It’s not often that an author is truly able to redeem an unlikable character. When I started Kickin’ It, I was immediately put off by the overly feisty heroine, Parker Speedman. But in the end, while I didn’t love the book overall, I was surprised to find that I’d come to like her.
The story opens with Parker getting pulled into the Kingston siblings’ dynamic. Matt is a successful sports agent in Seattle, and his younger sister Willow (Parker’s best friend) wants to follow in his footsteps and isn’t shy about asking to work for him. When Matt finally gives in, with the caveat that Willow live with him so he can keep an eye on her, Willow manipulates him into offering a room to Parker as well. This makes for some awkward moments at first, as Parker’s belligerent attitude isn’t suited to instant friendship.
I’ve referenced the fact that I didn’t like Parker initially, and that dislike is directly related to the aforementioned belligerent/feisty attitude. I’ve never loved cringe-y characters who always say the wrong thing, and Parker takes that to a whole new level, even herself acknowledging, “My therapist often told me that I lacked the emotional empathy to care if anyone around me was affected by my words. I just…I didn’t have time to babysit other people’s feelings.” Rather than being adorably awkward, she just gets angry without provocation, which I tired of after only a few chapters. Matt isn’t very fond of this aspect of her character, either.
But with time (and a little more sisterly manipulation) Matt starts to like Parker, and agrees to take her on as a client as she tries to launch a career in professional soccer.
It’s an uphill battle. Parker acquired a reputation for fighting after an altercation with her college coach was caught on film. Matt has to work with her to rehabilitate her image, at which point Parker slowly starts opening up to him about the problems which led to her notoriety. It’s the first time she’s trusted anyone with the full truth, and that forges a bond between them. Her college soccer coach abused her, and that’s affected both the way she interacts with the world and the way she interacts with the sport she loves. When Parker makes a point that she doesn’t like to be touched, I felt her character click into place. She’s not needlessly belligerent, she’s traumatized – and understanding this made me view Parker in a completely different light and challenged me to look beyond first impressions. It’s an unusual feeling to be so surprised in a genre that can feel formulaic at times.
I wish I could say the book continued to impress me. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
One issue that cropped up was the underdevelopment of Matt’s character in comparison to Parker’s. I think it’s fair to say that this was more Parker’s book than Matt’s; and while it is about their relationship, Parker’s backstory and career goals are central to the plot. That extra focus on Parker is appropriate, but it only highlights how sparse Matt’s backstory and development is by comparison. First, he seems to have two clients who are both his close friends and he works mainly out of his house. Is this what a hotshot sports agent looks like? He also has a history involving his own soccer career and some issues with drugs, but that’s never fully fleshed out. He’s supportive of Parker, which is great, but not enough for me to really connect with him given the other aspects of his character that felt incomplete.
As much as I didn’t love Matt, I also didn’t actively dislike him. However, the same cannot be said for Willow. As the link between Matt and Parker, she’s necessary to the plot, but felt more like a tool for moving the story forward than a real person. Our first encounter with her involves her begging Matt for a job, then casually slipping in a request for her friend to stay at Matt’s house in the thirty seconds before their phonecall ends. This could be construed as typical younger-sibling behavior, but Willow follows it up by sending Parker to Matt’s house alone (when Parker’s never been there or met Matt before) and then, when Willow finally rolls in, demanding Matt takes her to a business dinner where he clearly said interns weren’t invited. The rude way she treated her friend and brother was shocking, and didn’t improve over the course of the book.
Yet Parker and Matt persist in their belief that Willow is adorable and caring. I’ve come to realize this was the main reason I didn’t like Kickin’ It; not Willow specifically, but the disconnect between myself and the author in terms of characters’ behavior. Rachel Van Dyken and I differ in our opinions of virtuous character traits, which I think was the reason I had trouble enjoying many of the secondary characters in this book. There’s a point when Parker meets an unfamiliar woman at a formal dinner who takes her aside and demands she “spill” about her career issues. Parker’s protest that she doesn’t know the woman is met with a stare and the statement “That should make it easier.” Parker admires this woman as strong, but I think she was rude and invasive.
Ultimately, I’ll leave it up to you to decide if you want to read Kickin’ It. The plot is solid, with a strong arc of growth and recovery for Parker, and a satisfying moment of justice at the end. Parker showed herself to be a heroine of unexpected depth and strength, surprising me out of my initial assumption that her perpetual bad mood was supposed to be endearing. While I didn’t particularly love any of the other characters, I’m glad I read this book, because it’s not every day a heroine makes me rethink my first impression this way.