The Holiday Kiss by Maggie Dallen

The Holiday Kiss Cover

G-rated, YA romantic comedy

The Holiday Kiss (Briarwood High #4) by Maggie Dallen

Reading Level: Young Adult
Release Date: May 25, 2018
Pages: 165 pages
Source: Purchased
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry

Maya Rivero attends a prestigious, private prep school, Briarwood High. She is one of the top students in her class, and more than that, she is that comparatively rare female who specializes in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) studies. She has been early-accepted to Harvard and cannot wait to leave high school behind less than six months from now. The social life on offer in high school bores her because it is filled with mindless pursuits such as sporting events, booze parties, and a swirling cesspool of teenage angst precipitated by a neverending parade of romantic relationships that are unthinkingly formed and melodramatically broken. Unlike her overemotional peers, Maya has chosen a rational approach to romance. During her freshman year, she met a boy whom she dispassionately determined would be a good match for her because they share the same interests. They mutually agreed on a practical relationship with little romance and no passion involved (which is why Maya is still a virgin). After three mildly pleasurable years together, last summer they placed their relationship on indefinate hiatus because Brandon is a year older and away at college. They have mutually decided that they may, or may not, choose to resume dating when she is in college too, if it doesn’t interfere with their studies.

Maya’s fellow senior, Luke Perona, is a tall, handsome, well-built athelete with an outgoing personality and, unsurprisingly due to these traits, is quite popular. Trading on that popularity, he has a history of casually dating a string of eager girls throughout his high school career and has had sex with what he terms, “his share” of them. There are multiple girls with whom he currently “hooks up with on and off” who, conveniently for Luke, seem to be as uncomplainingly satisfied as he is with meaningless sexual encounters.

Maya has never forgiven Luke for leading his buddies in incessantly teasing her throughout middle school and junior high. But today, due to his obsession with competing at every turn, he has transformed himself from merely an irritating jerk into an arch nemesis. As the entitled, charming and verbally persuasive captain of the school’s swim team, Luke has beaten her out for a grant she had hoped would be used to provide much needed funding for STEM programs at Briarwood. Instead, Luke has coaxed the grant committee into using it to pad the bottom line of the school’s already more-than-adequately funded, championship swim team.

In short, in every way that sensible, self-contained Maya can imagine, she and the impulsive, intrusive Luke are dead opposites. Until Maya’s mother discovers the one thing Maya and Luke do have in common–the fact that their mothers are both divorced–and turns that knowledge into a second, disastrous thing that she and Luke have in common. Their mothers become friends.

Maya’s mother is an outgoing, compassionate woman with a huge soft spot for fellow divorced single mothers, but her befriending of Luke’s recently divorced mother, Patty, runs far deeper than her usual, casually nurturing support of her sister divorcees. They become best friends. Maya would not have begrudged her mother an important friendship if her mother and Patty had kept their friendship to themselves. Instead, her lovably gregarious mother invites both Patty and her children, including Luke as well as his two little brothers, to their home for one of her mother’s “famous” taco nights, as she playfully calls them. Maya doesn’t mind the little boys, who are quite sweet, but Luke is the last person she wants to associate with. She’s barely begun to accept that nights like these might become a regular event when, out of the blue, her mother makes the situation disastrously worse.

Without consulting Maya, and without telling her until the very day it happens, her mother has invited Patty and her kids–once again, including Luke!–to join Maya and her mother for their annual Christmas trip. It has been their tradition for many years at Christmas to spend a quiet, restful week at a small, cozy, beachside resort in Puerto Escondido, Mexico. It is very near where Maya’s mother grew up, though she no longer has any family living there. Maya’s first indication of this debacle is when Patty and her boys join them at the airport, and Luke greets her with a smugly cheery grin.

I have recently read several of Maggie Dallen’s young adult (YA) novels. I have enjoyed them all and have been delighted to find her novels, because she writes what is, sadly, relatively rare in the YA genre, G-rated romantic comedies. Ms. Dallen also writes adult romance novels, and I am happy to report that she uses the two, main, expected conventions of romance plots found in that genre in her YA romances: once the two people who are the subject of the romance meet, there is no cheating, and there is a believable happily ever after (HEA).

I don’t personally like romantic triangles if they present a true dilemma, that is, a choice between two almost equally viable, enthralling possibilities (we have Twilight to thank for the prevalence of this in YA). It might seem on the surface that this book has a romantic triangle, but it is not a true triangle, because there is no real dilemma. Though Maya technically has a boyfriend, it is apparent from the start that they aren’t really together and have made no vows of fidelity. Further, their relationship sounds more like a business deal than a romance. Thus, this is what I personally see as a false triangle. It merely exists as a means for the heroine to grow beyond the very limited perspective she previously had of what constitutes a healthy, happy romance and move toward something far deeper.

In a classic romance plot of “enemies to lovers,” which in this G-rated version is “enemies to romance,” when done well, as is the case in this novel, the plot contains a staple of excellent character-driven fiction, a solid growth arc for both the romantic protagonists. They each have to evolve beyond their socially created “false self,” in this case the cliche Nerd and Jock roles, to a deeper, unique, “true self.” This process allows them to earn the fulfillment of True Love. This path is the ideal every romance novel, by definition, hopes to deliver, but very few actually do.

One of the reasons I tend to look for G-rated or “sweet” romances without overt sex is that far too many romance writers fill their books with sex at the expense of creating a believable emotional connection between the romantic protagonists that contains tenderness, understanding and a true connection of the mind and heart. When the lion’s share of the book’s focus is on lust and body parts, sexual obsession is inevitably presented as if it is romantic love. At the other end of the spectrum, in G-rated novels, if romance authors are not skilled at developing the emotional and mental connection between the romantic protagonists, especially when the book is billed as “romantic comedy,” such books become more chick lit than romance, because they are overloaded with embarrassing, slapstick scenes to make up for the missing sex.

This book makes none of those mistakes. The prime goal of a truly excellent romance is to put the two protagonists on the stage together as much as possible–and this book does that a whole lot–and allow them to interact with each other, fighting it out in a specific way. Their personality differences, especially their flaws, become rough stones rubbing away the harsh, false edges in order to reveal the smooth and delicately vulnerable, hidden, true self. That true self has suffered pain from past rejection, and it resists trusting due to fear of present and future rejection. Even so, it longs to connect in a profound and loving way. This romance ideal is what the author achieves with these two protagonists.

Both Maya and Luke start out with irritating flaws, but as their virtues begin to be slowly and surely revealed within their amusing, and often moving, interactions on the beach in Mexico, they become very sympathetic, likeable protagonists whom I enjoyed spending time with.

It is also a big plus for me personally to read a YA novel in which the teenage, Mexican-American protagonist is portrayed as an intelligent, responsible, ambitious girl, rather than a teenage male who is an Alpha, macho guy who is, at the least, in trouble with the law, if not an outright gangbanger. Now I’d very much like to see Maya’s male counterpart in a YA novel. I also appreciated it that Maya and her mother are both presented as bilingual (a huge accomplishment for anyone to achieve), and that they are justly proud of their heritage.

On the downside, as a personal complaint, it is a huge cliche that has been epidemic in romance novels for the past 40 years, such that most romance authors include it automatically, to describe the gorgeous, desirable romantic hero as having gotten his “share” of sex in the years prior to meeting the heroine. The actual meaning of this appalling term is that the hero regards fellow human beings as objects and possessions to be used at will for his own selfish, sexual gratification. Romance authors include this trope to give the hero enough sexual experience to supposedly make it believable that he is fabulous in bed. But how does a man become a sensitive lover when he has dehumanized his sexual partners? Secondly, romance authors disguise this seamy underside of the promiscuity of their heroes by portraying them as firmly believing they have never harmed any of their conquests because the women they use sexually “know the score.” That they accept freely, with no reservations, that they are nothing but warm bodies to the hero before he abandons them and flits merrily away to his next conquest. It is no better ethically that in the past 15 years or so, many romance authors have made their female protagonists equal opportunity sexual users. The truth is, there is no such thing as anyone (unless drunk or stoned and unable to truly give consent, or extremely emotionally or mentally damaged) who “knows the score,” that they are nothing but a vessel to be used to slake the lust of fellow human beings who arrogantly and callously believe they are owed sex on demand as a social perk of their beauty and/or wealth.

It also is rather unrealistic that a prestigious, private prep school, like the fictional Briarwood High of this YA series of books, would contain the teen-movie cliche of “jocks vs nerds” (sexy-and-dumb vs sexless-and-smart) civil war which, if it exists at all, would be far more believable in a public high school. The whole point of paying the astronomical tuition of a private prep school is to improve one’s chance of not only getting into a university, but an Ivy League university at that. This challenging goal cannot be achieved by being cavalier about one’s studies. Therefore, virtually everyone at a prep school is, by virtue of the very fact of their acceptance into the school, a “nerd,” if that derrogatory term is defined as taking one’s studies seriously.

Parental Guidance: No sex, only kissing. No drinking, drugs or wild parties. Only slightly PG in the sense that the hero muses about the fact that he has been sexually promiscuous in his past life, before he becomes involved with the heroine.

I rate this book as follows:

Heroine: 4

Hero: 4

Subcharacters: 4

Unusual Setting: 5

Romance Plot: 4

Writing: 4

Overall: 4