Book Review: If You Only Knew, by Jea Hawkins
by Brittany B. | 1/15/2020
I can confidently say that If You Only Knew, by Jea Hawkins, did not live up to my expectations. Perhaps my expectations were far too high going into reading this short Kindle exclusive. I read the synopsis and was immediately intrigued as to how the premise of this story could be anything other than problematic and how Hawkins was able to pull it off:
When novelist Sabrina Covell wakes up to a beautiful woman sipping coffee in her kitchen, she wonders what kind of mess her sister left her with this time. Another short-term love affair, another broken heart, courtesy of ruthless anchorwoman Miranda Covell.
Blythe Jansen isn’t any ordinary guest in the family’s Martha’s Vineyard home. She’s an accomplished photographer who’s not afraid to get to the heart of the matter with her subjects. Not only that, but Miranda seems to think Sabrina needs a fake relationship to save her image.
Sabrina is tired of dealing with the fallout of her sister’s romantic conquests, not to mention living in her overbearing shadow. Yet, she can’t deny her attraction to Blythe. Maybe it’s the lonely summer nights or the silence broken only by the crashing of the waves, but Sabrina decides to let Blythe stay for the season.
What starts out as a game quickly turns into something more when Blythe reveals what she wants: Sabrina’s heart. Too bad Sabrina has been burned twice before by her sister’s ex-girlfriends and doesn’t expect this to be any different.
The last line of the summary was what initially grabbed me and convinced me to read this book for a review: “Too bad Sabrina has been burned twice before by her sister’s ex-girlfriends and doesn’t expect this to any different.” Whoof. I read that and immediately thought, “Wait, this will make it the third ex of your sister that you’re dating? That’s not healthy. Like, at all.”
It is made clear that although the book is set in Martha’s Vineyard (an island off of the coast of Massachusetts) that Sabrina and her sister grew up on the mainland and came to the island for their summers while also indicating that they grew up around or frequented Boston. The book fails to establish when the book is taking place, but Boston, being a metropolis, has pocket communities for queer individuals. Being that is canon in this book, I find it incredibly hard to believe that Sabrina’s consistent introduction to women who are also interested in women comes from people who have slept with or had some sort of fling with her older sister. The book states it has been about ten years since her last real relationship, which, if I remember correctly, was the second ex of her sister’s that she’d dated.
Where this third time is “different,” is that Sabrina’s sister, Miranda – who is a news anchor and relatively famous often brings her one night stands to Sabrina’s house in Martha’s Vineyard – their standing deal is that she has to make up for it by bringing her coffee and a bagel. As this book starts, the usual one night stand that her sister comes with a surprise – Miranda brought her, Blythe, for Sabrina (after it is insinuated that Blythe and Miranda have had a fling for a while). It’s set up by an interview that Miranda did, where she calls her sister out on still being single and a “lonely spinster” despite being a relatively successful author, which then plants the seed of a “fake dating” trope to try and get out of the web that Miranda has so intricately crafted.
What irks me the most about If She Only Knew is the idea of pushing a relationship onto someone. Sabrina was perfectly content in her life without a partner with her habits and her writing and her career. But because her sister comes and leaves a “present” for her (and by present we’re talking about Blythe, a living, breathing, person) and an article calling into slander that she’s single, which her publicist makes a huge stink about, Sabrina then believes that she absolutely has to go along with this ridiculous fake dating scheme or else her reputation as a writer will be tarnished. That bothered me more than anything to do with being with a sibling’s ex. Cause whatever, it’s life, shit happens – sometimes you can’t help loving who you love. But the sheer pressure of Sabrina to be in a relationship to be perceived as successful is utter bullshit.
Sorry readers – short rant that isn’t entirely related to the book:
The entire rhetoric of needing to be in a relationship to be seen as successful or taken seriously in life utterly erases any type of person who may not be interested in a relationship, be they asexual, aromantic, gray/greysexual folks or any other orientation that can be defined in not having romantic or sexual interest in others or even people who aren’t and just don’t want to date. These folks are just as valid as the rest of us and they shouldn’t be required to perform societies ridiculous notions of what success looks like. A person, of any gender(s) or orientation(s) should be allowed to be successful completely and wholly by themselves. Their love life (or intentional or unintentional lack thereof) should have absolutely zero reflection on their professional and social achievements in life. Period.
Now that we all know where I stand on that – back to the book.
Beyond the premise of the book, there were a lot of other factors that led to my dislike of it. Sabrina’s age isn’t consistent (there’s a point where it indicates she is in her late thirties and then shifts into her forties) and the cover of the book is no help because the woman on the cover looks like she’s young enough to be in high school, which doesn’t reflect any of the characters in the book. There is also a substantial age difference between Blythe and Sabrina which is hardly a consideration aside from admiring her younger body (Sabrina is 35-45 and Blythe is in College… so 21-22?). There’s a lot of material in having a 13 to 23 year age difference that could be used for all sorts of literary goodies (tension, character arcs, and development, etc.) in a romantic story, but If She Only Knew pretty much ignored it.
The general pacing is too quick in a lot of spots and the tension is pretty weak throughout, making the budding feelings between Blythe and Sabrina less than believable. Without spoiling the plot twist or resolution of this story, there are several scenes where big things happen and then it is days or weeks later and there isn’t a real sense of conclusion to it, just on-going brooding for lack of a better term. Arguments between Sabrina and Miranda or between Sabrina and Blythe don’t have enough build-up to fully feel the ramifications of the argument and often times I was halfway through the dialogue of a scene before it clicked they were arguing. And because there were issues with the pacing, when the plot twist happens, I as a reader was barely given time to process it before being shuffled onto the next scene.
The other thing that the narrative does that is one of my least favorite narrative choices is that because Sabrina is an author, the only way she can allow herself to start having physical affection for Blythe is by pretending to be one of her characters. This is seriously one of my least favorite things to read as a reader: characters, who are authors, relating to the world through their characters without the actual author of the story giving the reader insight into what those characters are like or how they’re different from the character author. Whenever I stumble on this in a narrative, it usually comes across as lazy writing. I would much rather read the full internal dialogue and anxieties about what they’re doing but it feels too good to stop rather than read a hand wave of “but I slipped into the mindset of one of my characters and everything was as it should be.” There’s no tension in slipping into another character. There is so much more tension and conflict in actually dealing with emotions and thoughts. And this is a consistent coping mechanism for Sabrina until she denounces it at the very end.
What this book does do well is the actual structural writing of it. It is grammatically sound and has a varied word choice that is easy and inviting to read. The only parts where I didn’t enjoy the sentence structure or word choice was during the second sex scene of the book – but that just comes down to personal taste and I won’t fault the book for that.
It isn’t often that I can’t think of more good things to say about a book. Perhaps this simply wasn’t the right Jea Hawkins book for me – as I said, I enjoyed her crafted writing. If you’ve read this book and you loved it, then that’s great! Not every book is meant for every reader and I think it is fantastic that we have so much more queer media to read that I can dislike something without fear of not finding other content to my liking. But if you’ve read If She Only Knew and enjoyed it, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Tell me what you liked about it in the comments below or @ me on twitter (@Queerblr) and tell me your thoughts there.
1 out of 5 Rainbows
Recommended Reader: Someone looking for an incredibly quick read that won’t require too much thinking for plot twists and turns. Someone who is just looking for something to read and tune out the rest of the world for a few hours depending on your reading speed.
You can find more from Jea Hawkins on Twitter