ARC Reviews

ARC REVIEW: If I Loved You Less by Tamsen Parker


38965901Publisher: Self-pub
Release Date: September 20, 2018
Received From: Review copy from the author

Matchmaking? Check. Surfing? Check. Falling in love? As if.

Sunny, striking, and satisfied with her life in paradise, Theodosia Sullivan sees no need for marriage. She does, however, relish serving as matchmaker for everyone who crosses her path. As the manager of her family’s surf shop in Hanalei Bay, that includes locals and tourists alike.

One person she won’t be playing Cupid for is the equally happy bachelorette down the street. Baker Kini ʻŌpūnui has been the owner of Queen’s Sweet Shop since her parents passed away and her younger brother married Theo’s older sister and moved to Oahu. Kini’s ready smile, haupia shortbread, and lilikoi malasadas are staples of Hanalei’s main street.

However, Theo’s matchmaking machinations and social scheming soon become less charming—even hazardous—to everyone involved. And when she fails to heed Kini’s warnings about her meddling, she may be more successful than she ever intended. Theo has to face the prospect of Kini ending up with someone else, just as she realizes she’s loved Kini all along.

A modern retelling of Jane Austen’s Emma.


GENDER: cisgender


TROPES: friends to lovers, age gap
TAGS: adult, contemporary, retelling, romance, queer romance, queer characters, Hawaiian character, fat character
WARNINGS: anti-ace language, racism, parental death mention, binary language, suicide mention, suicide joke (“social suicide”), alcohol, drug usage mention, misogyny, internalized misogyny, sexual assault (non-consensual groping), anti-sapphic language (“just hadn’t met the right man”), classism, potential outing, gaslighting, cheating (male character is engaged, keeps it a secret, and makes advances toward the main character, sometimes in front of his fiancee)


Previously, I’ve read one of Tamsen Parker’s books and liked it, so I was hopefully I would enjoy this one, even if EMMA is my least favorite Jane Austen novel. Unfortunately, this retelling is incredibly true to the original, which means it carries over a  lot of the same issues into this new book. Ones that are really hard to overlook, especially in the time in which we live, which I think was wildly exacerbated by the fact that the novel is entirely from Theo’s (Emma’s) point of view, as in EMMA.

I had a very hard time with Theo’s narrative voice from the very first page. At first, I thought it was just because it wasn’t one I’m used to and so it was grating on my news. Which is certainly part of the case, but is also largely due to the fact that, as I mentioned, IF I LOVED YOU LESS is very accurate to the original. And I didn’t care for Emma as a character either. Weirdly, though, Theo is somehow even more annoying, self-centered, obnoxious, and oblivious that Emma ever was, and she has an even harsher lack of boundaries. The only people’s boundaries she really ever respects, throughout the entirety of the novel, are her own, her fathers, and Kini’s (IILYL’s Mr. Knightley).

Also, she has a disturbing obsession with Austin, the son of one of her neighbors, who she was friends with as a child. When they were five, his parents divorced and his mother moved them from Hawaii to the mainland, and for the following twenty years, the only information she knows is what Jim, and later Charlotte, has passed down. Theo has no social media, makes no moves to keep in contact with Austin through texting or email or anything, and yet…she still acts as if they’re best friends and could potentially get married someday if she doesn’t find a woman to fall in love with. It was weird and creepy, and relatively implausible considering the technological advances of the contemporary world. (And listen, I’m sorry, but if you have not seen so much as a picture of someone in over twenty years, it’s pretty unbelievable you would recognize them on sight, unless you have an eidetic memory.)

Falling in line with the original text also, Theo has a frankly unhealthy mindset towards Kini. At multiple points throughout the novel, she makes comments that essentially boil down to “no one can have Kini but me,” and an actual line from the book is: “The strange thing was that, even though she wanted to get into Kini’s pants, she thought she might be satisfied knowing that Kini wouldn’t be with anyone else.” That’s just…upsetting and deeply unfair to Kini, even if it is only a thought in Theo’s head. Throughout the novel, I was really uncomfortable with this aspect of the “romance” (and I wouldn’t even go so far as to qualify this book as a romance, to be honest), to the point that I really didn’t want them to even get together by the end. (Which they do, obviously. In the last fifteen pages. With the most boring “I love you” moment I’ve possibly ever read.)

Additionally, there’s so so much internalized misogyny from Theo’s point of view. Which, again, is a holdover from the original, but it’s a more difficult pill to swallow when the book is in a contemporary setting like this one. While Theo loves Kini and Charlotte (and herself) a lot and respects them, she spends the entire book tearing down other women. She does it with Laurel (IILYL’s Harriet) in the beginning, and every now and then throughout, but she does it all the time towards other characters like Jessica, Bea, and Stella. For no apparent reason, other than she clearly thinks she’s better than them. It’s infuriating and exhausting, and I hated it.

And speaking of Jessica, there was one particular instance relating to her through Theo that enraged me and almost made me DNF the book. At one point, there’s an implication that Jessica might be queer and engaging in an affair with her college advisor, who’s also a woman. When Theo hears this, she spends nearly two whole pages narrating in her head about how she should subtly let Jessica know that she can trust Theo with her sexuality, even though they’ve never been friendly, because Theo won’t spread it around in the island gossip circle. Then, on literally the next page, she blabs to Austin that people are speculating Jessica is queer and sleeping with her teacher. After this block of text saying how trustworthy she is…Theo immediately goes and tells someone else…okay, you’re really not instilling a lot of confidence in yourself!

Alongside all of this, I had a few other issues with the book that were just added irritants. It was a little strange that, even knowing Theo/Emma and Kini/Knightley end up together, Parker established Theo’s sister and Kini’s brother as a married couple, thus making Theo and Kini in-laws. It wasn’t the biggest dealbreaker in the novel, but it was another reason that made it difficult for me to want them together. Also, the narration frequently introduces a bunch of random characters by just saying their names and then continuing on with the thought, instead of giving any context. The reader is clearly expected to just know who all these people are without any information, and it made things difficult to follow and honestly made me stop caring pretty early on.

Also, it’s implied by a brief mention of her darker skin, name, and speaking bits and pieces of an Indigenous language, that Kini is Native Hawaiian but that’s never explicitly specified. I’m not sure how great the rep is outside of that as I am not Pasifika, but it’s worth mentioning that Kini is coded that way.

Finally, there was one line, a throwaway line, that hit me pretty hard: “Who could love someone so reserved?” Austin says this to Theo during one (of the many) instance of them bashing on Jessica, who is more shy and distant than the two of them. And as someone who’s probably more like Jessica, it felt a bit like a punch to the gut, telling me that no one will love me because it takes a while to get to know me. It was just really hurtful and unnecessary.

And so, though I went into the novel with an open mind, ready and willing to love it, I came out on the other side feeling wrung out and exhausted and wishing I could get those hours of reading back.




TamsenParker-131Tamsen Parker is a stay-at-home mom by day, erotic romance writer by naptime. She lives with her family outside of Boston, where she tweets too much, sleeps too little and is always in the middle of a book. Aside from good food, sweet rieslings and gin cocktails, she has a fondness for monograms and subway maps. She should really start drinking coffee.

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