After making a splash with her debut novel The Charm Offensive, Alison Cochrun brings a festive queer rom com to keep the yuletides gay. Her sophomore novel, Kiss Her Once for Me, follows Ellie Oliver, a young woman who, one year ago, moved to Portland to pursue her dream animation job (shout out to the Boxtrolls shout out). On Christmas Eve, a bookstore meet-cute leads Ellie to fall in love with a woman over a day, but after a betrayal and losing her job after a few months, Ellie’s life falls apart.
Cue the following year. Ellie works as a barista and struggles to make ends meet. When the coffee shop’s landlord, Andrew Kim-Prescott, offers a marriage of convenience, Ellie agrees and will spend a week with his family for Christmas to sell the ruse. However, when Ellie learns the mystery woman is Andrew’s sister, she must choose between the benefits of the fake marriage or the risk of a real relationship.
Cochrun wraps a few major themes into the story, and one that especially jumps out centers on family and its varying dynamics. For starters, much of Ellie’s anxiety and general habits spawn from a parasitic relationship with her mother Linds, which later informs her attachment to Kim-Prescotts. It’s important to note that Ellie knows how the relationship harms her, yet Cochrun emphasizes that it’s that same harm aiding a toxic cycle of Linds asking too much and Ellie struggling to say no. There are few scenes in which the two actually talk to one another, but readers become just as aware of the relationship as Ellie is. Ellie is worth more than what she can or can’t give to Linds. However, much of what readers learn about Ellie’s personality is because of her mother, and Cochrun ensures not to gloss over it.
But the relationships aren’t all toxic, as demonstrated through the Kim-Prescotts. While the marriage is fake, every ounce of kindness and warmth the Kim-Prescotts extend to Ellie is entirely genuine. Ellie notes it within the book, but something Cochrun does especially well is hit on the nostalgia of Christmas. Whether readers can identify with it or not, they will experience a similar longing that Ellie does, wanting to be wrapped up in the silly and loving traditions of the family. Cochrun immediately draws a stark contrast between the K-Ps and Linds, again emphasizing the damage while also giving Ellie a space to feel welcomed and loved. She has a great dynamic with Andrew and Jack, his sister, as she finds ways to connect with both on various levels.
Individually, Ellie holds her own as a protagonist. With a first person POV, Cochrun delves into Ellie’s psyche and gives readers a chance to gain a deeper sense of how Ellie’s anxiety and art-geared brain operates. From the art perspective, it was interesting to read how Ellie processes the world around her as she notes how she would draw people or places. While she uses it as a coping mechanism, Cochrun brings a certain sense of wonder with Ellie; she’s cynical and struggles with her ideas of failure, but she still captures beauty in anything that holds some meaning to her. Moreover, when things fall apart, she acknowledges her part in it rather than try to pin full blame on someone else.
Kiss Her Once for Me is a cozy story that shares its warmth with readers. Cochrun brings the cheer that many often associate with Christmas yet never disregards the cons that may come with it. She offers compassionate examinations of failure and its root in anxiety, providing affirmation to readers who relate and insight to those who don’t. Her characters are messy and compelling and burst off the page in a tinsel-fueled blaze of glory. Even in the tougher moments, it’s a celebration of demisexuality and queerness, of found and chosen family, and of finding strength in vulnerability.
Kiss Her Once for Me is out now online and in stores.