by Katherine Center
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication Date: July 14, 2020
I received an advance review copy of this book from NetGalley. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.My rating:
From Katherine Center, the New York Times bestselling author of How to Walk Away comes a stunning new novel full of heart and hope.
Samantha Casey loves everything about her job as an elementary school librarian on the sunny, historic island of Galveston, Texas—the goofy kids, the stately Victorian building, the butterfly garden. But when the school suddenly loses its beloved principal, it turns out his replacement will be none other than Duncan Carpenter—a former, unrequited crush of Sam’s from many years before.
When Duncan shows up as her new boss, though, he’s nothing like the sweet teacher she once swooned over. He’s become stiff, and humorless, and obsessed with school safety. Now, with Duncan determined to destroy everything Sam loves about her school in the name of security—and turn it into nothing short of a prison—Sam has to stand up for everyone she cares about before the school that’s become her home is gone for good.
Content warnings: View Spoiler »Death of a father figure (on-page), death of a parent (in the past, off page), grief, description of grand mal seizures, graphic description of a school shooting and injuries from it, PTSD, car accident caused by seizure, panic attacks, missing child (found safely), animal in danger, ableism, careless actions by main character that nearly result in her own serious injury « Hide Spoiler
I am absolute trash for the grumpy/sunshine trope so of course I was very excited to read about the clash between a joyful librarian and a stuffed shirt principal. Unfortunately, this one didn’t quite hit the mark for me. There are things that I find acceptable in a completely made-up context (fantasy, scifi, paranormal) that I’m more likely to bounce off of in a contemporary or historical, and this has them in spades. There are so many boundary issues that I spent a good part of the book cringing. I finally realized that between the utopia of an elementary school with a gorgeous library and fun child-centered curriculum and the idyllically perfect Galveston Island community, this was essentially occurring in some sort of alternate reality, and after that I began to enjoy the book more.
“He had a big, friendly smile filled with big, friendly teeth. He was handsome without trying. He had a magnetic quality that was almost physical. If he was in a room with other humans in it for any amount of time, there’d be a group of them gathered around him by the end. He emitted some kind of sunshine that we all wanted to soak up.”
I really wanted to like Sam, and I respected her zeal for seizing joy and her courage in standing up for the school she loved. But she also had a tendency towards boundary crashing and just utterly random TSTL actions (she jumps off a pier at one point. Yes, really). She reminds me of one of those wacky Hallmark movie heroines, especially when it comes to meeting the new principal, Duncan. Sam had a humongous crush on him when they worked together at a school in California, and it was so bad she actually moved to another school to get away from him (?!?!) when she thought he was getting married. He was charming, charismatic, and generally excelled at being goofy and getting the kids and everyone else around him to participate in his wacky antics. Even moving away, she half-wished she could run into him again to show him that she was no longer the mousey drab person she used to be. Unfortunately, Duncan is now some three-piece suit stiff who seems determined to run the school into the ground.
Sam has had epilepsy since she was a kid, and her frequent attacks led her to being ostracized at school and her father abandoning her family. Even after she went into remission, she preferred to stay in the background. But after a reoccurrence as an adult that left her questioning her worth, Max, the founder and principal of the school, advised her to find joy in the little things, whether it’s wearing a silly hat or dying her bangs pink. She finds a lot of that joy in her job as a librarian at the school, so Duncan’s attempts to secure the school – like painting over the meticulously hand-painted murals for safety reasons – is not just an attack on the school but also an attack on her.
“What is this called? Is this extortion?” He thought about it. “Bribery? Blackmail?”
“I think they call this ‘the kindness of strangers.’”
“Doesn’t feel all that kind.”
It’s patently obvious to the reader why Duncan is so security focused, but Sam and the rest of the characters don’t find out until halfway through the book, and that’s due to some particularly egregious boundary crashing. For reasons that only make sense in a romcom, Sam ends up picking Duncan up after surgery and while he’s high as a kite on an amnesiac drug, not only does a nurse reveal that Duncan likes her, she also discovers that he was a victim of a school shooting. She even ends up kissing him, which, to her credit, she immediately regrets. That doesn’t stop her from deciding to save the school by “fixing” him. Through another convoluted chain of events, Sam and her friends end up blackmailing Duncan into doing a joyful thing every day, from juggling at lunchtime to eating an ice cream sundae to getting therapy for his obvious PTSD. I actually found the descriptions of these acts – most of which ended up being “dates” for Sam and Duncan – sweetly endearing, but unfortunately it was just a small part of the latter half of the book.
In one of the big head-scratchers for me, Sam’s militant that Duncan needs therapy but doesn’t seem to think she needs anything other than Max’s “seek joy” wisdom. The way she feels about her epilepsy – and her father’s abandonment – felt particularly toxic to me, and I didn’t feel like there was any pushback in the book about how unhealthy it was. It’s mentioned more than once that since her epilepsy reoccured, she refused to date because she thought she was now unloveable. This briefly comes up as part of the dark moment but then is seemingly hand-waved away. I also didn’t care much for the rivalry between Sam and Tina, Max and Babette’s actual daughter, who’s the wife of the bad guy board director and the mother of the precious oceanographer plot moppet. Sam sees herself as practically an adopted daughter of those two – she even lives in an apartment on their property – but it’s just another symptom of her family issues around her illness. And despite the fact that a good deal of the plot revolved around the aftermath of a school shooting, I never really felt like the severity of the topic was truly addressed. Sure, they agree some changes need to be made at the school but…. that’s it? It’s a complicated topic, and not one that some juggling or dance lessons is going to solve.
“It’s a choice,” I went on, feeling like I needed to make him see. “A choice to value the good things that matter. A choice to rise above everything that could pull you down. A choice to look misery right in the eyes . . . and then give it the finger.”
“So it’s a hostile kind of joy.”
He was mocking me. “Sometimes,” I said defiantly.
“Is that a real thing though?”
“It’s a deliberate kind of joy. It’s a conscious kind of joy. It’s joy on purpose.”
A lot of this review has been about what I didn’t like in the book, but I did generally enjoy the book. My criticisms basically all stem from it being a little too over-the-top and Hallmark-y, but I can easily see why someone would love this book. I loved the message about choosing joy – that joy isn’t necessarily one big thing but a collection of tiny things. It resonated with me and I thought Sam did an amazing job expressing it.
Overall, the book didn’t work for me, but I think if you’re someone looking for a sweet romcom who doesn’t mind ridiculous hijinx, this might just be for you!