2022 was a great year for sapphic holiday romances, with the usual ones published by indie lesbian presses bolstered by a number of books put out by mainstream publishers. Kiss Her Once for Me by Alison Cochrun is one of the latter, and we are so lucky to have it. It is incredibly festive, effortlessly queer in a very Portland, OR kind of way, and totally adorable. Plus, it is trope-tastic in a very satisfyingly gay way and takes on themes of fear and intimacy with nuance and compassion for its characters.
Alison Cochrun writes in her acknowledgements that this book originated as a “fluffy holiday rom com about a lesbian Bill Pullman” aka a gay While You Were Sleeping. While that description isn’t inaccurate — I think fans of the movie will enjoy this book, although I wouldn’t be put off if you aren’t — you can definitely feel in the finished product how Kiss Her Once for Me evolved to be so much more. Truly no shade to relentlessly fluffy rom coms, they are a beautiful and necessary thing in this world. This book just isn’t that.
Kiss Her Once for Me takes place over two timelines: the present, aka this Christmas, and last Christmas. (Yes, queue up the Wham! song, which of course plays at the most inopportune times for our bi and demisexual heroine, Ellie, to rub salt in the wounds of her heartbreak). Last Christmas, Ellie thought she was on the road to success: she’d successfully landed a job at an animation studio in Portland, where she’d recently moved, and she’d had a romance novel worthy meet-cute at Powell’s bookstore when she and the butch of her dreams both reached for the last copy of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home at the same time. Ellie and said butch, Jack, spend an amazing snow day together exploring Portland, falling in love over the course of a day as you do, and end up spending the night in Jack’s Airstream trailer where they get to exploring each other, wink wink.
But something goes horribly wrong the next morning. As the dual narratives unfold, they alternately give readers sweet details of Ellie and Jack’s snow day and catch us up on Ellie’s present. This Christmas, Ellie is not doing so great. She got laid off from her job in animation, throwing her majorly off track in her carefully designed ten-year life plan. Things with Jack, which seemed so initially promising, didn’t work out. She’s working at a hipster coffee shop with an asshole boss. She is horribly broke, and her manipulative mom is guilting her into sending her money Ellie can’t spare. Her rent is being increased. Her only bright spots are the web comics she creates anonymously and her friendship with Ari, a fellow cafe employee.
Cochrun effortlessly balances the two timelines, stretching out the narrative tension of how and why Jack and Ellie imploded so soon after their magical day just long enough to keep the pacing propulsive but not too long. She’s got plenty of other tricks up her sleeve to keep readers enthralled and turning the pages. For one thing: romance tropes! So we know from the beginning this is a second chance love story, of two women who are torn apart by circumstances but brought back together serendipitously. Cochrun is just getting started, though. There are also many more staples of the romance genre on display in this book: the fake relationship! Having to get married to secure your inheritance! Getting snowed in together! Only one bed!! It’s a smorgasbord of romance tropes, made deliciously gay.
Back to Ellie and her dire situation. You can see how under such circumstances a girl might decide that agreeing to fake marry a property investment bro — the landlord of the coffee shop Ellie works at — is a decent idea. Enter Andrew Kim-Prescott, who proposes a drunken plan that will solve Ellie’s financial woes, help with her loneliness, and allow him to get the 2 million dollar inheritance his grandfather stipulated he had to be married to receive. Andrew offers Ellie ten percent of the inheritance to be his fake fiancée then wife for about a year before they part ways. Win-win, right? They’ll launch the pretend relationship by spending the Christmas holidays in Andrew’s family’s cabin. What could go wrong?
The (gay) twist here is that Ellie isn’t going to fall in actual love with the person she’s fake dating, as the trope usually goes. We know she’s still hung up on Jack from last Christmas. And in a delightfully expected way, you know that this awesome sister Andrew keeps talking about is, of course, Jack. Now Ellie is trapped in a huge rich person’s idea of a cabin in the snowy woods with her fake boyfriend and the woman who broke her heart! In the lead up to the reveal — because of course the truth eventually comes out — there are a ton of festive and wintery activities that make this book very Christmasy in the best cozy way. There is carol singing, ugly Christmas sweaters, tree decorating, cookie baking, a family Christmas photo shoot, a ski trip, and much more!
And it’s not just the content of Kiss Her Once for Me that is festive. Cochrun’s writing, on top of being very funny, is often thematically and seasonally on point. Take, for example, this description of Ellie’s anxiety: “My insides are a runny glass of eggnog.” When Andrew arrives in the coffee shop for the visit that sets the plot in motion, Ellie tells us: “A visit from Andrew Kim-Prescott is usually a highlight in my sad-hermit life, but this is just the flammable tinsel on the dried-out Charlie Brown Christmas tree of my day.” Christmasy metaphors abound!
In the middle of the book before the shit hits the fan, Cochrun also introduces two of my favorite secondary characters, Lovey and Meemaw. These ladies are two pot-smoking, drinking-sangria-first-thing-in-the-morning grandmas who are the previous wives of Jack and Andrew’s despicable now deceased grandfather. They are a nonstop delight. There’s also Dylan, Jack’s old friend who got disowned from their family when they came out as nonbinary and who’s been adopted by the Kim-Prescotts. Dylan is extremely prickly — in general but also for a very good reason I will not spoil for you — but underneath they’re a big pile of mush; they’re the kind of person who has a neck tattoo but is also a kindergarten teacher. Ellie might not be in love with Andrew, but she does fall for his family in the time they get to spend together, which makes the reality that she isn’t really joining their family all the more hard to swallow.
One thing I really appreciated about Kiss Her Once for Me was how deeply integrated queerness is into this story. I’ve read sapphic romances that feel like they could have worked equally well as a cishet romance if you’d simply swapped out the characters’ names and pronouns. There’s nothing wrong with books like that, per se. But Kiss Her Once for Me wouldn’t work as anything other than a queer romance. And that’s not because the plot hinges on homophobia either. The meet cute is so gay! The secondary romantic subplot is so gay! The friends are so gay! The dialogue is so gay! Take this sparkling Ellie and Jack scene full of gay banter, for example:
‘How have you never chopped wood before?’ I ask her as she grips the axe with an uncharacteristic lack of confidence.
‘When would I have chopped wood before?’ she practically shouts… ‘I had a very privileged upbringing!’
‘But you wear so much flannel.’
‘Everyone wears flannel! It’s Portland!’
‘And the Carhartt jacket.’
‘What is your issue with my jacket?’
‘And I’ve heard you talk about building a chicken coop.’
‘With a table saw.’ She brandishes the axe in my direction. ‘And why am I the one who has to chop the wood?’
‘Because you are the butch lesbian.’
She glares. ‘That’s all I am to you, isn’t it? A butch lesbian stereotype.’
‘No, you’re very complex and multifaceted, but your arm muscles are objectively bigger than mine, so you’re just going to have to do the stereotypical thing here.’
Another of the book’s strengths is the delicate balance between fun and humor and the heavy familial issues both Ellie and Jack are dealing with. Ellie has anxiety and a deep, deep fear of failure, rooted in her parents’ lifelong negligence. Her fear of failure is a habit borne out of being the kid of two parents who got accidentally pregnant when they were hardly out of childhood themselves and who kept the baby because of their Catholic background. It’s a recipe for resentful parents who blame their kid for her own existence. Maybe, Ellie thinks, if she never ever fails and is the perfect daughter, her parents will love her. Jack, for her part, is the decidedly less favored sibling in her family, but not because she’s gay. She’s not interested in or good at the kind of traditional academic learning her dad’s (wealthy) side of the family values, especially as he expects his kids to continue the family investment business. It’s meant years of Jack trying to fit herself into a box that was never right, and sacrificing some of her family’s support and respect in order to live her life doing what makes her happy, namely, being a baker.
One thing to love about romances is there’s no spoiling the end, at least not in a general sense. We know these two queer women end up making it work and get their happily-ever-after, because otherwise it wouldn’t qualify for the genre. The joy in reading an awesome romance like this one is the journey along the way and the specific ways that the book explores familiar themes and tropes. In that way, Kiss Her Once for Me is a truly stellar example of not just a holiday romance or a queer romance, but of any kind of romance because it’s so good at playing with genre expectations and at building fully realized leads who have character arcs separate but complementary to the love story. Plus, have I mentioned it is really fun and really gay?