I love dogs, dear reader. Love them almost as much as I love the country. But Allyson Charles’ Forever Home, set in and around the titular no-kill animal shelter, and which charts the love story of an animal-loving guy and an animal-hating girl, had me yearning to buy a one-floor walk up. One that doesn’t allow pets.
Isabelle “Izzy” Lopez has a lot going on in her hectic life. When she rescues a dog and five puppies after breaking into a rundown apartment building to indulge in her hobby of photographing abandoned locales, she doesn’t anticipate adding ‘dog owner’ to the list of responsibilities she already has. Izzy, after all, is under pressure from every area of her life – the number one seller at Gold Star Reality, she has a sabotaging, jealous competitor breathing down her neck, and she is also under constant pressure from her daughter’s teacher and the ‘mommy mafia’ who run the PTA to do more at the school than she’s able to. Pets are “stubborn pains in the asses”, and Izzy is the kind of type-A personality who won’t stomach anyone else’s stubbornness. When Izzy tries to leave the dog and puppies at the back door of the local shelter, the mother dog hides beneath the shelter’s dumpster, so when a handsome man throws that door open and yells at her for dumping the dogs she meets him butt-first. The usually fearless Izzy, afraid of being arrested for her clandestine photography, shoves the dogs at him and runs.
Brad Cohen has seen hundreds of people abandon their dogs during his time running the Forever Friends shelter. He’s so incensed by what he believes Izzy is doing that he catches her by the belt loop when she tries to run away and demands to know more about her. Deciding after interviewing her that she doesn’t look like the sort who’d mistreat an animal, he doesn’t press charges when he takes the dog and her pups inside to be checked. Izzy so favorably impresses him that he starts pursuing her for date, and also suggests she take part in an upcoming fundraiser. She avoids the idea until her boss tells her to accept, which puts her and Brad in close contact. They begin to develop feelings for one another, and Izzy takes two of the dogs and ends up doing PR for the shelter as well as dating Brad. But can they learn to love each other? Or will Izzy’s latest big job opportunity result in their love going to the dogs?
This novel, to be honest, feels like it takes place in an alien culture acting out human behaviors with only sitcom episodes to guide them through the motions. Our hero and heroine are not pleasant people, which is not a prerequisite for a good book, but the narrative operates on the woeful belief that they’re charming.
Izzy is mean and short-tempered when she’s not being immature or mule-headed, and is only at her best around her female friends or her daughter. Unfortunately, however, when the story turns to her relationship with Brad, I would’ve rather watched her mate with a cactus. Her photography hobby, which initially seems key to her personality, rarely shows up after the opening scene.
There’s a weird culture of shaming centered around Izzy’s working life; unable to work as a treasurer for the school bake sale or participate as chaperone on a zoo trip, her offer to do something she and her daughter like (baking cupcakes) instead is seen as less than. Her busy ambition is a negative that results in her daughter hiking to an animal shelter alone and yet it spends long, dull stretches on her negotiations with a high-roller who wants to sell their land, forcing her to team up with her work enemy and betray Brad. All of the people in Izzy’s life manipulate her and for some reason the novel portrays that as adorable.
Brad is presumptuous – which, for some reason, the author also thinks is adorable. Izzy rejects him multiple times until they’re forced into proximity by her boss, at which point he jumps on her like a starving dog being thrown a steak, inviting himself to her house unasked, attending her daughter’s soccer games and in general stalking Izzy’s every step. He is a Nice Guy ne plus ultra, lying, pushing and wheedling to get what he wants, even telling her she’ll have to shoot him down a ton of times before he takes no for an answer and playing her against her best friend. The author’s attempts at making him seem sweet and kind through application of a tragic backstory and lots of cute animals really don’t work, nor does the only thing that makes his character appealing – the sweet relationship between he and Ana.
Izzy and Brad have emotions that turn on a dime and they act more like teenagers than mature adults with nine-to-five jobs. As you can tell from their first interaction, they could solve so much of the conflict in their relationship by speaking to one another like adults, but platitudes and pushing make up the majority of their interaction and stand in for love. The amount of alien behavior in the novel is startling: Brad finds the notion of Izzy squirming around to avoid exposing her underwear to him as she sits on the floor to talk endearing. He complains about her sense of caution in choosing to drive her daughter and herself to a pizza date with a guy she’s known for a grand total of two days and had three conversations with. And how the heck can a budget-strapped shelter afford an awards banquet?!
The dollop of crap on top of this five-car pile up of a sundae is the book’s weird choice of gender politics; Ana names one of the male dogs Jasmine, because “girls can have boys’ names”, something she learned while glimpsing a show in which “a daddy becomes a mommy”. In a book that sees dog ownership as some kind of strange evangelical calling that can fix every problem and flaw in one’s life, you’d think the existence of trangender persons wouldn’t cause a hullaballo, but no. Ana’s choice makes Brad blanch. Then again these characters’ reaction to social blackballing among children whose parents don’t live up to the PTA’s standards is to introduce a farting dog to the organization’s meeting.
On the positive side, I liked Izzy’s colleague and friend, the flirty Lydia. Oh, if only Forever Home were about the two of them getting together instead of the mess we got.