Source: Review copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
TW: Fat-shaming and fat-hatred.
transphobia, slut-shaming and casual racism. So think of this opening paragraph as a disclosure of bias and know that my subjectivity has been compromised.
In Your Dreams is about a desperate single lady, desperately seeking some desperate man who will be her plus-one at her ex’s wedding. As you can see, it’s a very desperate situation, after all, the only thing worse than going to a wedding alone, is if said wedding is that of your ex. Now, these books are very into single ladies who need a man to validate their lives, so the fact that this one repeats the pattern isn't a surprise, and although it’s a great source of perfectly valid criticism, it hasn't stopped me from reading all the books, which is why I’m moving on to my next complaint, also known as the moment the story sucker-punched me.
The heroine, Emmaline, used to have a stutter. When she was in school in Malibu, the Land of the Shallows, she was incredibly self-conscious about it, until a fat kid named Kevin arrived and they bonded over their "imperfections". They became friends and then fell in love. When they left for college, she eventually lost the stutter, but he only gained more weight:
“Everything okay?” she asked.
After a long minute, he said, “You don’t stutter anymore.”
She didn’t answer, not wanting to jinx it.
“It’s a little weird,” he said. “I don’t know. We both had a…thing…when we first met. And now yours is gone.”
“Well. You never know.” She paused, feeling almost guilty. “I feel it there. Like it’s lurking, waiting to come back.”
He sighed. “Well. It’s good, I guess.”
It would’ve been nice, she thought later as she walked through the bitter wind to her dorm, if he’d been thrilled. After all, few knew better than Kevin how the stutter had paralyzed her, marked her, locked her in an invisible prison.
But she understood. He was afraid.
Kevin, you see, hadn’t lost the thing that had made him an outcast. He was still fat. He was, in fact, obese. When she’d met him, he was perhaps thirty pounds overweight. He’d gained possibly fifty more pounds at Choate.
The weight kept on coming in college.
Though he never told her what he weighed, she guessed he was at least a hundred pounds above where he should be.
He kept gaining weight to the point where he “had to buy an extra seat on the plane. His face was fiery with embarrassment, but the thing was, he really did take up two seats.”
And throughout all this, she was supportive and loving.
When he suggested they joined a gym she did, even though “Kevin went once. Em went five times, then stopped, worried that it wasn’t helping. Besides, she ran five miles a few times a week, even in the winter.” Things kept going relatively well for them, and when he went down on one knee and proposed, she said yes, and was even happy to remember how, when she “had to give him a hand getting up”, she covered and hugged him so neither they nor the people in the restaurant would be too embarrassed by the fat man.
But Em still worried about how unhealthy he was, so she joined another gym, where she met a trainer that used humiliation as motivation. She thought the trainer was awful, and convinced Kevin to join her at the gym so he could witness this woman’s methods, but he ended up training with her and losing the weight. Em, in turn, started eating more, and Kevin, who at that point was obsessed with diets, started fucking the trainer and resenting Em even more. Needless to say they broke up.
The way Kevin was written made me feel sick. He’s all the negative stereotypes combined: the happy, self-deprecating fat man, who not-so-secretly hates himself, yet won’t do anything about it, but the moment he does something, he becomes a horrible person. He’s made of self-loathing and shame, even though he has a loving partner who sacrifices everything for him. And even after losing the weight, he’s still resentful and bitter.
Kevin’s story goes on and on for what felt like endless pages, and since half the book takes place during his wedding to the trainer, we don’t even get a reprieve after Em stops filling us in on her traumatic background. Because it's her past and her story. Not only is he a terrible shell of a character, he’s never upgraded from plot device, not even to villain, because that role is for his new fiance.
The previous books in the series had problematic elements in the form of one-liners and minor characters who had background roles in small scenes. There was also that clumsy attempt at diversity and inclusion, but that was just an excuse to have a hero who looked like an exotic gypsy pirate. So when I picked up this novel, I was braced for something unpleasant to happen. But I sure wasn’t expecting a character that was so firmly grounded in prejudice and hatred.
And if that’s not enough and you still want to hear about the actual romance, I wouldn’t bother with it either, because there’s no real chemistry, and Jack, the hero, pretty much settles for Em. That’s all I can say about it, because I had to re-read parts of the book and I’m exhausted and sickened all over again.
Purchase (if you dare!): Amazon
Emmaline Neal needs a date. Just a date—someone to help her get through her ex-fiancé's wedding without losing her mind. But pickings are slim in Manningsport, New York, population 715. In fact, there's really only one option: local heartthrob Jack Holland. Everyone loves Jack, and he won't get the wrong idea…. After all, Jack Holland would never actually be interested in a woman like Em. Especially not with his beautiful ex-wife creeping around, angling to reunite ever since he rescued a group of teens and became a local hero. But when the wedding festivities take an unexpectedly passionate turn, Em figures it was just one crazy night. Jack is too gorgeous, too popular, to ever end up with her. So why is she the one he can talk to about his deep, dark feelings? If Em is going to get her dream man, she'll have to start by believing in him…In Your Dreams by Kristan Higgins
Harlequin HQN. September 30, 2014.