Disclaimer: I picked up this title based upon an NPR Books discussion, and upon seeing the cover, really had no idea what I was getting myself into, as evidenced by the fact that I offered it up to my MIL’s book club, which includes her sisters and 82-year old, very Catholic mother. Heavens to Betsy. There are very few beaches in this book, that’s what I’m telling you.
January Andrews, authoress and former girlfriend to a handsome doctor, is broke. At the funeral of her recently (and unexpectedly) deceased and beloved father, January meets his longtime mistress, with whom he shared a home in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. Kicked out of her NYC apartment by Dr. SuperHot, January is forced to drive to Michigan and start the process of ridding herself of the lovenest left to her by her dad, while trying to write her next novel with an impending deadline. The problem is her belief in true love, meet-cutes, and happy endings (not that kind) have been completely destroyed by her father’s infidelity and her boyfriend’s inability to support her when life got hard.
Enter the antagonist, Augustus “Gus” Everett, a brilliant and best-selling author, who happens to be her greatest literary critic from the college years, as well as the object of early adulthood desire, and now surly neighbor in the UP. Gus also happens to be experiencing writers’ block, and in an act of sheer hubris, the two decide to place a wager: Gus will attempt to write a romantic comedy with a happy ending, while January will write the next great American novel featuring dark and serious tones to be gobbled up by literary critics. The loser will commit to promote the winner’s book with enthusiasm and will provide a pull-quote for the book’s cover. As part of the bet, each writer will teach the other about their genre and research methods via a weekly date. January takes Gus to romantic and frothy locations featured in romance novels, and Gus takes January to sit in on interviews with survivors of a death cult.
The challenge and latent sexual tension from the college years invigorates both of them, and the progress they make on their new books respectively is astonishing. The two become invested, not only in their novels, but in each other as friends, and then potentially something more. Both January and Gus have deep scars from their lives, which they are slow to reveal to one another, but which allow the characters to grow and enriches the storylines.
I have to admit to a bias here: the college which is frequently referenced is my own alma mater, and my son is named August (we call him Gus) after a professor I had during those years. Perhaps that increased my love of this book, because who doesn’t cherish their college memories, especially those of a first crush?
I can’t remember the last time a book made me laugh out loud while listening to it (the audiobook is very well done), and the repartee between January and Gus is truly funny, heartwarming, shattering (on occasion) and more lived-in than other books I’ve read. It all felt organic and real, which made the blossoming friendship resonate more with me. The physical attraction also builds over time, and I cannot wait to see what my GMIL’s reaction will be to some of the sassier (and truly, they are sassy) passages. The hard work is done emotionally here by the author, and so the friendship and romance felt earned and honestly gained. There are no real shortcuts here, and the both have a lot of scars to unearth and heal, but as Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”