“Was it possible to have a hole inside you, cookie-cuttered into the shape of a person you hadn’t met yet? Because that’s how it felt when I talked to Jack.”
Hold onto your Carhartt beanies friends, Kiss Her Once for Me is a total smoke show of a book.
One year ago, recent Portland transplant Ellie Oliver had her dream job in animation and a Christmas Eve meet-cute with a woman at a bookstore that led her to fall in love over the course of a single night. But after a betrayal the next morning and the loss of her job soon after, she finds herself adrift, alone, and desperate for money.
Finding work at a local coffee shop, she’s just getting through the days—until Andrew, the shop’s landlord, proposes a shocking, drunken plan: a marriage of convenience that will give him his recent inheritance and alleviate Ellie’s financial woes and isolation. They make a plan to spend the holidays together at his family cabin to keep up the ruse. But when Andrew introduces his new fiancée to his sister, Ellie is shocked to discover it’s Jack—the mysterious woman she fell for over the course of one magical Christmas Eve the year before. Now, Ellie must choose between the safety of a fake relationship and the risk of something real.
Alison’s debut novel The Charm Offensive was one of my top reads of 2021 so I was pretty excited for this book. But also nervous. You know when an author has a spectacular debut and you have to wonder if their next book could possibly be as good? That was me. I am happy to say this novel did not disappoint. If anything, it’s even better!
Main character Ellie totally charmed the pants off me. Perpetually timid due to her anxiety disorder and her upbringing with crappy parents, Ellie is so scared of failure. When we meet her, she’s sort of frozen into a humdrum routine of working in a coffee shop and eating frozen microwave burritos for dinner. Her only solace is drawing her anonymous web comic. Heaven help me, I can’t resist a brooding artist character. Not that Ellie is brooding exactly, but she’s stuck. Then she meets Andrew and her whole world gets shaken like a snow globe. I enjoyed watching Ellie grow as a person throughout the book. Alison does a great job of creating a character you want to cheer on.
Then there is Jack. Jack is a butch baker that always smells like fresh bread, has many tattoos and a bit of a chip on her shoulder. Need I say more? Swoon. There is also an amazing cast of secondary characters – Ellie’s best friend Meredith and her other self-proclaimed bestie Ari, really show us the power of friendship. I just loved Jack’s childhood best friend Dylan, the super goth kindergarten teacher. But a real standout for me was Andrew and Jack’s grandmothers Meemaw and Lovey. Lovey is perpetually high and Meemaw steals the scene a number of times as the southern belle who is so sweet and understanding but is sharp as a tack and sees everything.
The concept of family is strong in this book. While Ellie grew up with selfish, awful parents, Andrew and Jack grew up with a warm family (except for their Dad) that spends the holidays together. The family even took in Dylan when they weren’t accepted by their own family when they came out. I loved seeing Ellie, who never had a family like theirs, interact with them and get a little taste of what it is like which helps give her the strength and motivation to recognize her own found family in Meredith and Ari.
Alison once again brings attention to the issue of sexuality and identity and how complicated it can be. I liked that she wrote characters that even in their late twenties or early thirties are still figuring it out. We get some great examples of non-binary, demisexual, lesbian, and bisexual characters along with helpful definitions that she somehow managed to make seamless in the storyline. At no point did it feel like I was being lectured or taught. Not an easy feat! Through her characters and their experiences, we see that identity can be an ever evolving and beautiful thing and that there is no right way or wrong way to be and no prescribed timeline when we need to be it. Once again I felt myself appreciating the wide representation Alison included, same as when I read The Charm Offensive.
Kiss Her Once for Me is a new holiday classic must-read. I look forward to returning to Ellie, Andrew, and Jack year after year.
Thank you, Simon & Schuster for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.