A May-December romance that actually tries to meaningfully deal with an age difference without ignoring the reality that people are not only more than their age, they are *mostly* other stuff.
Plot: Allie’s parents are about to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary, and she’s planning the party. Only mom has fucked off, again, and they have no idea when or if she’s coming back. So Allie hacks into her mom’s bank accounts (yes, using a password to access an account without permission is still hacking), figures out that she’s in New York, and decides to hunt the woman down and force her to come home. Her only clue is a meeting scheduled at a bar where her mom is meeting some guy, so she shows up and spies on them. The bar isn’t very large though and her disguise of a trench coat isn’t exactly the most subtle, so she maneuvers a random man into sitting with her to hide behind him and avoid detection. This guy turns out to be Winston, a British expat here to reconnect with his daughter and financial manager to some guy. Within a day, Winston is heavily invested in Allie’s scheme, and angsty shenanigans ensue.
As with any Knox novel, there is a lot to love here. Characters are well drawn out and pop right off the page. Secondary characters are treated with the same love and attention that our protagonists get, no doubt setting them up for their own books down the line. There is a secondary character that uses a wheelchair and gets to have a personality and involvement in the story that is totally separate from her disability without ignoring the ways in which people may treat her differently and the ways in which the world isn’t always set up for people with her needs (although it would have been cool if her wheelchair wasn’t mentioned every single time she was in a scene). There’s a great scene where one of our protagonists says something kind of racist and is called on it. She apologizes, thanks the person who called her out, commits to doing better, and asks for the person to continue to hold her accountable. All in 3-4 lines of dialogue and they go on to become great friends. A great example of how not to succumb to white fragility in the face of internalized racism and without missing a beat in the story.
Whether the novel will work for you though will depend on how much you buy the emotional core of the book. Broadly, the novel deals with the idea most succinctly said by the incomparable Terry Crews: “It’s impossible to love someone and control them at the same time.” What a mensch. Every character, whether it’s Winston, Allie, Winston’s daughter, Allie’s parents, they are all struggling with this idea that they love someone, and that someone is or has been doing something that makes them scared or angry or resentful, and the conflict between love giving you the power to control their behaviour, because they love you, and the vital importance of not robbing the people you love of their agency. This is a really, really hard concept to tackle, and in many ways I think Knox does an excellent job of teasing out, in a compassionate way, the instincts that drive us to try and control the people we love and offer competing instincts to protect us from the harm of acting on this desire. That said, you also have characters that supposedly learn this only to continue on interfering despite being explicitly told to butt out. But because this is after the big scene where they were supposed to learn to do better, this time it’s actually fine. This was very frustrating for me.
Another way in which the characterization fails for me is the mystery of Allie’s mom’s disappearances over many years with no explanation. There is a lot of information that we are given through the book that has driven Allie’s anxiety over many years, including pretty shocking news she was left to digest on her own at a young age. On top of that, the other things we learn about her mother is that she was psychologically abusive towards Allie’s sister (aggressive fat shaming being a key driver). This character is presented, with no evidence to the contrary, to be a toxic parent and partner, and the dad as a passive enabler of that abuse. Yet this is never addressed. When we reach the final act, these issues are swept under the rug with Allie effectively being told all that anxiety was in her head. I won’t spoil it for folks who want to read it, but mom wasn’t exactly in the CIA, so there was no reason to vanish without notice or a sense of when she’d be back or a simple text reply “I’m fine and I’ll be back soon.” Especially doing that to little kids. That’s some heartless shit.
So as much as I wanted to like it, the emotional core of the book just did not work for me at all, but I have no doubt at all it will work for others, and I hope this review will help you decide which camp you might fall in.
At the end of the day, if you take away anything from this review, it’s this – absolutely never, under any circumstances, should you flush a condom down the toilet. It is an ecological disaster. Put it in the garbage. Goddamn, Winston, get your act together.