I really like contemporary romances with simple conflicts. I don't need serial killers or marriages forced upon people by really sketchy wills from dead relatives – or secret babies, either, if I'm making a list. The problem with simple conflicts is that they can be really tricky to sustain through an entire novel. The conflict has to be big enough to keep issues between the couple but not so big it's impossible to overcome those same issues. Plus, whatever change occurs internally or externally has to be believable.
Early Kowalski books and other contemporary novellas from Stacey usually focus on a “I'm only visiting/this is just temporary/will she stay or will he go” conflict. The outsider moves to town, or the high school flame moves back, and the temporary-to-permanent conflict begins. This is not a bad thing at all. It's the foundation of some of my favorites of Stacey's stories.
Taken With You is a variation on the “this is only temporary” conflict: indoor girl vs outdoor dude who think they're too different to be successful long term.
Hailey Genest, the town librarian, has been an ancillary character through several Kowalski books set near in Whitford, Maine. Now she gets her own book, and I was so excited to read it. I made myself wait until it went on sale because I knew I'd have a lot to say about it.
Short version: it didn't blow my mind and give me giddy book squee or Good Book Noise® like some of the other Kowalski novels have. But it was a lovely entertaining contemporary with funny-funny, real emotion and a particularly awesome dog.
Matt, the owner of said awesome dog, is a state game warden who has moved to Whitford to help with the management and policing of the new ATV trail system that's been connected to the Lodge, and by extension, to the town. He's from another part of Maine, and has spent most of his life outdoors, at his family's cabin in the woods, and then as part of his job.
When Hailey meets Matt, she's lost in the woods with her friend Tori after they got separated from the wilderness tour group they were with (really, this was not much of a tour company – a plot point that seemed promising but was later dropped). Matt hears them in the woods, and even though he's on vacation he finds them and walks them back to the parking lot.
Matt hasn't shaved or bathed in a week or two, he's got a gnarly beard and a terrifically fugly fishing hat on, and he's clearly very happy and comfortable in the woods. Hailey signed up for the wilderness trek with Tori on a whim, wore brand new hiking boots (ow) and makeup out on the trail, and tried a natural, homemade bug repellant that wasn't doing much of anything. They meet at their own worst moment: Matt is scruffy, smelly and a little scary and possibly also a little condescending. Hailey knows she looks ridiculous and is mad that she got lost, uncomfortable because she has blisters, and convinced that activities outdoors that don't involve sitting with a book are not for her. Neither of them makes a terrific first impression, and their first scene together reminds me of the Marilyn Monroe quote, If you can't handle me at my worst, you don't deserve me at my best.
The conflict between Hailey and Matt is pretty straightforward: they are way into each other, but she wants a guy who has a regular schedule, who likes to go out and do things like dine at nice restaurants or go to the theatre. Matt is none of those things. And he knows it, too. In his past, Matt had been nearly engaged to someone when he learned that he embarrassed her because of his job and the fact that he liked being outside, in the woods, getting as dirty as possible. So he knows that he should find someone who appreciates the things he loves. They're opposites, and yet they attract even while they're both pretty sure they're wrong for each other.
On the surface, this conflict worked for me. While I was reading the book, I was all in. I stayed up way too late to finish it, because, like any Stacey book, they talk a lot, and all that dialogue makes for happy Sarah.
But once I finished it, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Matt's character was much more developed than Hailey's. While I understood why the things he loved were so important, I didn't know why Hailey insisted on the type of guy she allegedly wanted.
The insisting is what gets to me. Hailey says over and over she wants a guy with a regular schedule and some appreciation for culture and whatnot. But despite insisting that's her thing, she never once enjoyed on her own the things she kept saying were important. She didn't try to find plays, culture, even streaming productions of Met operas or anything else a librarian could get her hands on pretty easily. For Hailey, despite all that insisting, her dedication to an “ideal” was superficial and, when compared to Matt's adoration of all things buggy and beautiful, seemed shallow and inconsistent. If I had to name what Hailey was passionate about, it would be reading and cleaning, and maybe not in that order. Seriously, her day off has a to-do list of epic cleaning. She deep cleans her coffee maker. She dusts the ceiling fan. It wasn't so much a neatness obsession that was commented on as much as it was a nearly pathological habit. She cleaned ALL THE TIME. But the fact that Matt was often very dirty (and so was his dog) didn't really bother her much. (Probably because she knew she'd be cleaning all day the next weekend so what's one more bit of dirt?)
I thought she was far too insistent that she wanted some kind of cultured city dude. There was no backup or reasoning for that insistence. She didn't want to leave Whitford. And there was plenty of explanation as to why she didn't want to leave Whitford: she was the sole librarian and passionate about her job and her accomplishments. She grew up there, and even though her parents and sibling had moved away, she loved her home and her home town. She had ample friends and people cared about her, and except for the absence of any cultured, smooth city guys for her to date, she was happy.
But there was no real explanation of WHY she wanted the cultured city dude except, “Because that's what Hailey said she wanted.” There was a small mention of her family, of dinner at a regularly scheduled time each evening, or a predictable schedule – all things that Hailey says she values. But she's not so inflexible that she can't adjust her schedule or the library's schedule to accommodate someone. She's not brittle and unbendable.
Yet every other chapter, she or someone else would bring up the mythical smooth cultured dude she's after – with no explanation as to WHY that is what she wants. She doesn't go out or find for herself any of the things she says are important, and that she wants a guy to do with her. Did she watch the Old Spice commercial too many times? Was her only preferred option the mythical man her mythical man should smell like? I have no idea. That insistence of her “ideal dude” wasn't as integrated into her character as Matt's values were to his. And if the only reason something is true for a character is because they insist on it over and over, it's not really true enough for me to believe.
Matt, on the other hand, is terrific nearly all the way through to the end of the book. And I've been asking myself if perhaps I'm being too harsh on Hailey. (I don't think I am.) Matt loves being outside, he loves the forest and fishing and camping and ATVing and bugspray and dirt and all of it. His love of being outdoors became his job, and he works for the state of Maine to keep those outdoors safe for every being within them, humans and otherwise. During the course of the story you see a lot of Matt's job responsibilities and they are not easy. Calls come in at all hours about missing people, aggressive animals, complaints about irresponsible drivers on the ATV trails, and Matt has to respond. His dedication is amply demonstrated – and it's pretty awesome.
The problem for Matt is that some women in his past had liked his looks and his uniform, but didn't like the dirt, smells, and odd hours that came with it. Matt's a rough-edged dude, and he wants to be accepted for who he is. The problem for Matt, and by extension Hailey, is that Matt doesn't just have baggage. He has a matched set of awful woman backstory luggage that he wears over his head and poked holes in so he could peek through it at every opportunity. It doesn't occur to Matt until it's almost too late that he's got those asshole blinders on, and that he's been wearing his peekaboo emotional baggage way longer than he needed to, since it was left there by someone he's glad he isn't connected to anymore. He routinely sees the world, other people, and by extension himself based on his ex's comments about him and his life, and that influences a lot of his interactions with Hailey, who, though pretty and polished, isn't mean or embarrassed by Matt at all. She accepts him as he is and tries to be accommodating. He isn't so able to do that. So right after Matt yanks his emotional baggage further over his head, he sticks his head up his ass. Hailey says one thing, but he'll hear another. He's anticipating her rejection of him and the things that he loves, so he assumes it's going to happen any minute.
Matt has to change his expectation that Hailey is going to reject him. Hailey has to adjust her expectations of what she thought she wanted. Both of these are tough things to do, and Hailey manages the adjustment a bit better than Matt, who freaks out and adds a train case and a tote bag of emotional baggage to his backstory hat and runs off to the woods.
In the end, SPOILER after one come-to-Jesus conversation with his dad, Matt does a precise 180 and adjusts his default behavior a little too quickly for me to believe. For all that struggle and baggage blindness, he made the switch from douchey to damn fine way too fast, so fast I was afraid he'd regress by accident. And the end is so treacly sweet, I can bet some of you will roll your eyes while others will give a big happy book sigh. END SPOILER
Hailey didn't have to change much except to accept that what she thought she wanted wasn't as excellent as the person she does have, even if he doesn't meet all her expectations. I loved that she stood up for herself in tense moments – most of the women do in this book, which I like a LOT.
Fans of the Kowalski series will see many of the other past characters in this story – some so vibrant they almost steal scenes from Matt or Hailey. There's lots of ATVing, trails, Rose's cooking, bickering, babies and discussions of weddings and anticipated pregnancies, and ordinary yet lovely people living their lives (one of the best things about the series, if you ask me). If you like the Kowalskis, you'll like this book plenty. While Matt's ending and Hailey's insistence bothered me a bit, all the warmth and fun and bug spray and humor and family that's part of the series is plentiful in this book, too. I spent a lot of words analyzing what bothered me, but I also want to say that the good parts are terrific, and Stacey writes whoodamn fine contemporary romance.