If you’re a fan of Helena Hunting, you’re probably aware her books come with varying degrees of gravity. Her Inked Armor series is dark and angsty, while her Pucked series is hilarious and quirky. Meet Cute is a perfect combination of these two voices – a fun read overall, but it has its tragic moments. You’ve been warned – and if you don’t want to know what the tragedy is, I’d suggest you stop reading here.
Kailyn Flowers and Daxton Hughes have as awkward a ‘meet cute’ story as you could expect. Kailyn crashes into him on campus and, rather than calmly getting up and apologizing, she goes full-on fangirl over the fact that the Daxton Hughes, former teenage heartthrob and star of It’s My Life (her favorite high school drama), is in front of her. Although she’s embarrassed about it the next time they meet (when she, again, literally falls all over him), Dax is kind, and they fall into a friendly rivalry over three years of law school. Unfortunately, things end on a sour note when Dax plays a role in Kailyn getting knocked off of the top spot in their class, and instead takes it himself. Kailyn’s only holding onto a little grudge when he comes to see her eight years later with his parents to set up a financial trust for his younger sister. And that’s not enough to get in the way of business, so she helps them get everything in order.
Now we come to the tragic moment. Out of the blue, Dax’s parents are killed in a car accident. For a while he’s operating in a fog, trying to organize a funeral and take care of his twelve-year-old sister, Emme. But as the initial wave of shock and grief passes, a new problem crops up: Dax’s aunt Linda doesn’t think he’s a fit guardian for his sister and is suing him for custody. It’s a painful headache neither he nor Emme needs, but it does come with a silver lining, as Kailyn is assigned to be the child advocate for the case. She drafted the trust for Emme and is an impartial third party, which makes her perfectly suited for the role of watching over the girl and eventually testifying as to which guardian appears best for Emme.
As Kailyn works on the case, she’s forced to get involved in Emme’s life and, by default, Dax’s. She attends school meetings and talks with Dax about how his life is changing to accommodate his sister. After some time, she realizes it wasn’t actually Dax who was at fault for her losing her spot as valedictorian in law school, and she starts to see him for who he truly is – fun, generous, and pretty much exactly the man she thought he was when they first met. Soon Kailyn is falling hard, both for Dax and his precocious younger sister.
The thing that impressed me most about this book was the way both the romance and the tragedy felt real. When Dax gets the news about his parents, it’s like time stops. For anyone who’s ever experienced loss like this, you’ll recognize that feeling, and you’ll know it doesn’t go away quickly. Even as the romance builds, Dax and Emme are both still grieving. While Emme is excited to have Kailyn as a new female role model, it’s clear that her parents can’t be replaced, and that there’s still a gaping hole in her life. Nor does True Love cure Dax of all his sadness. It’s just that having Kailyn around makes that burden a little lighter, since there’s someone else to share it with.
Another thing I liked about this book was the balance in Kailyn and Dax’s relationship. Although Kailyn is of great help to Dax and Emme in the wake of their parents’ deaths, they also help her in turn. As a child, Kailyn was put into the foster care system and eventually adopted by two loving parents. Unfortunately, her parents have both passed away, and in the years since she’s been hesitant to form strong attachments. She has close friends, but it’s not on the same level as family. That becomes clear as she struggles with her feelings for Dax and Emme, realizing it’s time for her to take risks and grow. Watching them grieve gives Kailyn some perspective on herself, and I liked seeing that all the characters had a growth arc in this tale.
While all of these are strong points in the story, there were a couple things that brought it just below DIK status, which all boil down to not liking the central conflict, Dax’s custody battle with his aunt. It’s all too easy to foresee Linda’s motive for suing him – she wants control of Emme’s trust. While we don’t learn the backstory until later, I was disappointed to find that when it was revealed, it was painfully simple. From an author who did such a good job showing the complexities of grief and the way it plays into family dynamics between Emme and Dax, I was hoping Linda would turn out to be something a little more than a simple villain with no real redeeming qualities.
I also was bothered by the lack of legal considerations around Kailyn and Dax’s relationship. Now, I have absolutely no legal background, so I could be completely wrong, but I would think it’s bad form for the child advocate in a custody case to be romantically involved with one of the parties. Kailyn is smart and clearly has Emme’s best interests at heart, so I was surprised she never considered whether this was appropriate, or what sort of spin Linda could put on her relationship with Dax in court. I certainly did wonder, and worry, and spent the whole book waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m glad it never did – any more drama would have been excessive – but I also feel a little dissatisfied that it was never addressed.
By and large, though, I thought Meet Cute was a great book and am sure to reread it soon. I think it shows Ms. Hunting at her best, combining heavy emotions and a light comedic touch. While it’s easy to find authors who do one or the other, not many are able to blend them as well as is done here.