I think of books like this one as the book equivalent of pudding. It’s sweet (the book is a love story, anyway), indulgent, maybe something of a guilty pleasure. It goes down easy – all you have to do is swallow. It will satisfy you, to an extent, but it isn’t exactly a China Cat Sunflower from the Bagel & Deli (veggie cream cheese,smoked cheddar, cucumbers, onion, tomato & Italian on sunflower) – my favorite satisfying (and fairly healthy) treat from the trendy bagel shop in a college town where I lived years ago. Books by Jennifer Weiner don’t stick with you (and neither does pudding). I knew, going into Who Do You Love (Simon & Schuster, 27.00 USD), that I read another book by her several years ago, about the time I went back to work after my first son was born and I was on a “mom fiction” reading kick, but I remembered almost nothing about the book itself, and I had to look up the title: Then Came You. Parts of if have come back to me, but I keep getting elements of it confused with another book I read either before or after it. (I can’t remember the title of that one offhand, either.)
So why, then, did I even bother cracking this one open? I decided to try Peanut Blossom’s Book Club for Recovering Readers because I felt I was a recovering reader at the start of 2016. As soon as I quit my job in April of 2015 and lost my hour-long lunch break, my lifelong reading habit came to a screeching halt. I only finished a handful of books the rest of the year. However, the 2016 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge has helped my slump tremendously already, and it has even inspired me to finish up books I started in 2015 but somehow never completed reading. So, will I participate in the Peanut Blossom online discussions? I’m not sure yet, but I can at least review the book.
I do need to back up and explain that, while this book didn’t particularly impress me, and the story was quite predictable, it was an enjoyable read. I don’t dislike pudding. I just make it a point not to eat it all the time. Give me a China Cat Sunflower every day for a month and I’ll be a happy woman. Pudding, I can usually take or leave; I generally avoid it on the salad bar. Today, however, I stole one of my husband’s Hershey’s pudding cups from the fridge. I also read the last 240 or so pages of this 388-page book. So maybe today I needed a little indulgence. (It was a snow day after President’s Day weekend, and that, combined with my older son’s preschool schedule, meant that both boys were home for the sixth consecutive day. So, yes, I needed a little indulgence this afternoon.)
But anyway, the book. The story is told from the viewpoint of the two primary characters: Rachel (in first person) and Andy (in third person). This setup alone gives the impression that Rachel is narrating the story for both of them, although they spend most of the 30 years the book spans apart. Rachel, a self-described Jewish American Princess from Florida was born with a heart defect and spent a portion of each of her first 12 years in the hospital for surgeries and treatments. On one of her longer hospital stays, she meets a boy named Andy in the ER with a broken arm. She sits with him and tells him the story of Hansel and Gretel (the real, un-Disneyfied one) until a nurse from the floor where she’s been staying for weeks finds her and sends her back to bed. Andy writes her a letter thanking her for the company and the stuffed bear she gave him. She writes back, but her letter is returned. In the real world, that would be the end of it. But, this is a love story, so it’s not.
Andy lives in a rough neighborhood in Philadelphia. His mother is white; his deceased father was black. He lives between two worlds and has a hard time making friends. Andy happened to be at the hospital Rachel was in because he and his mom were in town on a vacation. A repairman who fixes things for his mom (and is old enough to be his grandfather) befriends him eventually, helping him avoid the life of crime that awaits so many poor kids from his neighborhood.
Fate intervenes years later, when Rachel and Andy are teenagers and both happen to be on a service trip in Atlanta with a Habitat for Humanity-like organization called Home Free. He recognizes her, inexplicably – and they have never forgotten each other. Now, instead of an innocent friendship, something more romantic develops. However, the fact that they live so far apart means that they won’t have another opportunity to see each other for two years, when both have graduated from high school and Rachel takes a trip to Europe with her Nana – which Rachel convinces her to book through Philadelphia so she can spend an evening with Andy.
In a present-day setting, the fact that they keep in touch for two years as teenagers would be unremarkable – social media has made this sort of thing effortless. However, Weiner wisely starts their love story in 1985, so their Home Free reunion on 1993 means that the internet has only just started to become a thing – and it’s definitely a thing that Andy wouldn’t have access to, even if Rachel does. By 1995, when Rachel and Nana fly to Europe via Philadelphia, their relationship has been nourished by letters and phone calls exclusively.
Rachel’s parents have made it clear that they disapprove of the match. He’s not Jewish, his family is a far cry from middle class, let alone upper middle class, like Rachel’s, and even though he’s earned a full scholarship to the University of Oregon, it’s an athletic scholarship, and Rachel’s parents only care about academics. When Rachel turns 18, she threatens to go see him by herself with her birthday and bat mitzvah money – but then her father tells her she’ll have to pay her own way through college, too, if she goes without their blessing. Instead, Andy takes advantage of his away track meets to visit her in Virginia whenever his team is running anywhere within driving distance.
Rachel and Andy spend their early adult years as an on-again, off-again couple, until an act of infidelity pushes them more permanently apart. Both move on to successful careers and serious relationships with other people. But, still, they both wonder what could have been.
I can’t say much else without giving away the (somewhat formulaic) ending. This is not a book that I’m likely to remember much about a year from now (or even a month). It’s a quick read, and definitely entertaining – I think it’s actually the epitome of the “beach read.” So, if you’re looking for a fun distraction at the airport or in the doctor’s office (or while watching your kids play in the backyard), this is a good choice. It doesn’t require all of your focus. If you want something that will stay with you for years, this is definitely not it.