Need You Now by Emma Douglas

I picked up this book to read because one of my favorite strains of reading catnip is the tension between public selves and private selves. This is a tricky reading niche for me to fill, as I don’t often enjoy rock star romances, though that trope would be ideal for that particular tension. Since identifying and refining my reading catnip is an ever-evolving process, I keep looking for different settings in which that tension might be explored.

In this book, the hero, Caleb White, is a famous top-seeded tennis player who has just announced his retirement rather abruptly. The heroine, Faith Harper, is the daughter of a famous (and now deceased) rock star. She runs the family business, which consists of a recording studio, the business of her late father’s band’s archives, and an annual must-see music festival held on the island of Lansing, which is off the coast of southern California. The band members purchased a lot of the land on the western side of the island and each built homes on the property, but Faith and her mother and half-sister are the only ones who live there full-time. Her half-brother and the remaining band members are spread across the world pursuing different careers in the music industry.

Faith runs CloudFest, the music festival, and it’s a massive undertaking – though she doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on it. In this book, she decides to delegate an increasing number of the details to her very competent staff because she and Caleb have met and hooked up. Caleb was brought to the island by his friend Liam, who is somehow friends with Danny, one of the original members of the band. Liam might be a future hero, but I couldn’t tell for sure. Liam spends most of this book on the phone, or leaving the room to talk on his phone. As the friend who convinced Caleb to dodge the media spotlight of his surprise retirement by heading to an island music festival, he ends up spending very little time with Caleb. Which is cool because Caleb and Faith hit it off immediately, and have very satisfying sex while the festival is about to start.

I have a lot of disjointed thoughts about why this book left me personally very unsatisfied.

First, there are a few big emotional moments built into the story, but they don’t have much impact because as the reader I only learned about them a chapter or two prior. The emotional weight of resolving one of a character’s inner conflicts isn’t very heavy when it hasn’t been part of their narrative for more than 10 or 15 pages.

There’s very little conflict overall in this story. If you’re looking for low-conflict romance, this would probably work really well for you. There’s no deep emotional trauma, nor a whole lot of tear-wringing angst. Caleb is visiting the island; Faith lives there. He has a life of some sort in Malibu, though he dropped out of his life to go to CloudFest, and is essentially on vacation until he goes back to his “real world,” whatever that looks like. I don’t know much about it, now that I think about it, because the info-dumpy ruminations of Caleb’s life immediately before retirement are at the beginning of the book, but the story of how his retirement really came about and how it impacted the people in his life doesn’t come until the end. Because all of that information arrives at the end, and because he left so many people without a word and doesn’t answer their calls or messages, he kind of looks like a prick, and there aren’t any scenes with his manager, his coach, or his family to mitigate that.

I really didn’t believe that they were ready for a long-term HEA after a few days in the middle of a music festival that Faith is ostensibly running. The book operates on the idea, I think, that “I love you” is the same as lasting commitment, and I didn’t see nearly enough of them dealing with the real and somewhat serious issues in their respective lives to believe that they’d worked anything out beyond “we have great sex,” and “I like you a lot.” I wasn’t buying their emotional commitment. At one point Caleb mentions that being with Faith at CloudFest was like being in a bubble, and that bubble of privacy was over – but there wasn’t much plot after that point, so I had no idea how they were going to be together beyond a few lines of dialogue.

The conflict, the characters, and the setting are all rather superficial. Lansing seemed extraordinarily cut off from California, despite being connected so tightly to the music industry, especially during the festival. Though there were allegedly celebrities and really famous bands on the island, along with tens of thousands of music fans, as the reader, I didn’t see any impact of their presence, which seemed strange and disorienting.

I was also very bothered by the repeated descriptions of Caleb as “All-American,” often by Faith contrasting Caleb with herself, as she has tattoos, wears leather, and is the daughter of a famous rock star. Usually it was some form of put down to highlight a difference she felt was important as an obstacle between them – that she’s not the kind of girl an “All-American” boy like him would bring home to his mother (whom we don’t meet so this was a theoretical introduction).

For example:

He was sitting on the edge of the bed, dressed in just shorts, looking golden and rumpled and gorgeous. Too bright. He’d burn her up. “Look at you, you’re Mr. All-American Boy. And I’m…I’m not the kind of girl All-American Boys take home to their mothers.”

She uses the description a few times:

He was so big and blond and all-American looking he seemed out of place in this house.

What, exactly, does “All American” mean, other than “White?” NPR examined that same question. In sports, it means being an outstanding amateur athlete, but that’s not the context Faith meant, I don’t think. Every time the term was used in this book (and if I never see it again describing a romance character, it’ll be too soon), I thought more of a line from the top-voted Urban Dictionary definition:

This term is exclusively used by white people to describe their perfect vision of what they believe embodies a true American person. Whites fail to realize just how racist the term “All American” is.

Caleb is blonde, handsome, tall, and a successful athlete – and I’m presuming White because no other description was given. The repeated insistence that he was somehow emblematic of “America” was really bothersome and yanked me right out of the world of the story. Which is another thing: for an island located a ferry ride away from California, I didn’t read about any characters of color, nor any characters who were not cis-gendered and straight. There were some descriptions of interesting hair color choices, but no other indications of any representation or inclusiveness.

As for the aspect I was most curious about, the tension between Caleb and Faith’s public lives as celebrities and their private lives as individuals was minimal – which matches the other tensions in this story. Caleb, as I mentioned, is a tennis star, and Faith was in several of her dad’s music videos as an 18 year old, so she’s recognizable and pretty famous in the music community, especially within the substantial fandom of her father’s band. There was one moment where reporters swarmed on them, taking a picture of Faith kissing Caleb, but the impact was minimal. Their relative celebrity might as well have been a description of their hair color for all the amount it intruded in their lives. They never dealt with reporters or photographers beyond that one moment, despite there being a sizable press presence on the island for the festival – enough that the mayor invited the media to a big meal the night before the events began.

And speaking of the mayor, Faith recounts a few times that the mayor had been an obstacle in that year’s festival planning, partially out of some grudge the mayor holds against her, but for all those mentions, the mayor is never present in the story. Really, that’s kind of the pattern of this book: small balloons of tension that appear and then deflate without much fanfare. Mayor is obstacle? Eh, we never meet her. Caleb is famous? Eh, it doesn’t really affect him or Faith all that much. Faith is famous, too? Eh, very little impact there.

Altogether, this book read to me like a rather bland pilot episode where the surrounding characters, such as Faith’s mother, Faith’s half-siblings, her father, and the former band members were all much more interesting than Faith and Caleb. I’m curious about the other two books in the series, especially the one that should likely feature Faith’s sister, and the continuing romance of Faith’s mother, who seems to be interested in the father of the mayor who dislikes Faith so much. Plus, there’s a mystery element that might continue through the next two novels regarding some missing material belonging to Faith’s dad.

When I reached about 85% of the book and realized the festival wasn’t over yet, I was bummed. As I anticipated, the ending was very rushed, and the resolutions to the conflicts that remained were more shallow than the conflicts themselves, which collectively held about as much liquid depth as a contact lens. I liked the idea of the setting, and I liked many of the other characters, most of whom were connected in some way to Faith and her father. But the uninteresting, drab romance combined with the repetitive mentions of “All-American” and the inexplicable homogeneity of the cast meant that for me, this book was a deflating disappointment.

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