Not Your Usual New Adult Fare - One & Only by Viv Daniels
As much as I enjoyed my first foray--Easy by Tammara Webber--into the burgeoning "new adult" genre/category/whatever (seriously, peeps, is a genre or a category--this is making me crazy) and the brilliant and emotionally raw Come See About Me by C.K. Kelly Martin, the rest of my dabbling into this trend haven't turned out so well (though I liked Cora Carmack's Faking It--I can't resist the fake boyfriend trope).
Frankly, nearly every "new adult" read I've tried has been too trope-y, too over-the-top in the drama department or just plain too much.
However, when I learned (thanks to the lovely Angie) that Diana Peterfreund, whose books I've quite enjoyed (Killer unicorns, yo!), was starting a new adult contemporary romance series under the pen name Viv Daniels, I immediately added the first novel, One & Only, to my to-read list. Diana has such a solid track record, including the Secret Society Girl series, which was new adult when it was chick lit, I suspected she'd provide a solid entry into the genre/category/whatever.
One & Only opens two years prior to the main events of the story, with narrator Tess spending the summer before college attending a prestigious science program. While her peers are headed for top universities, Tess' future awaits at a state college. Despite her academic achievements, she can't pursue science at Canton College in her hometown because Tess is the secret daughter of one of Canton's benefactors and he's determined to keep her stashed away.
During that summer Tess meets Dylan, and the two collaborate on their summer project, and--as you'd guess--fall in nerd love. Tess severs contact with Dylan after their summer program ends and they head to their separate colleges, however.
Flash forward two years and Tess has won a scholarship and transferred to top-notch Canton College, where her opportunities to pursue her specialized field will be far greater. Finances are a worry, though, as her wealthy father refuses to support her education as he did when she was attending the state college far away from his life and "real" family in Canton. So in addition to the inevitable reconnecting with first love Dylan, Tess has to figure out how to make Canton pencil out financially, balancing school and long hours at her waitressing job.
These details of real college struggles were a big reason why One & Only worked for me while other college-set novels haven't.
Tess' first trip to the campus bookstore, and a whopping $1,500-plus textbook bill, drives home that staying at her choice school is going to be a challenge. The fatigue resulting from balancing a job as physically demanding as waitressing with a competitive academic program is no joke and, unlike in nearly every "new adult" novel I've tried to read, isn't glossed over.
I didn't want to be dependent on anyone, the way Mom and I had always been. I knew I was weak like her, willing to give up the things I wanted – like Canton – to make the people I loved happy. I knew I was weak like her and wouldn't be able to be with a guy without falling for him.
The same is true of the family issues in One & Only. Tess' family situation is lousy. Her mother is basically a "kept woman," accepting support in the form of rent money and art patronage in exchange keeping their daughter a secret. Tess' mother has effectively chosen this disempowered life over her daughter's well-being. This is probably the best-depicted conflict in the novel. Tess loves her mother, but can't respect her choices. Her mother's life is motivating for her in terms of always being in control of her own destiny and focusing on her independence. This nuance is another point at which One & Only adds layers lacking in many books marketed as "new adult."
Of course, romance is at the core of what's currently selling as new adult, and One & Only is definitely appealing in that department.
Nearly-ubiquitous character archetypes in new adult are the broken boy and/or damaged and/or innocent girl, and One & Only is thankfully free of all of these. Dylan is a good guy. He's smart and funny and a bit awkward, but not exaggeratedly so. Basically, he's a well-adjusted nerd who treats women well.
I know, shocking, right?
I folded my arms. “Are you my first regular?”
“Looks like it.” He grinned and opened the menu. He was in Sunday casuals—jeans, a Canton T-shirt, and those damn glasses. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was wearing them just for me. “What’s good here?”
“Well, you just missed the brunch prix-fixe, so I’m afraid it’s going to be a lot of sandwiches and salads.”
He eyed me over the top of the menu. “What do you like?”
“The BFG.” I pointed. “It’s bacon, fig, and goat cheese. Perfect for you.”
He snapped the menu shut. “Aww. You remembered.”
I remember everything,* I very nearly said but stopped myself just in time.
And there's Tess, who not only is actually smart (not just smart because the author tells us so, but because she demonstrates this over and over again), but also doesn't want to engage in girl-hate when she discovers that her first love Dylan is dating her half sister--who doesn't even know Tess exists. (Awkward!)
Sylvia wanted me to resent Hannah because she was dating Dylan. She wanted me to be jealous of her because Hannah had the affection and attention of the only guy I’d ever really liked. Sylvia had no freakin’ clue. I couldn’t allow myself to begin hating Hannah Swift. If I started down that path, I’d never, ever stop.
I loved that she was aware of her own boundaries and what's acceptable to her in terms of not only her romantic relationships, but also had clearly defined expectations of herself. It's a self-awareness I've not seen a lot in this genre/category/whatever, and I think it's important in the time of life "new adult" focuses on, since that's a period during which many people really start to work out these parameters for themselves.
The official summary for this novel makes it seem very love triangle-y, but don't be misled if you hate that sort of story. Same if you're averse to the cheating. The dissolution of the existing relationship between Hannah (the half-sister) and Dylan is handled, for lack of a better word, tastefully, though not without messiness. It's such a refreshing change from the "the other woman is a bitch/idiot/skank" narrative that is all too common in romance fiction.
The same is true of Tess' academic rival, who avoids being the evil girl foil as well. And the scenes between Tess and her coworkers at the cafe where she works were some of my favorite--they were the sorts of interactions that just nailed the experience of being 21 and trying to figure everything out. As a result, One & Only is a girl-positive narrative, even though that's not the story's focus.
In the end, a good writer is a good writer, and Diana Peterfreund is that, and it doesn't change when she's writing as Viv Daniels.
She's developed a strong, realistic college setting in this start to a series, with characters that have rich lives and believable struggles.
While I felt like the resolution to One & Only came a bit too quickly and tidily, and the family issues need more working out to really be fully satisfying (though the next book is from Hannah's point-of-view, so I imagine this will be explored further), as far as contemporary college-set romances go, One & Only sits high above much of the pack. So if you're curious about the new adult thing, this would be a good place to start. And if, like me, you're intrigued by the concept of new adult as a genre/category/whatever, but have found the execution lacking, One & Only might just work for you too.
*FYI, whenever I read/hear the phrase "I remember everything," I assume it's a Dawson's Creek shout-out--that's how I roll.
Disclosure: Review copy provided by the author.