Desert Isle Keeper
Traditionally, the Happily Ever After in romance is that of my generation’s favorite childhood chant. “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage.” What marriage and children over time look like is often explored either not at all or in cameos wherein lovers from past books appear and reassure us that, yes, their family life is as wonderful as their courtship. The romance genre is, after all, a subset of fiction.
Kristan Higgins’ latest novel, If You Only Knew, is her first foray into women’s fiction and is not a romance but rather a book about love. In it, two sisters, Rachel, a stay-at-home married mom with triplet three-year old girls and Jenny, a divorced wedding dress designer, must sort out the love in their lives and choose the paths they hope will lead to happiness. Both are lovely and loving and yet don’t have the lives they’d hoped for. Jenny is still not over her ex-husband’s remarriage and new baby even though she tells herself she should be. Rachel has done everything in her power to be a fabulous wife to Adam–he’s handsome, a great dad, and an excellent provider–whom she loves deeply. Then one day, Adam’s phone pings, Rachel checks it, and, just like that, everything she believes about her marriage begins to crumble.
The book is written in alternating first person chapters. Jenny and Rachel are close–Jenny’s just moved out of Manhattan and into the town they grew up in and in which Rachel and her family still live. Jenny’s just opened a new shop in the town–Cambry-on-the Hudson–and is living in the middle two floors of a four story building. Their father died when they were young and their mom, since his death, has become so pessimistic that, although the sisters love her, they don’t look to her for support. The sisters are similar–both white, well-off, educated, and smart. Ms. Higgins manages to make them sound alike in the way that close same sex sisters often do while still giving them very distinct personalities.
Though If You Only Knew has Ms. Higgins’ trademark humor—the triplets and Leo steal every scene they’re in—each sister’s story is, in many ways, sad. (Be warned: There are slight spoilers ahead.)
Jenny married a man she considered her best friend and perfect partner and was devastated when he fell out of love with her, left her, and married a woman who seems to be perfect. She finds herself falling for her sexy neighbor, a piano teacher named Leo, but Leo makes it very clear he’s uninterested in any sort of intimacy that doesn’t involve getting naked. Jenny wants to be married and to have children of her own, but, thus far, that life eludes her.
Rachel’s life, once upended by a grainy photo of something that initially looks to her to be a knot in a tree, will never again offer the (specific) happy ending she envisioned. Ms. Higgins portrays Rachel’s anguish beautifully. One of the things that’s true about real married life, as opposed to that in virtually every romance I’ve ever read, is that wives don’t necessary leave husbands who cheat. There are the kids to consider–and Rachel adores her daughters who in turn adore their dad. There is the possibility that an affair could be a singular event and thus not necessarily something that, on its own merits, is reason enough to break up a family. Ms. Higgins writes Adam with nuance–he may be in some ways an ass, but he’s the ass that Rachel loves, married, and has a family with. I loved this about If You Only Knew.
Each sister is also struggling to make sense of their parents’ marriage. Jenny is sure that her father wasn’t the perfect husband her mother and sister remember him as–this makes her furious at her brother-in-law for his poor behavior. Rachel is sure her parents were the perfect couple and that her own troubled marriage reflects poorly on her. Both women are far more angry at the men in their lives than they would like to be. They are, in fact, angrier at life–and each other–than makes them comfortable. Ms. Higgins makes their emotional lives rich and resonate.
If You Only Knew is one of my favorite books of the year. I’m sure that is in part because so much of the sisters’ lives remind me of my own. Like Rachel, I’ve struggled with infertility, gotten pregnant with multiples (my two youngest are twins), stayed at home with small children, and nurtured (and envied) my spouse’s successful professional career. The questions Ms. Higgins so deftly explores in If You Only Knew are those I wonder about daily. What does it mean to be loyal to my family? What sort of mother, sister, daughter, friend, and wife do I want to be? What sort am I really? What are the rules that best govern my heart and my interactions with those I love? My life, just like those of the women in this book, isn’t gritty–and I like Rachel and Jenny know how extraordinarily lucky I am–but it has had its share of pain, doubt, and heartbreaking hurt. Ms. Higgins, in this lovely book, shows something close enough to real life to make her words have heft while still leaving the reader–as well as Rachel and Jenny–with enough hope and joy to face the future.