This month’s challenge is to read a book in your TBR that was recommended to you. Rather than a single title, I decided to read an author that has been recommended to me. My sister loves Jill Shalvis’s novels and has been recommending them to me for many years. I have a stack of them on my shelves at home, both her early category romances and her later contemporary romances – including her latest release. Rather than reading her latest release – which has only been on the TBR since Christmas – I decided to start with Kiss Me, Katie! which in America was released in 2000 as a Harlequin Duet (which seemed to focus of romantic comedy) along with Shalvis’s accompanying novel Hug me, Holly! I read the Australian publication of Kiss Me, Katie! released as a Sexy Harlequin Mills & Boon. Katie is a cautious, sensible accountant working for a flight company and Bryan is a maverick, pilot who also performs stunts for the same company. The two are attracted to each other but Katie does not want to be with someone who is a risktaker.
For me, category romances are the most perfect narrative form for romance stories. At their best, they are tightly written with little superfluous prose and hardly any annoying secondary characters cluttering the two protagonists path to love. Kiss Me, Katie! appears to be Jill Shalvis’s 21st novel (and from what I can tell, her 21st category romance) and it would be another five years before she released her first standalone romance. However, it feels as though this is the first book in which she integrates a secondary story/romance as there is an accompanying book called Hug Me, Holly! Why does all this matter? Well, sadly, the secondary romance that builds through the primary romance takes away the necessary character development needed. I feel that category romances have little wiggle room and the moments this took away from the necessary character understanding that I didn’t feel took place. Katie has a hangup about daredevil stuntmen because her stuntman father died during a stunt but this didn’t develop beyond a “Yep. I want to be safe and have a safe guy in my life”. I get this sentiment. I thought it worked well for the character’s motivations but her resentment of her father didn’t sit right with my reading of her character. And her one off phone call with her mother towards the end of the book reassuring her that her father loved her and her daughter as much as stunt flying also felt out of kilter. The introduction of yet another character, who could have easily stayed out of the dialogue interrupted the narrative rather than allow it to create the necessary arc for Katie to reconcile herself to loving a risk-taking man. I will discuss this more later in this post.
This book is most definitely a comedy, slapstick comedy and I deeply dislike slapstick humour in books. Comedy is my absolute favourite reading genre (even more so than romance but I will leave that idea to unpack itself in a future post) yet I think it is the most difficult writing of all as timing and intonation are critical to eliciting laughs. Slapstick to me is a visual medium, all Keystone Cops tripping and falling over one another. These actions are difficult to convey in text and did not work well for me in this book which is full of slapstick. From the opening scene where Katie is trying to corner Santa at the Christmas party to kiss him under the mistletoe to trips and spills throughout the book. Here is an excerpt where some company clients (called Teddy and Rocky) end up wrestling with Katie tripping her over:
That’s when Teddy slid in low and punched. Rocky evaded, and in a comical twist that rivaled any ranchy television wrestling show, Teddy swiveled with the follow-through that ended up going nowhere. He fell on his butt on the lobby floor. With an enraged bellow, he went for Rocky’s feet, wrapping his pudgy arms around them just as Katie leaned all the way over the counter and grabbed both envelopes. Her toes left the floor, making her gasp at the loss of balanced….
This reads more like a script for a movie to me, a document describing the actors movements rather than naturally flowing in the narrative. It would probably work well in a movie form, and with novels being written with movie options in mind perhaps this blow by blow (stumble by stumble?) seems to becoming more common in novels. I think of one of my favourite romantic comedies, Bringing Up Baby, and I know that it too would not be anywhere near as successful as a novel as some of the scenes such as the scene with Katharine Hepburn dragging the vicious tiger into the gaol (rather than Baby) or even the closing scene where the dinosaur collapses and Katharine Hepburn is dangling from the scaffolding just for Cary Grant to declare his love for her and save her are ludicrous and over the top and work wonderfully when you watch them but they would not work in text.
Other aspects of Kiss me, Katie! that did not work for me were sudden body issues. Just towards the end, right when the Katie and Bryan and getting down to the groove thang she starts apologising for her fat body. He looks at her incredulously, and I started flicking towards the beginning of the book, rather perplexed as I hadn’t picked up on any “OMG – my body is fat bet nobody likes me so I better where the white cotton undies” vibe from it. There are office shenanigans. Office romances happen. I mean, I’ve seen a couple in real life and it is very common in contemporary romance fiction but it always feels irksome. Katie and Bryan are colleagues in different departments so there is no power imbalance but there was an uncomfortable start to their romance as Katie actually was pursuing the Vice President of her company but accidently (yup – slapstick ooops! again) ends up kissing Bryan at the Christmas party, thus kicking off their “hilarious” romance comedy of errors.
To add to all this, I also have a most hated phrase in fiction that usually is enough for me to refuse to read further once it appears in a book and this book is peppered with “or so she/he thought”. It is foreshadowing and it drives me batty. I just don’t want to read it. To be fair to Jill Shalvis, I chose to continue reading a book that upfront, in its blurb, uses my most hated phrase, means that I was entering the reading experience knowing that this was going to be an issue. It was not going to surprise me 150 pages into a novel. It was used several times throughout the book. I won’t complain any further.
But the clincher in all of this for me was my lack of believing that character change that Katie goes through. Bryan flies planes. Katie, though fascinated by planes is also kinda scared of them. So let me tell you what Bryan does. In the space of a page of dialogue, he gets her in a plane and flies her into the sky. There did not seem to be a break for checking with air control, he did not stick his head out the window to check for oncoming traffic and Katie fails totally in being phobic as she is “scared” yet she enjoys her flight. Speaking (writing) on behalf of all phobic fliers, I cannot relate to this moment in the book whatsoever. I found it ridiculous. I just wanted to shout at him “STOP TALKING AND FLY THE FREAKIN’ PLANE!!!”. As a flying phobic, this scene made me break out into a sweat! And even more ridiculous is right at the end, as Katie is trying to process Bryan’s unexpected public declaration of love (which he did instead of breaking up with her because that is what people who get nervous do), she grabs another pilot and says “give me flying lessons” and then suddenly, with no preliminaries she is flying, nearly killing herself and her instructor, freaking out Bryan and I am sure a whole lot of other staff working in the hangar which she (haha slapstick again) clips and then she joyfully jumps out of the plane, declares that she is no longer Safe Katie and loves risk taking and tells Bryan she loves him.
I think the problem here relates back to the overall problem that I opened with. In category romance, the story needs to be tightly told and frankly there was way too much going on plotwise.There were too many characters in the book, there was slapstick humour and the main character changed too quickly from being phobic to being a risk taker. There were moments in the writing which I liked. The quiet verandah scene when the two were talking was tense and promising (until a slapstick LOLCat moment happened) but even the sex scene was not drawn out enough. One moment Katie is all “ZOMG you are too huge you will never fit” and then a couple of lines later Bryan is all smirk and suaveness “Hey babe, I told you I would fit”…at least they used a condom. I didn’t feel the book had aged and it didn’t feel anachronistic despite it being 15 years old.
The book had too many doing scenes and action scenes and very little time was spent in building the emotional connections that I seek in romance. Kiss Me, Katie! didn’t work for me on quite a few levels. This does not mean that I won’t read Jill Shalvis again. There was enough in the story and the writing that I liked. I recognise that this book could possibly have been her first foray outside the category form (I say possibly as I don’t definitively know if any of her previous books are linked) and I really appreciate that romance fiction publishing has always been about both the story at hand but also the promise of stronger, better stories to come and building an author’s body of work. It has been 15 years since this book has been published which allows for a lot of writing changes. I always enjoy going binge reading an new to me author so I will definitely venture reading more Jill Shalvis titles despite a book that I will consider a false start.
I own this book. I have no recollection as to how I obtained it, however it has been sitting on my shelves for many years and has an op shop price marking of $2 on the first page.