I’ve been salivating over A Cowboy to Remember for months. The actual story was quieter than I expected, but it also had feminist cowboys in Southern California, so I can’t be mad. As a regular fan of Weatherspoon, the tone of A Cowboy to Remember felt flatter than the cheeky dialogue of her recent books (Rafe, Xeni). I wanted more angst and laughs, but the book left me with the warm glow of having just finished a smart but not stellar romance.
Evie is a celebrity chef who’s parlayed her win on a Top Chef-esque competition into a stint on a daytime tv show based in New York City. She’s basically Carla Hall, but younger; Kristen Kish, but straighter. The book opens with Evie counting down the minutes until she can leave a work holiday party. She might be beloved by her fans, and popular with her coworkers, but Christmas makes her weepy since her grandma, her last remaining family member, died ten years earlier. Unfortunately, Evie’s escape from the party is foiled when she has a run-in with a cooking competition rival, Melanie.
Melanie is a bitter bully who sneers at Evie’s success. After a few verbal jabs she pushes Evie down the stairs and leaves her unconscious. Evie is found by her friends hours later. They suspect foul play, but are unable to prove it, and avoid telling Evie their suspicions until Melanie resurfaces later in the book.
Evie wakes up in the hospital with no idea how she got a gash on her head, and no memories of her life except for hazy dreams of a hot guy in a cowboy hat. She doesn’t even know what Target is. Shudder. The vibrant and successful heroine from earlier in the book has been replaced by a woman who’s unsure and directionless. Hello amnesia, my old friend. I find you boring, once again.
Evie’s job contract is up for negotiation, but she can’t remember how to cook, so her agent, assistant, and BFF, quickly decide to hide her back on the Californian ranch where she grew up. Luckily, Evie had kept in sporadic touch with the ranch’s owners, the Pleasant brothers, and her childhood friends Zach and Jesse are happy to bring her back into the fold for some R&R. And why lookee here, it turns out that Zach Pleasant is the mysterious man from Evie’s dreams.
Zach was Evie’s childhood crush, and had previously rejected her. He’s been kicking himself ever since, especially since the sprawling Pleasant clan blames him for Evie’s absence since her grandmother’s death. When Zach and Evie meet, she earnestly shares that he’s been appearing in her dreams, and he apologizes for breaking her heart. Now Evie has nothing but time on her hands as she relearns how to cook, and rediscovers her connection to the chosen family who haven’t seen her in years. Evie and Zach start dating under the hilariously watchful eye of Zach’s family. Everyone is split on whether Evie hooking up with Zach is a good idea, including Evie’s friend squad.
Nicole lowered her voice. “Please, for the love of God, watch out for Zach. I know he’s a sweet-talker with a megawatt Colgate smile, but the last thing you need is a messy friends-with-benefits situation right now. Trust me.”
“Oh no,” Raquelle whispered. “Definitely sleep with him. Like, you have to. Make him wear the cowboy hat when you sleep with him.”
“Yeah, sorry, Nicole. I’m with Raquelle on this one,” Blaire said with a bright smile. “When you’re feeling up to it, you should definitely sleep with him. I’m sure they have a hayloft. That’s an experience I think you need to have. A new memory.”
Zach is the reason I wanted to read A Cowboy to Remember, and I loved the winking way his character revels in and subverts cowboy stereotypes like chivalry, western drawls, rodeo showmanship, and a man’s friendship with his horse. Zach’s cowboyishness is both authentically a part of him, and a costume he consciously slides on and off as it suits him for work; his drawl is a charming affectation that he falls into as a form of half-joking seduction.
“Well, hey there, little lady,” he said in that fake Southern accent that made her laugh and drove her crazy all at the same time. “I haven’t seen you around these parts before.”
“Howdy, stranger,” she replied, stepping into his arms. She leaned up on her tiptoes and pressed a soft kiss to his lips.
I’m a city girl who married a Wyomingite, so I can appreciate how easy it is for Evie to fall under a spell of a tipped Stetson hat, even if it starts as a joke for both of them. Zach is charming, and knows it. While cocky heroes are not my fave, in Zach’s case, any arrogance is tempered by many women in his life who are either impervious to his charm, or happy to tell him that they know exactly what he’s doing with his superwatt smile. I loved that many of the characters, including himself, acknowledge how cute Zach is, but do so in a lighthearted way that doesn’t make him sound like an asshole.
However, even though the chapters alternated POV, I didn’t feel like I learned much about Zach’s background since the story was so focused on uncovering Evie’s past. Beyond being supportive, apologetic, and a charismatic showman on a horse, I wasn’t left with a strong understanding of why he loved Evie and why he loved his work. I sometimes had trouble telling whose POV I was reading at the beginning of the chapters because the voices were so similar.
Amnesia tropes are seductive because they give characters a chance for a do-over, to re-engage with their lives from a place of innocence and curiosity. Evie is smack dab in the center of this dynamic. Amnesia stories like this one are built on the assumption that we can be our more authentic selves once we’ve stripped away the layers of artifice and skepticism that we’ve built over time. Without this armor, amnesia leaves Evie vulnerable, both emotionally and physically. She doesn’t remember why she hates or loves the people around her, and has to trust that they will be honest in explaining her life. She passes from the protective bubble of the hospital, to another bubble, the ranch and her past.
The main problem I had with the amnesia storyline is that you don’t really get to know Evie before she loses her memory, and she doesn’t really get to know much about herself along the way. Other characters frequently comment on how indecisive, strangely polite, and robotic she seems. She’s clearly a shell of her former self and just not as interesting a character as she is with her full personality. Part of this is because Evie is also in the process of healing for most of the book, with a private nurse, curfews, and a houseful of people keeping her from taxing herself. The result is constant feeling of carefulness and constraint, as through the volume has been turned down on her life, her options muffled. It’s not an unrealistic depiction of healing, but also not filled with much drama.
The ranch community is where the secondary character development really shines and I’m hoping for many more books in this series. There are so many fantastic characters—Pleasant matriarch and Hollywood actress Leona, her meddlesome but mostly absent actor son (Zach’s father), her grandchildren (Zach), Jesse, and cousin Lilah who are running the ranch, young Corie whose kinship I never understood, Lilah’s father who makes phone appearances, and assorted childhood friends of Evie and Zach. My favorite part of the book was the worldbuilding. The Pleasant’s ranch is a luxury resort with a fantasy rodeo experience. I so wanted to visit, watch the (sadly not real) movies Leona starred in, and see Evie’s pragmatic nurse Vega’s flirtation with Corie play out. I want someone to make the faux-classic movies they kept watching, especially the historical romance about a Black mail-order bride who is accidentally sent to a white man by mistake.
The layered descriptions of the ranch’s history just emphasize everything Evie has forgotten. She’s sometimes overwhelmed by what she doesn’t know, and focused on rebuilding her life in preparation for never regaining her memories. She understands that Zach hurt her in the past, but she has no point of reference for that emotional pain. Evie allows the muscle memory of her feelings for Zach to propel her into insta-lust, in the same way that her body remembers how to poach an egg, even if Evie can’t remember the steps. I was initially uncomfortable with her insta-love reaction to Zach. It wasn’t clear to me why she found him the ideal man, and we’re left waiting for the other shoe to drop if she gets her memory back.
I found Zach’s older brother, Jesse, to be a scene-stealing star of the book. While Zach has always found it easy to pick up women, Jesse falls in love with women who either don’t want or don’t understand him. I appreciated a moment of vulnerability where an overprotective Jesse gives Zach a hard time about potentially not giving Evie what she needed (a real relationship) and instead of them devolving to macho posturing, Zach suggests they talk to Evie about what she wanted instead. Now, while I thought Jesse was reasonably concerned given their history, I appreciated that we didn’t have the moment where two men decide what shape their interactions with a woman should take. It was refreshing, and led to Jesse and Evie having a sweet conversation about their platonic friendship that is sadly rare between straight men and women in romantic fiction.
Evie: “You weren’t talking to me a whole bunch in the hospital, but we were really friends, weren’t we?”
And then Evie realized. She’d been so flustered about how Zach and everyone else had been so warm to her, she never considered that Jesse’s hesitation to get close to her could be about something else. Yeah, she had it bad for one Pleasant brother, but this Pleasant brother, this quiet mountain of a man, cared about her too.
“You’re worried about me, huh?” she asked.
“I was. I am.”
Evie couldn’t stop herself. She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Jesse’s waist. His big arms came around her shoulders and squeezed her tight. They held each other for a moment before she stepped back. “You’re a sweet guy, Jesse.”
After reading this, I was much more interested in Jesse’s love story than Zach’s. A story with a laconic, loyal, but slightly socially awkward cowboy is right in my sweet spot.
Weatherspoon’s books tend to short circuit misunderstandings with emotionally articulate characters who lay it all out on the table early in the story. A Cowboy to Remember is no exception. Evie and Zach acknowledge their lingering feelings for one another, as well as being clear-eyed on the obstacle of Evie not being herself, and not being sure where her feelings are coming from. While I love pining, it’s also nice sometimes to have the relief of the characters understanding they like-like each other early in the story. This is a soothing read but the emotions sometimes felt muffled and restrained. I found myself wishing for a little less easy closeness, and a bit more desperate and all-consuming passion.
Ultimately, Zach is the one who bends to make their relationship work, which balances the scales nicely after his fuck-up in their youth. I really loved the way Leona offers career mentorship to Evie on navigating the entertainment field as a Black woman. I especially appreciated the book’s focus on Evie breathing her work dreams into life, while acknowledging that it doesn’t just take individual hard work, but connections and support from others as well. Leona and the other secondary characters are such delightful scaffolding for a series, I imagine a second book will be able to tell deeper stories about the main characters. I hope more Cowboys in California are in my future.
Since Evie doesn’t know herself for most of A Cowboy to Remember, I didn’t feel like I got to know her either. The book reminded me why I tend to skip amnesia romances, but I was too busy drooling at the cowboy on the cover to notice what tropes I was getting into with this book. I loved the glimpses of non-amnesiac Evie that we get at the beginning and end of the story, but it was just a taste.
A Cowboy to Remember was an enjoyable read, but left me with the type of disappointment that only happens when your expectations are very high. If I’d randomly picked this up at a bookstore, I’d probably be flailing around, telling everyone how great it was to read a non-Texan western with a self aware and supportive hero who looks hot on a horse. But since I was primed to fall over myself with glee, a competently executed romantic storyline just wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a deeper sense of Evie and Zach’s motivations, flaws, and feelings for one another, and I wanted to love the two of them as much as I loved their family. Still, this is a low angst, and frequently funny romance that allows readers to get their cowboy fix without traveling to a red state.