Review: Giffin marries romance and history in ‘Meant to Be’

This cover image released by Ballantine shows "Meant To Be" by Emily Giffin. (Ballantine via AP)

This cover image released by Ballantine shows “Meant To Be” by Emily Giffin. (Ballantine via AP)

“Meant to Be” by Emily Giffin (Ballantine)

Joe Kingsley comes from a larger-than-life family with connections, achievements and celebrity akin to the Kennedys, complete with a family curse and everything. The pressure on him is immense to exceed his father’s vast accomplishments, before he died when Joe was only 3.

Cate Cooper’s upbringing is completely different. Her mother worked at diners to make ends meet until she could find a man to support the two of them. Seemingly the only thing that connects Cate to Joe is that her father also died when she was 3.

“Meant to Be” by Emily Giffin is a sweet and sensible romance firmly placed in the real world. The classic tale of unlikely lovers reimagines American history through the alternating voices of Joe and Cate from their childhood in the ’60s up to their fateful meeting in the ’90s.

Although the protagonists are roughly 25 and 30 when their courtship finally begins, they flirt like teenagers. When they move past flirtation, it wastes no time getting steamy. But Giffin’s approach to romance is layered, relishing in the bond between two people on emotional, intellectual and physical levels.

Cate’s early life is far more exciting than Joe’s, who mostly toils around begrudgingly doing what’s expected of him and being mildly successful due in large part to his status. Meanwhile, Cate struggles to escape an abusive household and build a life for herself in the grueling world of modeling.

But their disparities are not overlooked — Giffin uses Joe’s privilege to expose systemic inequities as his wise and gracious grandmother teaches him to empathetically use his power to help others.

“Meant to Be” balances classic romance scenes with nuggets of history and nuanced takes on modern issues. Giffin’s historical knowledge peeks out in well-placed pieces of reality woven into the greater fictional story, covering events ranging from the fatal 1967 Apollo test to the 1976 Soweto Massacre in South Africa.

As the book progresses the plot gets more predictable and upbeat, relaxing to the point of suspicion. Despite knowing things can’t keep getting better without some pitfall or drama, the big twist is still surprising when it finally comes.

The novel’s saccharine happy ending is syrupy sweet to excess, but after Cate’s tragic childhood and deeply embedded cynicism it’s not too tough a pill to swallow.

With 10 other novels under her belt, Giffin’s writing is consumable and rich, balancing dialog and descriptions to build a parallel world with convincing characters. “Meant to Be” proves you can have your romance and think deeply, too.

Donna Edwards
Donna Edwards
Donna is a text editor for the Asia-Pacific region.