Note: Out of respect to readers who have not yet had the chance to delve into this book, I have kept this review spoiler-free. All details on character and plot mentioned in this review do not go beyond what a reader will already know from the blurb on the back of the book.
Goodness, this has been a long time coming! I’ve been meaning to read ‘A Kiss To Wake Me’ since I pre-ordered it last year. Cheryl Eager is one of my ‘publishing sisters’ at 5310, as well as being a genuinely lovely person as far as I know her through our social media interactions. Although I don’t usually go for teen romance as a genre, the blurb told me that this was already going to be quite a different story from your usual boy-meets-girl formula. As an added bonus, reading the free ‘sample chapter’ on 5310’s website had already told me that I would like Cheryl’s writing style. It was a promising start. I placed my pre-order and added it to my long ‘to be read’ list with every intention of making it my top summer read.
‘A Kiss To Wake Me’ would’ve made a fabulous ‘garden read’ for the summer; something romantic and lovely to entertain me on a lovely warm day while sipping on a nice cool drink and watching the children play in the sunshine. Lovely idea, eh? But the summer came and went, and time got away from me. I ended up with a lot of editing work, which was great, but I never do recreational reading while editing someone else’s book, so sadly my summer plans to read ‘A Kiss To Wake Me’ fell by the wayside. However, due to a recent unexpected turn of events, I have suddenly found myself with a little more time than usual. My little boy hasn’t been well, and there’s not much you can do on a cold winter’s day while cuddling a sleeping toddler on the sofa for hours on end. Hello, Kindle. And hello to Cara and Jamie, whose story I’ve been so keen to get into ever since I first read the blurb of this beautiful book.
‘A Kiss to Wake Me’ is a teen romance- not among my usual top choices of genre, but I do like to keep an open mind when it comes to books, and stories like this one are the reason why I do. It’s got all of the sweetness and high-school drama you’d expect from a teen romance, but none of the cliches. The characters aren’t the most mature (nor would you expect them to be, they’re teenagers after all) yet the romance feels genuine and their interactions come across as sincere and believable. From the very start, with Cara’s frantic call to 911, begging for help after giving birth to a premature baby she had no idea she was even carrying, it was clear that this book was going to be something far more interesting than the stereotypical torrent of cheesy teenage angst that is so often associated with this genre. In fact, I can say with total honesty that this is the first teen romance I’ve ever read that has moved me to tears, and it did so more than once. Colour me impressed.
Let’s start with the cover. A beautiful turquoise background with cute pink flowers, the Colleen Hoover style design is so eye-catching, modern and fresh, it really suited the style of the novel itself. Two thumbs-up to the cover designer; they nailed it.
Characters and (spoiler-free) plot
Although the cover may be reminiscent of Co-Ho, I was delighted to find that the story and characters most certainly were not. I must admit I’ve never been a fan of Colleen’s work as her male characters are so often toxic, narcissistic control freaks who should make any self-respecting heroine run for the hills. My own readers will know that I fight hard in my novels against the glorification of toxic masculinity; as a past survivor, it's a high horse I refuse to come down from. My reading preferences are the same. Nothing makes me put down a book faster than an abusive mess of a man being held up as some bizarre attempt at a romantic paragon. This is especially true for teen romance, aimed at impressionable youngsters who really could do without thinking that this toxicity is acceptable (or heaven forbid, desirable) in their own relationships. Fortunately, though, I have no cause to get on my soapbox in the case of ‘A Kiss to Wake Me’. Edward Cullen, Christian Grey and Rhysand of the Night Court can get in the bin. The teen romance readers have Jamie Gallagher to swoon over now, and he’s SO much better.
Jamie is the refreshing opposite of all those toxic male leads you’ve so often seen before. He’s sweet, wholesome, respectful and unafraid to show his emotions in a positive and healthy way. There are no abusive he-men here, and this makes him very likeable and easy to empathise with. Yes, he does have his moments of jealousy, anger and poor decision making, but the healthy way he handles these negative feelings serve to make him more sympathetic and realistic. At no point to you ever worry that Cara is in any danger of being abused in any way by him, and he is man enough to reflect on his own actions and apologise when he’s not reacted to a situation as well as he could. Every interaction he has with Cara is absolutely one hundred percent respectful of her and her boundaries. For any teen reading this romance, Jamie and Cara are a beacon of everything a healthy relationship should be, and if I had a teenage daughter (or son, for that matter) I’d be more than happy with them book-crushing on Jamie. The part where Jamie finds out about Cara’s pregnancy and the possible causes for it is especially well-written; his emotion is so believable, it really has the reader feeling for him.
Cara, too, is a really well-written character with a sweet and believable personality. She radiates powerful ‘strong woman’ vibes without being aggressive or breaking character despite everything that happens to her. I won’t give away spoilers here, but her devastation in the face of her friend’s unforgivable behaviour towards her was visceral and had me in tears. I know I’m a sucker for any story involving babies- probably not helped by the fact that I read this book while cuddling my own poorly toddler- but Cara coming to terms with the shock of becoming an unexpected mother while dealing with her own feelings of loss, betrayal and fear had me hooked. Dealing with having a baby in the NICU is hard on any parent, let alone a teen who didn't even know she was pregnant (and yes, I know people it's happened to in real life). That whole section of the book pushed all of my buttons and had me melting like a pound of butter; I was a wreck reading it. Cheryl Eager did a fantastic job of giving a sensitive and emotional account from both Jamie and Cara’s perspectives. Yet despite all this, the story never felt bleak or depressing, with plenty of love and hope warming the background of even the characters’ lowest moments.
Themes and Tricky Issues
Let’s talk about themes now. I must admit, I had a few worries before reading ‘A Kiss To Wake Me’. Topics such as sex before marriage, drugs, teen sex and pregnancy can be controversial, but Cheryl has handled all of these themes with sensitivity and mindfulness. (Note: before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, don't worry, both Jamie and Cara are 18 and consenting adults. This book is a Lolita-free zone.) The book never comes across as ‘preachy’ or judgemental, and really the only strong moral messages it hammer home are 'consent is everything' and ‘incels are dangerous and should be stamped on’ (and if you have any argument with either of those statements, frankly you need to crawl back into a lake with your fellow pondlife). The more intimate scenes are also tastefully written and beautifully balanced between passion and sensitivity, with none of the awful cliches about 'soft folds' or 'proud members' (ick ick ick!) to spoil the romantic moments and otherwise make your eyes bleed. It was passionate but sweet, clearly written yet delicate, and honestly I think a lot of romance authors could learn a lot about writing great intimate scenes from this book.
Overall, I thought it was a lovely read. A great balance of realistic, likeable characters overcoming real problems. An engaging writing style which was a real page turner from start to finish. A tear-jerker which nonetheless always left you feeling warm and cosy inside, full of positive wholesome interactions between lovers, friends and families. I will be recommending it especially to my friends who have teenage daughters and want a great story that promotes how healthy relationships are supposed to look.
And you know what? I might still go through with that lovely idea of reading it in the garden with a nice cold drink in the summer while the kids play. Who doesn’t love to re-read a great book, eh?
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Disclaimer: Please note that I never accept money or any other type of payment in exchange for reviews, and always buy the books myself unless stated otherwise. I never publicly post any reviews for books I’ve rated lower than 4*, as not every book is for everyone and I believe it’s unfair to damage a hardworking author’s reputation over something that comes down to personal preference. This way, although my ratings may appear to average out high, you know that they always reflect my honest opinion.