If At First You Don’t Succeed, Make a Bonfire & Meet a Fireman

If You Ask Me begins with the seemingly picturesque life of Violet, aka Sweetie, of the Dear Sweetie advice column in North Carolina. Dear Sweetie is up for syndication and Violet is excited to share the news with her husband of over a decade, Sam. That is, until she comes home to Sam in bed with Shelby, the neighborhood runner with a perfect ponytail who excessively wears short shorts.

Violet does what any scorned woman would: she binge drinks Blue Moons, sets her husband’s belongings on fire in a makeshift bonfire in her front yard, and then hits her mother-in-law’s car. She’s on a warpath. Has she gone too far? Perhaps, but Libby Hubscher’s writing makes us love Violet nonetheless, and defend her actions to the very end.

Meeting your future love interest at your impromptu bonfire of Michael Jordan memorabilia and Prada loafers is certainly one heck of a meet-cute. That’s just what happens when Violet meets Dez. Dez is a fireman with his own issues he’d like to keep bottled up. That’s what helps him and Violet bond as they’re both getting over their own losses.

Dez comes off as the picturesque male lead in this romantic comedy/drama. The first time we meet him, he’s giving Violet advice in the form of a quote from Untamed by Glennon Doyle: “It’s rough, but Glennon Doyle says we can do hard things. We can make it through.” Dez quotes from books, teaches morning yoga, and delivers coffee and croissants. He’s nothing like the stereotypical fireman depicted in many romance novels – imagine rugged firemen on covers with no shirts, suspenders, and all grimy. Dez is sweet and ready to stick with Violet as she slowly learns it’s okay to not be okay and it’s not realistic to always be perfect for everyone.

Charming, funny, and emotional. If You Ask Me has its heart on its sleeve. Libby Hubscher certainly delivers in her second novel. Hubscher is a fiction author and scientist. She has a Doctor of Philosophy in molecular toxicology from North Carolina State University. While being a fiction author and writing for textbooks and science journals are very different, you can see it in her writing style. She has a matter-of-fact way of writing, and you can tell research has gone into the life of an advice columnist and fireman. Reading Hubscher’s biography on her website and the seven facts about her, it’s easy to see how they play into her writing. Her love of The Great British Bake Off is clear in Violet and her mother’s obsession with baking desserts. Hubscher’s multiple concussions makes me think of Violet’s unfortunate visit to the emergency room. The fact Hubscher has written longer texts does not surprise me. I ordered this book online and admit I was a little surprised by how thick it was when it came in the mail. The cover reminded me of the small, short chunky romance novels my mother would read on the beach when I was growing up, so that’s what I imagined this book would look like. While the book is quite thick, and I admit lugging it around to read it on my train rides was not fun, it was so worth it. There was never a moment where I thought the book should end here.

If You Ask Me (Penguin Random House, March 2022) is Libby Hubscher’s second novel. Her debut book, Meet Me In Paradise, also from Penguin Random House, came out in March 2021. Meet Me In Paradise is about loss and grief as main character, Marin, struggles to live her life after the passing of her mother. In a tumultuous story about grief, family, and falling in love, Marin heals from her loss. If You Ask Me is the perfect follow-up. Libby Hubscher proves herself a talented writer who can intertwine love and loss and healing all together, while bringing in lightness and humor.

If You Ask Me goes deeper than expected, delving into alcohol abuse, infidelity, infertility, miscarriage, and anxiety. If you judged the book by its cover, with its adorable artwork done by Daniel Brount, you’d think you’re getting a happy story about a writer and a fireman. You do. But you also get so much more. You get the struggles of going through an anxiety attack, healing after a loss – something multiple characters in the novel struggle through. Though filled with heartbreak, there is also well-deserved joy. The book makes you work for its happy ending without making it feel like work.

While most of the novel was successful, there were some minor moments that felt unmerited. The novel tries to take on too many issues as it delves into the struggles women of color face in workplaces (a task it takes on for a hot second, but that’s it). It’s more about how the white female protagonist has been ignorant to her friend’s struggles. It feels very out-of-place in the novel and reads as more of a token acknowledgement of the struggles women of color face. If anything, turning the difficulties faced by Kyra, Violet’s friend and boss, into another issue for Violet feels in line with the idea of white knights. Not quite identical, but in the same vein. Kyra is the strong best friend archetype, and voice of reason for Violet throughout the novel. She’s likable in many respects, but deserved more time in the spotlight. She was underdeveloped and should have been given more space in the novel.

Similarly, there is another moment in the novel that does not feel as worked-up-to and well-deserved as the rest of the novel. A revelation is made about Violet’s friend and coworker, Ashleigh. About 200 pages in, we find out Ashleigh saw her husband touch Violet’s ass in a scene that isn’t in the book, and this has prompted Ashleigh to enact revenge on Violet. It does feel like a letdown, since Ashleigh’s revenge plays a big role in the novel but we never see it coming. This revelation delivers on the shock value, but feels like it comes out of nowhere.

While it has its negatives, If You Ask Me delivers when it comes to heartbreak, healing, and love. We feel Violet’s raw emotions and can’t help but love her constantly supportive mother. We hate Sam and Shelby. I have to give Hubscher props for not just painting the two as simply the villains of Violet’s story. Instead, even these characters have more than one dimension to them. I fell in love with Dez as Violet did. Dez is the optime of if a man wanted to, he would.

Libby Hubscher doesn’t shy away from the heartache. She embraces the flaws of her characters and uses them to write one of the most relatable romance novels I have picked up. This book is for the people who struggle with the changes and mix-ups of life. Violet’s vulnerability speaks to readers. If You Ask Me is the perfect depiction of finding your way and the difficult journey to heal oneself.

Hubscher, Libby. If You Ask Me. Penguin Random House, March 2022. 368 Pages, $16.