I used to completely shun the romance genre but since it’s expanded to tell a variety of queer stories, I’ve been lured in. Plus, the world is pretty literally and figuratively on fire, so I’ve found that when my mental health starts to get wobbly, a dose of queer romance has been just the ticket to set me right again. Last year, one of these success stories was Alison Cochrun’s debut novel The Charm Offensive, a thoroughly, well, charming story about two men who fall in love while involved in a reality dating competition similar to The Bachelor (one as a producer, one as the bachelor). And I don’t even watch The Bachelor, so the fact that I was into this book tells you something about Cochrun’s skill.
What most delighted me about The Charm Offensive is how clever Cochrun was in crafting the plot. It’s a premise that thoroughly should not work (especially if, like me, you aren’t a fan of reality dating), and yet it does. Really well. Because Cochrun is really making astute observations about what happens when real-life challenges involved in getting to know someone conflict with the romance narratives we’ve been told since we were children … crossed with mental health awareness and LGBTQ+ storylines. Cochrun’s writing is at once familiar and subversive, which allows you to be comforted by all the tropes you love without getting bored by that very familiarity. The focus on diversity and mental health also sets her work apart and allows it to feel grounded in the real world.
Appropriately, Cochrun’s holiday-themed second novel Kiss Her Once For Me releases on November 1st. I requested access to this title on NetGalley and was thrilled when I saw that my request was approved. That approval message encouraged me to read and review this as close to the release date as possible, but I found myself unable to wait.
If you follow my YouTube channel you know that we lost our beloved dog, Guinness, in June. To say that the grief has been hard would be an understatement. I muddled through life and some reading for a month and found myself needing the comfort of a rom-com. As Doris from All D Books and I would say: I needed some pure cinnamon bun action. Something pure and wholesome and romantic. And what’s my favorite type of rom-com? A queer holiday-themed one, thanks for asking. When I peeked at the plot summary of Kiss Her Once For Me and saw that it matches this criteria and opens with a bookstore meet cute, I was sold.
On Christmas Eve of 2021, Ellie has recently moved to Portland for her dream job in animation. She meets Jack when they reach for the same title in Powell’s Books and the two women spend a magical snow day together. But something happens the next morning that causes Ellie to run away and spend the next year pining after Jack. By Christmas of 2022, Ellie has lost everything: her dream job, her sense of purpose, and (soon) her apartment. With eviction looming, Ellie falls into one of the classic rom-com plot devices–one that truly defies credulity: she agrees to fake marry her boss’ landlord to help him claim an inheritance. That’s right, an impossibly attractive and incredibly wealthy man needs to be married in order to collect $2 million dollars thanks to a clause in his grandfather’s will. And if Ellie agrees to marry him for a year, he’ll give her $200,000.
Although Ellie isn’t entirely comfortable with the arrangement, things seem to be going well. Andrew, her fake fiance, turns out to be a good guy–and she’s going to get to tag along to his family Christmas, which will help her avoid being alone. Except it turns out that Andrew’s sister is Jack. And Ellie still has feelings for her.
As with The Charm Offensive, this is a premise that should not work. Like at all. And yet it does. Like gangbusters, in fact. That’s because Alison Cochrun is a uniquely clever writer. Her characters are the most lovable of messes. I dare you not to enjoy the entire cast of characters you will meet in Kiss Her Once For Me. Even decisions that seem like plot holes at first turn out to have a reasonable explanation–and usually one that causes character growth in an interesting, dynamic way. Ellie and Jack are an adorable couple you will definitely root for.
I also deeply appreciate the diversity of the cast–not just in terms of race but in sexuality and gender. Cochrun doesn’t treat her characters like tokens but real people with real baggage hoping to find the acceptance and love they deserve–on their terms.
To put it simply: this book crackles with charm on every page.
It was everything I needed at this moment, and I’m so glad I didn’t wait until fall to dive in. Christmas in July is a wonderful thing in my world anyway. And since I didn’t wait until closer to the publication date of Kiss Her Once For Me, I get a unique opportunity to tell you to pre-order the hell out of this book at your local independent bookstore. If you don’t have a favorite local indie, Bookshop.org has you covered (it’s better than Amazon and it supports independent bookstores).
You’ll thank me later.
And a special shout out to Abby from Montana Book Company for recommending The Charm Offensive to us in the first place, and for always knowing what my cinnamon bun needs are. If you want to support Montana Book Company by pre-ordering from them, I encourage you to do so either through the store or by adding them to your Bookshop account.