If You Want Me
At a glance, Kayla Perrin’s first offering from Harper Torch books, If You Want Me, seems to have all the right ingredients for a great romance novel: a caring and protective hero, an ugly duckling heroine who’s finally come home a star, and a touch of suspense when someone seems to be stalking her. But the pieces never quite come together in such a way as to form anything more than a mediocre novel.
Alice Watson was an overweight teenager with no friends except for Marcus Quinn, an almost unbelievably mature and caring high school classmate who always defended her. Growing up, she had two great dreams: to become an actress, and for Marcus to fall in love with her. When Marcus confided his plan to propose to his bitchy girlfriend Tanisha, Alice knew there was nothing more for her in her hometown and headed for the bright lights of Hollywood.
Thirteen years later, she returns as Desiree LaCroix, slim, beautiful, and a star – and irresistible to her old friend Marcus, now a divorced cop. Still, he thinks Hollywood has changed her, and she thinks he only wants her for her looks. Then someone slashes Alice’s car tires, and starts sending her threatening notes and phone calls, and Marcus’ old protective instincts kick in. Meanwhile, Alice is trying to cope with her mother’s heart attack, and trying to rebuild her relationships with her mother and sister, neither of whom ever showed her support or love when she was young.
The basics of a good story are there, but they never quite click into place just right. Too often we are told what we should have been shown. We never really see Alice’s relationship with Sara, her aunt and surrogate mother in Hollywood. Then there’s her relationship with her father, who is dead before the story begins, but plays a key part nonetheless; he’s the only one other than Marcus who ever supported Alice’s dreams. All this is completely unexplored. And we never really hear anything about the thirteen years she spent in Hollywood.
Equally problematic is the culturally and environmentally sterile ambiance of the novel, which is set in Chicago, not only a well-known city, but one that is far from sterile in any sense. Since this is a coming of age novel in many ways, one would expect there to be descriptions of the world around her, both in the prologue, when she is in high school, and in the rest of the novel, when she returns as an adult and presumably sees things differently. But aside from a single scene set on Navy Pier – unlikely in itself for the intimate nature of the scene, given that one frequently has to shout to be heard there – and a couple mentions of the JFK Expressway, the story could be anywhere, although the fact that nearly every character was someone she knew from high school makes the reader feel as if the book should actually be set in a much smaller town.
And then there is the “redemption scene”, a party in which all the girls who tortured Alice during high school come together to apologize to Alice, and give her presents including an engraved scrapbook containing newspaper clippings of her, symbolizing their admiration of her. Then her mother stands and announces that she is extremely proud of her daughter – something she has never said to Alice before. And Marcus shows up with red roses for her. The only sour note in what could only be an adolescent’s fantasy/dream sequence – but, incredibly, isn’t – is the final present, found outside the door, which turns out to be a nearly-decapitated teddy bear with a noose around its neck, a message from a distinctly unoriginal stalker.
Despite these problems, there are facets of the story with very real promise. Alice’s relationship with her mother is a complex one, and leaves the reader wanting to know more. Likewise her relationship with her sister, which sorts itself out rather abruptly in a single all-better-now talk – one which is inappropriately short for fixing years of misunderstanding and estrangement. And while Perrin is slow to ignite the romance in this book – the first kiss occurs about halfway through – the friendship between Alice and Marcus deserves more development before they dive into a romantic entanglement. Even given these disappointments, the fact that the reader is left wanting to know more shows that the seeds of a good novel are there; they just need more room and time to grow.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this book, in fact, is the prevailing sense that it could be so much better. Still, it could also be worse. This book only gains a C, but Perrin emerges as an author to watch.