What do you do if you’re a woman in your twenties, in the last few months of your engagement, and you realize you really don’t want to marry your fiancee, but if you break it off, you’ll get stuck with the costs of this (already much too expensive) wedding? That’s the situation facing Naomi in You Deserve Each Other, by Sarah Hogle. Her response, when she discovers that her fiance is having serious second thoughts as well, is to try to get HIM to break the engagement, so HE’LL be stuck with the expenses, and the book is about their efforts to outwit and out-annoy each other, and, of course, what happens along the way.
The sensible thing for Naomi and Nicholas, her fiance, to do when they realize that they’re both unhappy about what they’ve gotten themselves into would be to sit down and have a serious talk about their goals and their feelings and work something reasonable out. Of course, if they did the sensible thing, there wouldn’t be a story, so both of them react in increasingly funny ways to their dilemma.
A book like this has to balance on a tightrope. On one hand, you have to feel the parties’ dilemma, which means you have to believe that these two people are unsuited for each other. On the other hand, you have to believe that there was a reason they fell in love with each other in the first place, so neither one of them can actually BE a total jerk, no matter how badly they’re acting right now. You have to believe that the two main characters are both worthwhile at heart, or else you don’t want to root for their breakup efforts to fail.
I have to say, in the very beginning Naomi isn’t very promising. She comes across as passive aggressive and whiny even, holding in her disappointments and annoyances about Nicholas and not doing anything about them. Even though we see through Naomi’s eyes through the whole book (which is unusual for a romance), I felt she was giving Nicholas a bad rap from the outset. I saw his value long before she saw it for herself, and that was almost enough to make me stop reading the book at the end of the first chapter.
HOWEVER, when she realizes Nicholas is also dissatisfied and she turns her unhappiness into a game where the two of them are competing to see who can drive the other crazier (this is her take on what’s going on, though I’m not convinced it’s Nicholas’), she starts taking action, and she’s much more fun as a character and a narrator after that. Even when she’s doing ridiculous things (trading in her car for a friend’s car that’s a manual transmission when she knows she can’t drive a manual transmission, for instance), you’re pulled along by her verve and her enthusiasm.
The book is laugh out loud funny in many places. When Naomi takes on Nicholas’ horrible and controlling mother, anyone who’s ever had to deal with a person like that can appreciate her delight in turning the tables on Deborah (the mother), and some of the pranks she and Nicholas play on each other along the line are both ridiculous and extremely funny.
You know, or at least you hope, from the outset that the two characters are going to end up together. You can see from the outset that they’re both pretending to be people they aren’t in order to impress each other, and you root for them to reveal their true selves, even (especially) when those true selves are different from what you might expect. Though it seems odd from Naomi’s point of view that Nicholas, the handsome dentist, really sees himself as a lumberjack kind of outdoorsman, when he starts living that persona, you can see how well it suits him and how happy it makes him. As they get to know each other, and get to know themselves, they begin to build a real relationship, and the wedding his mother so meticulously and expensively planned for them turns into something else entirely.
The characters’ behavior teetered on the edge of credibility a couple of times (would someone really buy a house for himself and his fiancee without telling her about it beforehand?), but there was enough realism, and the characters were true enough that you’re willing to go along with even the more outlandish things they do.
Of course there’s a happy ending. Did I need to tell you that? It’s a satisfying, earned happy ending, too, which makes it even better.
As a last thought, I would like to note that this is the second new novel I’ve read in the last few months in which a couple seemingly has fallen out of love, starts trying to trick each other, and finds themselves falling back in love (To Have and to Hoax being the other). Now, it could be that this is a very common trope and I’d never run into it before, or it could be just a coincidence that these two books happened to come out in the same year. Or it could mean something, and if I had to guess, I’d suggest it means that we readers want second chances. We want to believe that even when things look pretty dreadful, and people are behaving their worst, there’s still hope, and people can still claw their way to a happy ending. Or maybe that’s just me.