While the Kowalski novels are rapidly becoming comfort re-reads for me, especially the first and third ones, and while I'm always happy to go visit all the characters and see that they retain as much personality as they had in their own novels, this book ended up being more of a visit for the sake of everyone else. I didn't keep reading because I was transfixed and drawn to the lead characters. There wasn't anything wrong with them, and I liked them both just fine, but they didn't have the bursting personality and humor of the other characters in the series. Despite the build-up of Josh's story, the focus on his and Katie's relationship didn't live up to my expectations.
If you ask me how this book was, I'd probably make a baby fishmouth face for a few minutes and then say, "It was pretty good, but it was sad." And I mean that exactly: the atmosphere, the spirit of the story, was so sad to me. My impression of it after I finished is maudlin, regretful, and sad.
Josh Kowalski has lived and run the Northern Star lodge, which has been in his family for generations, since he was done being a kid. He's the youngest, and he watched his older brothers go off and find lives while he was left behind, everyone assuming that he'd be happy running the lodge and living there. He's not always unhappy, per se, but he never had an opportunity to do anything else, or had anyone ask him what he'd like to do. That's the foundation of Josh's conflict: he is stuck in Whitford, at the lodge, and while he loves his home and he knows every step of the calendar and the responsibilities that result from the changes in season, he sees himself as forgotten about and left behind. He's stuck. And he does not like it.
A few books back, Josh broke his leg, and that caused his family to wake up and pay attention to Josh's anger and resentment. The course of the three most recent novels has followed the repair of the lodge and the returning home of the Kowalski brothers -- minus Sean, who left the army and went to Maine in my favorite Kowalski novel, Yours to Keep ( A | BN | K | ARe | iB), and their sister Liz, who is probably a future heroine because she's out in New Mexico and there's a general sense of 'what's she doing out there, she belongs here.' Josh has been in the background of each novel as his brothers took turns coming home.
Katie, who is the daughter of the lodge's longtime housekeeper, Rosie, has been Josh's best friend for years and years. She's been secretly in love with him for just about as long, and everyone knows this but Josh. Like, everyone. Everyone in town. I think if the Verizon guy from two counties over showed up to repair a line, first he'd be told where to get lunch, and then that Katie's in love with Josh.
Josh is completely blind to Katie's feelings, and is very myopic in general (like a typical dude) about most things except his own misery at being held to the lodge because of everyone's thoughtless forgetfulness. When Rosie comes down with pneumonia a second time in a row and has to go into the hospital right before the holidays and the start of their winter lodging season, Katie decides to move into the lodge to help Josh with holiday and seasonal preparations, and to help her mother stay quiet and sofa-ensconced once she leaves the hospital. Dun dun dunnnnn!
Katie and Josh exist in a state of waiting. Katie's waiting for Josh to either notice her, or notice her feelings for him, but she's unable to either make a move or move on. Meanwhile, Josh is waiting for the lodge to be repaired and more financially profitable once the family plans of connecting the lodge to the local ATV trail system are put into effect. Once that happens, either a full time manager can be hired, or his brothers will take over more of the responsibility, and he can leave. He's basically waiting for his chance to fly away from Whitford and do all the things his brothers got to do that he didn't. He's waiting for his real life to get started, after years of waiting in Whitford.
The problem for me is, once Josh does notice Katie (after she moves in and comes downstairs in her pajamas for a late night snack) and once they do start moving toward one another in a more-than-friends kind of way, Josh doesn't talk to Katie about things that really matter -- despite her being his best friend, and despite the fact that clearly he's told her before about how he feels and what he's thinking. Both Josh and Katie remain in the same holding pattern they've been in, only this time with more sex and more emotions at risk. Katie is still waiting for Josh to wake up and see the possibilities of a permanent relationship. She's STILL unable to really tell him straight that she's in love with him and wants to be with him permanently, because she doesn't want him to be in the position of having to choose between a relationship with her or the chance to leave Whitford. Josh is still in the holding pattern of waiting to fly away - only now he's having really good sex and enjoying himself at home a bit more than he ever has.
There are two flat side plots revolving around Rosie's new relationship, and around a mysterious friend of Josh and Katie's who hosts everyone for weekend football watching, and who, like everyone, has been waiting for Josh to wake up and see Katie. Josh and Katie's story is more interesting than either of those, but theirs is very pale compared to previous Kowalski novels, especially since this story has been building for several books.
I mentioned earlier that I thought this book was sad. The sadness pervades the book, but becomes sharp at the end of the novel. After Katie and Josh hook up, after they try to figure out their relationship status post hooking-up, after they keep hooking up because the hooking up is good… Josh is still stuck and resentful about it. He just has regular orgasms. I never saw Josh's change in mood. I never honestly thought he was happy.
This part is kinda spoilery so I'm going to white it out but the crux of what bothered me is here:
NO REALLY. It's kinda SPOILERY. BE YE WARNED.
Don't say I didn't want you. You can start highlighting.
In the end, a solution arrives that's sort of easy and obvious, and Josh can leave. And so he does. Just like that. Katie is devastated but neither has she spoken up about her actual feelings or anything. But Josh doesn't tell her he's got the chance to fly away from Whitford, either. He lets her find out instead of telling her, and I never really forgave him for being such a cruel asshat. That's not how you treat your friends, or the people you're sleeping with who are you friends. Come on, dude.
Then, once he left and started exploring the world, I was never convinced he was happy, that he got over his mopey resentment. He left, turned around and came home because … he had no idea what to do with himself.
I was never sure by the end that he chose Whitford because he wanted to be there, or if he chose Whitford and by extension, Katie, because it was the known default, and the known was better than the unknown for him. He had no idea where to go or what to do with himself while he was gone, and he was clearly lonely. He wanted to be offered a choice to stay or go. He was left in Whitford by default because he was the youngest. He wanted self-determination. The end of the story seemed to echo that default to me: he went home to Katie because he missed her and he didn't know what else to do, not because he was suddenly happier than ever in Whitford.
I was never sure if he was choosing between an unknown and Whitford, or between ANYTHING ELSE and Whitford. His decision just showed up. His decision to come home was underdeveloped in a way that made me wonder if he turned around because hey, Katie was there and that's better than nothing. I was never sure of his dedication or his feelings, in part because his resentment and mope colored everything. I'm not convinced he understood the alternatives or the opportunities, or even had time to appreciate or learn what else there was for him to experience.
The time of his travel is skipped over, and not enough of his realization about his home and his opportunity with Kate is portrayed, so it seems like his final choice to go home also seems like a pushed-upon-him default.
So the ending made me sad, not hopeful.
I felt that Katie was used as a device in the story to underscore the value of Josh's home and his belonging there, and as the novel progressed she became less of a character in her own right - especially because she didn't change much. She was the loyal friend who was in love with her best friend but didn't want to stand in the way of his dreams. She remained that until the end, when being the virtuous loyal friend got her what she wanted. Josh stomped on her heart, and I think he knew he was doing it, and did it anyway. I wanted more for Katie because I liked her in the previous books, and I liked her a lot in the start of this one before she became bland and more of a function of the story than a person.
Kate's inertia as a character echoed Josh's inertia, and her lack of development was frustrating because I think I was meant to feel Josh's frustration, but accept that Kate's life was also pretty good, apart from whether Josh was in it or not. Staying and living in Whitford worked for her, which conflicted with all of Josh's frustrations with the town, and left them at an impasse which wasn't resolved. Their conflict wasn't really addressed, which left, in my perspective, a very unsatisfying ending.
When I was in middle school, I had a sort of friend who thought of me as her "nobody better." If there was nobody better around, she'd eat lunch with me. I hated being treated like that, but, hey, I was 12, and hadn't grown into my big girl pants. The end of this story and the way it resolved made me think that Josh treated Katie as his "nobody better," only instead of a person, his "nobody better" was the alternative life he wanted to explore. I don't think Josh ever really appreciated his life or the value of Katie's presence as his friend and more-than-friend. Even when he was lonely and sad, I don't think he honestly assessed what he wanted. At one point, he says he doesn't necessarily want to leave and never come back; he "wanted the choice," the opportunity to decide what he wanted, instead of having his decision pushed onto him. He never seemed to explore what having a choice would mean for him, or what he would do if he had it.
I'll still read the Kowalski books because I like all the characters, and the family dynamic, especially the way the characters reveal their feelings for each other in honest, not-at-all-contrived, realistic ways. But after this book and the last one, I'm going to be nervous that the endings will disappoint me, and will be cautious about my expectations in reading them. There are wonderful family moments in this story, like the family Christmas party, and the way they look after one another as their relationships all change, but I will be reading them more to visit everyone instead of eager-grabbing the next book ready to meet the main characters.