Saturday, May 22, 2010

"Too Good To Be True," by Kristan Higgins

The Chick: Grace Emerson. When her kid sis and her ex start dating, Grace invents a fictional boyfriend to keep the pitying stares at bay while she gets her own love life together.
The Rub: Everything thinks she's dating the perfect guy - including her Hot, Sardonic, and Flesh-and-Blood next door neighbour, Callahan.
Dream Casting: Michaela Watkins.

The Dude:
Callahan O'Shea. Despite the fact that the kooky girl next door hit him, dented his car, and got him thrown in jail - she's still pretty cute.
The Rub: Will she be able to deal with his past as an ex-con?
Dream Casting: Sam Worthington.

The Plot:

Grace: Oh no - my beautiful perfect sister and my ex-fiance are in love! That can mean only one thing - The Old Maid Pity Stare!

Grace's Family (and, apparently, Society in General): *Old Maid Pity Stare*

Grace: But wait! I have a boyfriend! A totally hot, generous, perfect boyfriend!

Callahan O'Shea: Hey, look, I bought the house next door to you --

Grace: *whacks him with a hockey stick* Shut up, you!

Grace's Family: So who is this totally hot, generous, perfect boyfriend?

Grace: Uh, um, well he's totally not at all my totally hot, generous perfect ex-con next door neighbour.

Callahan: Wait, why not?

Grace: Oh. Really?

Callahan: Sure, I like you. But you don't mind I did time in prison?

Grace: Not at all. You don't mind I lied about having a boyfriend?

Callahan: You LIED? VICIOUS DECEIVER! *leaves*

Grace: ...WTF?

Callahan: Okay, I'm sick of this obstacle already. Let's get hitched!

Grace: Hooray!

Romance Convention Checklist
1 Hot Ex-Con

Several Accidental Injuries

1 Nasty Grandma

Several Bad Dates

Several Fake Battles


1 Romantically Lacklustre Rival

Hundreds of Glass Ladyparts

1 Relationship-Aiding Pet

The Word: I have to hand it to Kristan Higgins, whose RITA-Nominated Too Good To Be True is next on my challenge: in theory, the plot could have been ridiculous, contrived, and irritating - but instead, Higgins manages to make them into an entertaining, frothy story. A classic case of sounding silly on paper but proving good on ... um, different paper? That being said, while a good book, it's not great, and there will be a spoiler-warning later on so keep your eyes open.

Yes, Grace Emerson makes up a boyfriend. She tells her friends and family that she's dating a hot, gorgeous pediatric surgeon named Wyatt Dunn and repeatedly fantasizes about what a great, adoring boyfriend he is. No, don't run away just yet! There's a reason! A good reason!

Our heroine Grace, you see, was once engaged to a man named Andrew. However, Andrew broke off their engagement three weeks before the wedding and is now dating her younger, prettier sister Natalie. Hey! I can see your eyes glazing over! It's not what you think! No, the real knife in Grace's heart is that Natalie is a loving, adoring sister, her best friend - and not only that, but Natalie and Andrew actually have the Real Thing. The main problem is guilt - the whole family (Natalie and Andrew included) feels guilty and overprotective and pitying towards Grace and Grace can't convince them that she's totally okay with it.

In part, this is because she's not okay with it, but being regarded with pity as the Abandoned Old Maid isn't helping. Not only that, but she sees the strain it's putting on Natalie and Andrew's relationship, so in comes child-saving "Dr. Wyatt Dunn" to ease her family's concerns and help Natalie and Andrew feel more comfortable. Realistically, Grace knows that she can't keep up the charade forever, so she also throws herself back into the dating pool, with less-than-stellar results.

Grace does get a flesh-and-blood romantic interest in the character of Callahan O'Shea, but really, this book is more chick-lit than romance. First of all, there is no hero POV - everything is told, first-person, by Grace. Also, Callahan doesn't get a whole lot of book time, which is a shame because he's delectable. Third, this story is all about Grace and her relationship adventures, which Callahan factors into but isn't a hero of. Don't get me wrong, this doesn't make the book bad. This is more a matter of recategorizing a novel due to content rather than quality of writing.

The main plot of Too Good To Be True is how Grace manages the fine balance between not settling for less, and not holding out for absolute perfection. Her descriptions of life with Andrew demonstrate that, while she cared about him, a lot of what she enjoyed about their relationship was the stable, settled aspect of it rather than love or passion.

At the same time, her fantasizing about the perfection of "Wyatt Dunn" causes her to overlook the very, very good aspects of Callahan O'Shea. He's hot, he's a capable carpenter, but he does come with a past: he just served nineteen months in federal prison for embezzling. Grace not only writes him off initially because of his past, but she's incredibly, even cruelly, judgmental of him, without considering his present behaviour.

However, I found myself enjoying this book because Grace is such a winsome character. She's silly, and emotionally dependent, and childish, and very flawed, but you understand the thoughts and reasoning behind her actions belong to a fundamentally good person. Higgins also creates a memorable cast of characters - all of whom manage to be "quirky" while at the same time well-rounded. I particularly like how Higgins portrays Grace's family - yes, they're kooky, but not cartoons and not unloving.

Also, I was never bothered by Grace's lie of Wyatt Dunn, not once, for her family situation is a complex and painful one that the bald truth wouldn't have fixed. It's also easier to tolerate knowing the lie isn't just for her own sake, but so that Natalie and Andrew can be happy and explore their relationship without feeling shame over Grace.

This, however, leads me to my main problem with the novel: the ending. **Here Be Spoilers!**

The ending is, to put it bluntly, a blatant cop-out that ruins the complexity and realism of the first half of the book. We get to Andrew and Natalie's wedding - and guess what? Andrew waffles and walks out on her, too! And all so we can get some wa-ha-hacky hijinks of Grace punching Andrew in the face, Grace's parents being more open about their feelings, and Natalie - hell, I have no idea what this was supposed to do about her character.

Honestly, the more I think about this ending, the angrier and more disappointed it makes me. The whole point behind the conflict at the beginning of the book, behind the fact that Andrew dumped Grace for Natalie, was that it was True Love, the "kablammy" as Grace eloquently puts it. Andrew and Natalie just couldn't help it. We even get flashbacks describing Andrew and Natalie's love for each other - as well as the fact that, for a while, they'd suffered in silence apart, unwilling to date each other for fear of wounding Grace.

Part of Grace's real anguish was the fact that she couldn't really, truly be angry at Andrew and Natalie because they so obviously cared for each other. Not to mention part of the book's charm was that there weren't any villains - just obstacles. Andrew wasn't an evil ex - just a flake and a bit of a wimp. Really, Grace was her own worst enemy. I was fully expecting Andrew and Natalie to be happily married - and Grace to be happy with herself because she bagged a hot Scot-Irishman with a criminal record.

That makes Andrew's decision at the end all the more mind-boggling. So it wasn't true love from the start? It wasn't kablammy? Grace really was dumped because she wasn't good enough? What the hell does that mean? I mean SERIOUSLY. What was accomplished by Andrew being a villain? Instead of having a rich and dramatic and original narrative situation, we're back to the old romantic saw of the Scummy Ex Who Is Always Scummy Because the Plot Demands it.

**Here Endeth the Spoilers**

Despite the good this novel has to offer, it isn't perfect. Some may find Grace a little too cloying, or be annoyed by Higgins' unfortunately-evocative depiction of Grace's "adowable" poorly-trained lapdog, or just plain ol' pissed off by Grace's high-handed treatment of Callahan at the start of the novel. Nevertheless, most of the elements of this book (except for the **end**) worked really well for me.


  1. I liked this one too. Higgins has a wonderful "readability" and humour to her writing. IIRC there is more of the hero in this one than in other books - partly this is because it's in first person POV, I think. I've read other books in 1st person which have had a lot more dialogue so I felt I really knew the other person but that doesn't tend to happen in KH novels unfortunately.

  2. Kristin Higgins was quite a delightful surprise for me when I started reading her books. There was one I couldn't finish, Fools Rush In, but other than that one, I've really enjoyed her books - and I think Too Good to be True is my fave.

  3. Vorkosigrrl2:03 PM

    Yeesh. . . that ending sounds very unsatisfying. Not what you're looking for in a romance.

    Think I'll skip it.

  4. I liked this one too! I actually didn't have a problem with him walking out a second time, because I don't see it being in conflict with the idea that at the time their relationship developed, Andrew really did believe he loved the sister. He could have really convoluted commitment issues or attention-seeking behavior or something.

    No, what bothered me more was the sister herself - I couldn't abide the astronomic degree to which others kept bending over backwards to appease her. I also had trouble with the degree of pet dog worship going on. But those were minor issues that didn't ruin my enjoyment of the big picture.

  5. Eek. What is it with this author and sister rivalries? I read an earlier one of hers (I think Fools Rush In, but I can't remember) where the hero is the heroine's ex-brother in law. With a kid. Does that make her Auntie Mom? It's just a bit too squicky for me.