Could you ever date that person from your childhood? Whether they tormented you or were simply weird, someone guaranteed to make your friends’ eyes go wide? Or, perhaps more richly in this case, what does it mean for someone who’s always running away and someone who feels perpetually left behind to find themselves incapable of staying apart, even if their connection seems doomed from the start?
In her first novel for adult readers, Ashley Herring Blake (Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, Girl Made of Stars) brings a fun mix of soul searching and sexiness, friendship, and family. The women of Delilah Green Doesn’t Care tease and tempt, dig into past hurts, and scheme in secret. With multiple decades’ worth of history between them, none of them expect anything new to happen, yet they all find the ground shifting beneath their feet over the course of the book, as their relationships to one another and to some of the people they value most shift dramatically, or simply become illuminated for the first time.
Delilah Green is a queer New York City photographer trying to make her mark on the art world, and she’s doing everything from waiting tables to shooting weddings and bar mitzvahs in the meantime. Claire Sutherland is a bisexual single mom doing the best she can for her 11-year-old daughter Ruby while running the bookstore her own mother used to own in Bright Falls, Oregon. The two women reunite during a charged interaction where only one of them recognizes the other at a bar in their hometown—the one Claire never got to leave because she got pregnant at 18, and the one Delilah left at 18 and (almost) never looked back. Delilah is back to photograph the wedding of her much-loathed stepsister Astrid Parker, a.k.a. Claire’s best friend, bringing back Delilah’s memories of mean girls and a lonely childhood.
If you’ve ever snarked at cishet weddings—especially WASPs, designer clothing in inappropriate settings, and the concept of “propriety”—then come sit by Delilah Green as she narrates alternating chapters, trying to entertain herself and cash a check she badly needs while low-key hoping to ruin her step monsters’ lives. Claire, on the other hand, seems to always be the most caring person in the room (to everyone other than herself) and offers another perspective on Delilah’s past, with both her own memories and her secondhand recollections of how her best friend/Delilah’s stepsister Astrid interpreted the same events.
The book deploys beloved tropes well, making favorites like “only one bed” as much a heartbreak for one of the leads as it is an opportunity for romantic tension. The very premise of Delilah’s presence—-that she’s there to photograph two weeks’ worth of wedding festivities—-capitalizes on the growing phenomenon of fussy, overstuffed nuptials, just begging readers to snark alongside Delilah and later Claire and Iris as they pratfall and plot their way through ruining and/or saving Astrid from her wedding.
Delilah Green Doesn’t Care understands that there’s no conflict between scheming to take down a controlling partner who doesn’t respect your friend while also dreaming of—-and getting!—-swoon-worthy romance like cute dates, good sex, and so much sizzling banter. It’s always satisfying to read a queer adult romance where the leads are equally as good a fit emotionally as they are sexually, with due care paid to the writing of both aspects of their relationship. These two openly want and yearn, but they don’t quietly pine. They are women of action, who go for what they want.
Family is a major aspect of the story that takes on different shapes for each woman in Bright Falls. While Delilah starts the story feeling like she has none, Claire is coming to terms with what it means to co-parent with a man who used to be very unreliable but is maybe turning the corner. Learning to open herself up again to sex and dating and having a life outside of motherhood are important themes for Claire as she reminds herself that she deserves to have a romantic life of her choosing.
One odd misstep—-it rings a bit hollow that Delilah apparently has had zero real friends her entire life, from childhood to just before age 30, a fact emphasized often throughout the book. The idea that a baby queer with a terrible home life would move to a place like NYC and not make any kind of found family for the next dozen years seems suspect, almost like it’s meant to make the inevitable move to Bright Falls (I mean we all know that’s where this is going, right?) more appealing.
Astrid is the fulcrum around which the multi-decade relationship of the lead couple pivots, the basis for the “enemies” portion of their enemies-to-lovers journey, yet Astrid herself remains largely a cipher up until the book’s final pages. It’s an attempt to preserve the eventual reveal of what’s at the heart of Astrid and Delilah’s dysfunctional dynamic, but the narrative is poorer for not allowing the sisters more opportunities to gradually work their way under one another’s skin, as Iris, Claire, and Delilah do, or even to simply allow Claire to let the reader in on who Astrid really is as a person when she’s not under her nightmare fiancée Spencer’s thrall. We only ever catch glimpses of Astrid’s interiority until the tail end of the story, even from her intuitive best friend’s perspective. Thankfully there’s an Astrid-centric sequel in the works, but this book is still weaker for almost exclusively drawing Astrid in broad strokes.
I hesitate to call this an enemies-to-lovers tale, though, as it’s not the most interesting or even accurate lens through which one could view this story. Claire was clearly the kindest of Astrid’s “coven” and the mean girls don’t quite come off as all that mean, other than Iris. Claire is, at best, a proxy enemy for Delilah’s stepsister. Even then, her stepmother seems like the bigger villain, though the book dodges any real resolution or even confrontation on that front.
The story has a strange quality of wanting to have its cake and eat it too, where the mean girls feel simultaneously like jerks and as though they’re being preemptively softened in preparation for their eventual redemption, to the point where from the very beginning, it’s hard not to feel like Delilah is gassing the story up. The book relies on misunderstanding and differing perspectives (and an extremely weak “only a bet”) to get something in the vicinity of enemies to lovers, which might leave fans of that trope wanting more.
Some of the most beautiful insights Herring Blake’s prose has to offer are about growing around grief in its many forms. Even at her most venomous toward her stepmother, Delilah grants that it was initially grief that led the woman to ignore both her stepdaughter and daughter, setting the stage for a family dynamic where Delilah felt forever on the outside. Claire is grieving the many lives she didn’t get to lead when different people throughout her life left her behind. Astrid’s grief is more complicated, but also her key to freedom from a marriage and other relationships that could never make her happy.
Ashley Herring Blake’s small-town romantic comedy is a sexy, frothy take on the question of whether you can go home again, underpinned by the pain that its characters have grown so used to living with. Even when taking on heady themes it manages to feel soft, warm, and gentle, the way Claire would approach bad news, not punishing or stressful. Mostly, though, it’s a story of finding yourself and believing you deserve the big, wonderful things that excite and scare you.
Delia Harrington is a freelance writer, activist, and feminist nerd, focusing on the intersection of politics, pop culture, and gender. You can find them on Twitter @DeliaMary.