‘Kiss Her Once for Me’ offers an enticing Oregon holiday romance (book review)

Do yourself a favor: Ask Santa for a copy of former Portland high school English teacher Alison Cochrun’s engaging sophomore novel, the solid LGBTQ+ rom-com, “Kiss Her Once For Me.” Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, the novel, which comes out Nov. 1, would also make a terrific stocking stuffer. If all else fails, buy it for yourself. It makes a splendid season snuggler.

Cochrun returns to some of the same subjects and themes from her debut novel, the thought-provoking “The Charm Offensive.” Compelling characters seeking escape from loneliness and despair again sort love from lust, honesty from deception, personal trauma from family drama.

In the process, Cochrun presents another perceptive portrait of the culture, sociology, enterprise, and romantic challenges of the enticing Rose City served on a comfortable pillow of regional details from Voodoo Donuts’ maple-bacon bars to the ski slopes of Mount Hood.

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She immediately draws you in with a captivating opening scene—nearing a snowy midnight Christmas Eve on the Burnside Bridge.

For Ohio transplant 25-year-old Elena “Ellie” Oliver, snow days hold fond memories. Their “special kind of magic” represents freedom.

As a child they meant release from the “stress of school and from the debilitating social anxiety”; in college at Ohio State they meant treasured times with her best friend, Meredith, away from a “rigorous study schedule,” sledding on trays stolen from the dining hall. In Portland snow days are even bigger; they “seemed to mean freedom from everything.”

Ellie left Ohio to pursue a dream job as a character animator with the renowned Laika Studios at its stop motion headquarters in Hillsboro. For her, art was a way to flee battling parents and essential lovelessness. But in less than a month she’s fired, unable to meet the rent on a “squalid studio apartment” off Southeast Belmont near 34th Avenue, and talk-crying into a footstool in the Gold Room of Powell’s City of Books.

That’s where the familiar rom-com meet-cute trope happens. As Ellie reaches for Alison Bechdel’s exhilarating “family tragicomic” graphic lesbian memoir, “Fun Home,” someone else reaches for it at the same time.

The ‘90s Keanu Reeves/Leonardo DiCaprio mash-up with the “subtlest hint of curves beneath their clothes” smells of bread and is called Jack. Her pronouns are she/her. Ellie, who identifies as a demi bisexual, is beyond smitten.

Having decided to co-parent the last copy of “Fun Home,” Ellie and Jack spend the day (and night) together after coffee at Powell’s exchanging thumbnail bios. Jack, diagnosed with ADHD, is 26, a University of Oregon dropout, a pastry chef working for minimum wage, “profoundly disappointing” her wealthy parents with her life choices, hoping to start her own bakery, The Butch Oven. As art was a getaway for Ellie, baking cookies was a way to avoid the “emptiness that was the absence” of herself.

Cochrun intersperses flashback “Snow Day” entries from Ellie’s Webcomic amid the main narrative that traces the primary plot that occurs a year later during Ellie’s weeklong Christmas trek to Mount Hood.

That is occasioned by a significant event that promises to solve all of Ellie’s overwhelming financial and emotional problems, including dealing with her wayward 46-year-old mother, Linds, who never visits her daughter, even for holidays.

Ellie is not very good at the job she has taken as a barista at Roastlandia coffee shop. If a “Burberry coat were a person” it would be Roastlandia’s moneyed landlord, Andrew Kim-Prescott, with his “embarrassment of eyelashes.” He looks like Ellie’s savior.

Andrew is heir apparent to his family’s real estate firm. The patriarch has just died leaving him a $2 million trust. But it comes with a major string attached. He cannot inherit unless he marries. That’s where Ellie comes in. That’s also where the romantic twists begin.

Andrew takes Ellie to an upscale bar in the Pearl District, where he pays for $15 Moscow Mules with a black AmEx and makes her a proposition she can’t afford to refuse: 10% of the trust if she agrees to a yearlong fake marriage. Their napkin contract includes the non-negotiable stipulation that she attend Christmas family week at his parents’ multi-million-dollar, four-story Swiss “monstrosity” with six balconies on Mount Hood.

Andrew’s family welcomes Ellie with open arms. There are two “boozy looking” grandmothers and a very organized mother whose laminated Excel spreadsheet details a precise schedule. A two-hour walk in the snow including next year’s family photo in ugly holiday sweaters, two hours of caroling, three hours to find the perfect tree, six hours of decorating Christmas cookies, and a 12-hour ski excursion. What portends to be a Hallmark moment is anything but.

Things get complicated.

The first big bombshell (this is not a spoiler) is when Andrew’s sister, Jacqueline (aka Jack) arrives in her silver Airstream along with dog, Paul Hollywood, and Andrew’s best childhood friend (and ex) Dylan Montez. Ellie is aghast when she realizes she has agreed to marry the brother of her one-night stand from a year ago. She is further aghast to discover she is part of a “messy love trapezoid thing.”

Can true love wend its way through the dense Pacific Northwest forest of secrets and lies? Will Ellie renounce her future endowment for the love of Jack? Will Jack profess undying attachment to Ellie? Are Andrew and Dylan destined for each other? Who knows how much about whom? And what does Burl Ives have to do with it all?

The four sides of romance make for a thoroughly beguiling quadrilateral love triangle. Cochrun adeptly juggles the “absolute absurdity” of the situation, playing it out in a delightfully farcical manipulation of misunderstandings, miscalculations and gobsmacked confessions.

As Ellie and Jack do with “Fun Home,” you may find yourself sharing custody of “Kiss Her Once For Me” with your favorite reading companion. Start your seductive guilty pleasure indulging in a cappuccino at Powell’s or a mulled wine and mistletoe kisses on Mount Hood.

Details: See Alison Cochrun in conversation with Anita Kelly at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, 3415 S.W. Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton.

— Robert Allen Papinchak, for The Oregonian/OregonLive

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