Book Review: The One and Only by Emily Giffin

(Contains spoilers)

From Goodreads: Thirty-three-year-old Shea Rigsby has spent her entire life in Walker, Texas—a small college town that lives and dies by football, a passion she unabashedly shares. Raised alongside her best friend, Lucy, the daughter of Walker’s legendary head coach, Clive Carr, Shea was too devoted to her hometown team to leave. Instead she stayed in Walker for college, even taking a job in the university athletic department after graduation, where she has remained for more than a decade.

But when an unexpected tragedy strikes the tight-knit Walker community, Shea’s comfortable world is upended, and she begins to wonder if the life she’s chosen is really enough for her. As she finally gives up her safety net to set out on an unexpected path, Shea discovers unsettling truths about the people and things she has always trusted most—and is forced to confront her deepest desires, fears, and secrets.

Emily Giffin is one of the few authors I look for. I loved this book. I listened to it on audio and kept itching to drive my car so I could hear more! I was so surprised when nearly all book reviews I read after the fact were negative, saying the story was creepy and the characters needed more definition. The expectations I had raised by the book description were different than reality, as the story really centers around Shea developing romantic feelings for her best friend’s father (her own father figure), Coach Carr.

I’m not a sports fan but I felt Shea’s love of football gave her definition. I find myself relying on my own view of the world to interpret the rest of the world, so it makes sense that Shea does the same. Her entire life is wrapped up in football: friends, job, social life, boyfriend, etc. That is the world she lives in. I have very little capacity for understanding football, but I didn’t feel that hindered my reading. There was enough description that I could follow the sporty scenes. I feel Shea receives dimension in the way she relates the personalities of the people around her: her mother as an imitator, Lucy as a fiery fashionista, Miller as a slacker, Coach Carr who can do no wrong. I can relate to struggling to see the world through other lenses. A large part of who we are is how we view other people.

Maybe if Shea had been younger, the romantic relationship between her and Coach would have felt creepy to me. Instead, I saw this as an example of how we transition into adulthood. I still have a hard time seeing myself as an adult sometimes and calling my parent’s friends by their first names, but I am in my 30s now, like Shea is. I am raising children, I’m a consumer, an employer, and I represent the driving forces in our world. I’m not even up and coming anymore. I see now that even though a person’s skin gets looser or their knees hurt, or even if they have grown children, they can still feel like a young person inside, experiencing romance and infatuation, feeling hope for a new future. As I am experiencing my 30s, I’m looking back at what my parents dealt with in their 30s and realizing that, though all my faith was in them to protect me through some hard stuff, they were young people struggling to hold it together. Coach is just a man with some life behind him. It’s mind blowing to realize that every child we influence will one day become a peer and, if we’re lucky, a friend.

There were lots of times I didn’t like how Shea handled things, like when she provoked her boyfriend, Ryan, during a borderline  domestic violence scene. She was absolutely right to get away from him and not give him any more chances to “change” but I was sure that whole thing was going to lead to Ryan pressing charges against Coach and ruining his whole career. By no means do I blame her for her boyfriend’s temper, but she should not have lied to him, nor should she have hit him as she did. However, I have often stayed too long, talked too much, let my emotions run away, lied to get out of something, etc. It was agonizing thinking, “shut up, get out, just tell him/her!” but realizing the scene was reality. In the long run, Shea actually acted much more wisely than many people who end up on Jerry Springer, or just the local bar!

In another confession, Coach shares that one of Ryan’s former girlfriends came to him 15 years before claiming Ryan abused and raped her and Coach did not report it because, he said, he genuinely did not believe her. He did the wrong thing. I feel the book should have dealt more seriously with the abuse issue or left it all together. I don’t feel the characters were necessarily wrong in the outcome but a big issue like this can’t be tidily swept away. Even so, I don’t feel this destroyed Coach’s character. It seemed he took responsibility for his mistake and tried to do what he could to make it right. We all do wrong things. It takes a big person to admit it. There could still be consequences for what Coach did or didn’t do but I feel his character demonstrates a desire to do the right thing and to not make that mistake again.

Finally, when it came to telling Coach’s daughter, Lucy (Shea’s best friend), about their relationship, I was going to freak if Shea chose Coach over a 33 year friendship. I had one of those that did end and I mourn it every day, sometimes very painfully. For Coach and Shea to have a relationship, there was so much to consider. Age difference does not make it wrong, if both people understand what the consequences are (fertility, mortality, etc). However, I don’t believe that “love conquers all” or whatever. The terms are all muddled to begin with. Real love is choice and commitment. Feelings of romance, attraction, infatuation, etc are real and lovely, but they come and go. Relationships (even just friendships or acquaintanceships) need chemistry to have depth, but when you “don’t feel like it” you still have to be loyal, and that comes from a choice. Coach’s late wife, Connie Carr, apparently made lots of choices to love and support her husband. I’m sure she didn’t always feel like it. Then Coach watched her die. That’s excruciating. That’s love. Love hurts. Love is not the emotional high at the beginning of a relationship. Love is doing the hard thing for the other person. Giving up a lifelong friendship and the relationship with one’s godchildren for the intense feelings of a relationship that has the potential to destroy everything you have ever known is asinine. I was relieved they really did do the right thing. Romance is not everything. You don’t need a relationship to be a fulfilled person. Even a broken heart can be poured out to serve other people. Coach’s comments about how you never know what life will bring were so wise, showing the benefit of his life experience. That might be one great reason TO be in a relationship with someone older. He can enjoy the feelings but temper them with wisdom.

I greatly appreciate that there was nothing immoral about Coach Carr and Shea’s relationship. They did not cheat on anyone, they were considerate of the people around them, they didn’t even have sex in the story, and they respected Lucy’s feelings.

I can see how a relationship like this has all kinds of implications that have to be worked out, but we should all be so lucky to find someone who loves us so unconditionally, who has been part of our messes and accepts us anyway, and who treats us with such tenderness.

I loved this story, just as I have loved all of Emily Giffin’s books and I appreciate a new perspective on romance.

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