REVIEW: Canadian Boyfriend by Jenny Holiday

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Content notes: disordered eating, death of a spouse, toxic parent, anxiety, panic attacks

Dear Jenny Holiday,

Aurora (Rory) Evans studied ballet in New York but left after realising that the demands of the ballet world had resulted in her developing disordered eating and anxiety. Her toxic mother was extremely disappointed that Rory quit and immediately ceased providing any financial support to her – unless she was prepared to go back to New York and ballet. Rory was not.  Now Rory is a  jazz/tap dance teacher/barista back home in Minnetonka, Minnesota. She loves her teaching at Miss Miller’s – mostly little kids who will never be professional dancers and fully embraces Miss Miller’s Morals:

Everybody is welcome at Miss Miller’s.

Everybody can dance.

Dancing is supposed to be fun.

The end.

It took Rory a long time to dance again but meeting Gretchen Miller at the Starbucks where she also works opened dancing up again for her.

Rory grew up very isolated from her peers. She was so busy with dance and so often away from school as a result, she developed a reputation for being a snob – even though she was just shy. She didn’t go to school dances or have friends. She was a very lonely child. So, when she was 16 and working at a coffee shop on weekends and met “Mike” a hockey player from Canada in town for the weekend, she decided to invent her “Canadian Boyfriend”. She wrote to him for several years – letters that were never sent of course – purchased gifts “from him” and used Mike’s hockey as the excuse as to why her peers never got to meet him. She never thought she would meet Mike again. Until she did.

Eleven-year-old Olivia Kowalski returns to Miss Rory’s Tap3 class after the death of her mother seven months earlier. Olivia’s dad is Mike Martin, a defenseman for the Minnesota Lumberjacks – and she’s pretty sure – almost-but-not-quite positive really – that Mike Martin is her Canadian Boyfriend.

Olivia and Mike are just beginning to find their feet after the death of their mother/wife, Sarah. Olivia is not biologically Mike’s daughter but he doesn’t care about that. He’s known and loved her since she was one and as far as he’s concerned, she’s his. There’s some tension with Sarah’s parents over custody but Olivia wanted to live with Mike and that was that. Both of them go to therapy and one of the things the therapist recommended was to identify two things which made Olivia happy and do them. One of them was dance class with Miss Rory.

Sarah told me once, when I asked her how she’d gotten through the hard times in her life—and she’d had some hard times—that the trick was to “look for the bright things and hold on to those.”

Aurora Evans was a bright thing.

I could see why Olivia liked her so much.

As Mike returns to hockey (one of his own happy things), he needs assistance with Olivia and Rory steps in. Before long, Rory is Olivia’s sort-of nanny and is living in Mike’s basement which leads to lots of proximity for their simmering attraction to take hold.

Rory is a delight. She is sparkling and vibrant, kind of quirky, a little chaotic in her energy, kind and generous. She’s also about to learn how to stand for herself instead of bending herself into a pretzel to please others. Leaving New York and the ballet academy/college was one of the hardest things she’d ever done and a rare time she’d stood up to her mother and for herself. Over the course of the book, she learns how to say what she wants, how to be herself – still kind and generous – but also not put up with other people’s bullshit. She gets some (more) therapy and deals with her remaining issues with food (her therapist specialises in intuitive eating and teaches her that food is morally neutral). She stands up to her mother, she advocates for herself and her own happiness.

I felt for child/teen Rory and understood what led her to create her Canadian Boyfriend. I was glad it wasn’t mentioned with quite as much frequency throughout the main body of the book as in the prologue because it was getting tired very quickly. It took me a long time to really understand what the problem was with Mike being her Canadian Boyfriend and her not telling him. After all, Mike was a guy she met in the mall for a couple of minutes well over a decade ago. He was the inspiration for her boyfriend but that’s about it. She never really knew Mike at all. Why did she need to tell him at all?

Mike has a think about honesty – Sarah had been lying to him about something before she died – and he is also quite hung up on people liking him for him and not for hockey. He dislikes being thought of as any kind of celebrity and actively avoids the spotlight. I still had to squint a little to understand why it would be the major conflict of their romance that Rory hadn’t told him about their earlier interaction and that she had manufactured a boyfriend as a teen, a boyfriend with his name. It just didn’t seem like a big deal to me. Rory was not with Mike because of any earlier interaction. She didn’t seek him out in some kind of weird stalker obsession. I could see that this was the conflict that was coming though so I tried to get my head around it. I only partially succeeded.

I did understand Mike’s issues. I’m not saying that he was weak or bad or wrong for feeling as he did about honesty or about celebrity. I just struggled to see what the letters Rory wrote to “Mike” had to do with him.

Mike is a great dad and a good guy. I liked him very much. I liked how he took on board the things he learned about in therapy – about emotional labour and all the things that go into planning a party or getting a child to school (for instance) and that he stepped up.

He and Rory are great together too. In Mike (whom Rory always refers to as “Mike Martin” in the book – always the two names. I didn’t mind it.) Rory finds someone she can spread her wings with, someone who will listen and allow her to come to her own conclusions while gently encouraging her and supporting her all the way. Rory is indeed a bright thing and she makes Mike’s life better in all the ways. Olivia adores her.

From the very first chapter right up until quite near the end, I was all in on Canadian Boyfriend. Where it fell down a little for me was at the end. It didn’t quite stick the landing. I had questions about Olivia’s reaction to what was happening (I’m trying to avoid spoilers) and found it unbelievable that she would accept the new status quo so easily. But there was just the one line about her feelings and it was far too mild for the Olivia I had come to know.  And, as I said earlier, that conflict seemed less problematic to me than it did to both Mike and Aurora (Mike always calls Rory her full name).

I loved Gretchen – the “Miss Miller”. Eight years Rory’s senior, she is kind of a big sister figure with, when it comes to Rory at least, a maternal undertone. Gretchen is practical, self-aware and direct. (Her book is next and I can hardly wait to discover who will be her romantic pairing. #hereforit)

90% of the book was fantastic. Funny, endearing, sexy and about 10% of the book (maybe less) was not as enjoyable for me and maybe also a little rushed (the two things may be linked). But overall, Canadian Boyfriend was mostly delight. I am looking forward to the audiobook – for all that I have some criticisms of the story, it is one I will no doubt want to revisit.

Aurora laughed. She had a high, melodious laugh that erupted out of her in little bursts that sounded the way light looked. Part of her bright-thing appeal, I guess.

Grade: B+

Regards,
Kaetrin

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