irritating her on purpose, trying to drive her to cancel the wedding so that he won’t have to (his mother is oppressively fault-finding and demanding), the dynamic shifts. Naomi decides that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander—if Nicholas is trying to drive her to cancel the wedding, then she’ll do the same to him.
At that point the book becomes laugh-out-loud funny. Naomi and Nicholas enter a game of one-upmanship, with hidden emotions bubbling under the surface. The more Nicholas and Naomi try to drive each other away, the more they get under one another’s skin. And when they confront each other with their irritation and their anger, their masks begin to slip.
After Naomi complains that Nicholas never gets her flowers as he does for his mother (he thinks it’s a meaningless gesture but his mother expects it of him), he sends her jasmine enough to smother her and her coworkers, enough to fill the novelty store she where she works—and with no note. One of Naomi’s co-workers convinces her and her other co-workers that these are poisonous oleander flowers, so Naomi and her co-workers burn them in the dumpster.
In retaliation, Nicholas buys a house out in the woodsy nature from Leon, another of Naomi’s co-workers, and lets Leon sublet the apartment he and Naomi share—without discussing any of it with Naomi. Naomi doesn’t have much money and she is about the lose her job (the novelty shop is going out of business) so she’s more-or-less forced to move with him. Nicholas insists the house will save them, but Naomi barely hears him.
Nevertheless, Naomi falls in love with the house, and living out in nature with no distractions causes her and Nicholas to see each other more clearly. Nothing about Nicholas galls Naomi more than his seeming inability to choose her over his mother. His mother has badgered Naomi into a wedding dress she didn’t want, invited guests that neither Nicholas nor Naomi know, and intruded into every part of their wedding. And Nicholas has permitted it.
The less Naomi worries about how their relationship looks to others, the more her exterior and Nicholas’s are stripped away, and what is revealed are two people who still care.
This book ended up being very touching and surprisingly (given the premise) romantic. The author has a fresh voice and the concept is an unusual one. It’s also a story about a relationship in trouble, not always a favorite trope of mine. But it’s pulled off really well.
I have a few caveats. As I said earlier, I had to power through the first two chapters (well, the first three if you don’t count chapter one as a prologue, which is what it basically is). Early on, Naomi comes across as insufferable, and in this part of the book, her POV doesn’t make Nicholas seem attractive either. This changes a lot over the course of the book, but I had to push through this section.
Second, the book is written in Naomi’s viewpoint, in first person present tense. This has become a very common POV choice in contemporaries. At one time, when it was rarer, I loved it for its immediacy—it’s a style that puts us right in the narrator’s head as events are unfolding. For years, I loved this POV choice, and it does serve this novel well. But I’m getting tired of it now; so many books employ it that it’s started to feel worn.
Also, the language in the book is showy. This is a matter of preference, but in recent years I’ve become more appreciative of subtler, less obtrusive prose, and this is not that. The author employs a lot of metaphors and there are many flights of fancy, fantasies of things that could go wrong. For example, here’s a passage in which Naomi thinks about getting out of the car during a rainstorm:
I want to open the door and roll out, but I resist. It’s a monsoon out there and I’ll have copper shimmer streaking down my cheeks. With this visibility, I’ll wander into traffic and get run down. My black-and-white engagement photo will appear in the newspaper, with a notice that in lieu of flowers, my fiancé’s family requests donations be made to their for-profit charity, Rows of Books, which sends dental hygiene texts to underprivileged schools.
This is a distinctive style and it can be exhausting. It took some getting used to.
Lastly, I think this may not be the book for heroine-centric readers. I closed the book liking Naomi well enough, but feeling that Nicholas was close to amazing. I don’t mind that too much; if at least one of the characters is spectacular, chances are high that I will love a book. It doesn’t have to be either the heroine or the hero or both, so for me this book worked really well.
There’s a lot to love here, though. I especially loved the way Nicholas’s character was unearthed layer by layer. He starts out seeming obnoxious and oblivious but it later becomes apparent that he’s nothing but. It’s just that Naomi hasn’t been alert enough to notice who he really is:
Naomi isn’t who the reader thinks at first, either. She shows different facets over the course of the story, from that of a passive, slack, and resentful martyr to that of a fiery woman actively looking for the next prank to pull in order to best her once-lover, now-enemy, and finally to that of someone who is willing to make herself vulnerable and open, even if she’s not sure that it will spare her getting hurt.
This is a novel about the importance of trust and communication, more so than most books. But that is shown rather than told, and it never feels like a PSA.
Rarely has the interfering in-laws trope been used more effectively, too. Nicholas’s mother is overbearing, but in a recognizable way. Nicholas faces an emotional struggle and reacts in ways I haven’t seen men do in romances very often.
I appreciated the ordinariness of both characters as well-—Naomi is a shop assistant, Nicholas is a dentist, and neither of them inherits a fortune. This is the first time I recall reading about a dentist hero.
Class differences are another theme. Naomi feels out of Nicholas’s league and her belief that he sees her work as meaningless is one of the reasons for her initial resentment.
The book is slow burn, with only one sex scene, but I did not mind that at all.
It takes a while for Naomi to find her way back to Nicholas and Nicholas to find his way back to her, but every page of that journey is necessary to who they are becoming and to what their relationship will be.
This is an unusual book and I recommend it. B.