For Journey Sutton and Cameron Foster, it wasn’t a lack of love, devotion, or commitment to each other that ended their engagement: They were victims of circumstance. JJ had itchy feet. He longed to escape the place where he spent his formative teenage years filling a filial void left by a mother who died too young. In contrast, Cameron’s entire childhood saw him bouncing from house to house to house. When he finally had the chance to stay in Coral Cove, Florida, Cameron was determined to never leave. There, at the high school in that small town, Journey and Cameron met. An undeniable spark of attraction turned their friendship into a romance and, eventually, a love affair. But as they entered adulthood, Journey and Cameron eventually had to accept that their goals for life were simply incompatible. So while Journey began a dream career as a globetrotting nature photographer, Cameron built up a respectable veterinary practice in Coral Cove.
Some fifteen years later, Journey gets an extremely rare phone call from home while on assignment in Namibia. His father has suffered a stroke and the three younger Sutton boys need their big brother to come home. Journey puts his whole career on hold, of course, to be with family. But he is also adamant that he is only home for as long as it takes for the senior Sutton to get back on his feet. Being back in Coral Cove, however, reminds Journey of all the good things about being tied to one place. The family emergency has created a unique situation where Journey gets to participate in all the family activities he usually misses because of his work, like barbecues at the beach and community art projects with his nieces. And, of course, there is Cameron. Cameron who was engaged to a woman last Journey knew. Cameron who bought the house next to Journey’s father’s home. Cameron who is every bit as enticing as he was all those years ago.
It would be a huge mistake for Cameron to start anything with an ex he never really got over. But Journey is convinced he can do casual—if it means he can have Cameron. All he has to do is convince Cameron they can work a friends-with-benefits arrangement. That, however, will prove to be the big ask for both of them. Keeping things casual with the love of your life might prove a bridge too far
S.E. Harmon’s Coddiwomple is a friends-to-lovers-to-friends-to-lovers story set in present-day Florida. Our main character, Journey, is edging towards forty and in the midst of a stellar career as a nature photographer. His love interest is a very attractive vet who is something of a pushover when it comes to abandoned animals. Although it’s clear Journey and Cameron have a history as best friends in high school who fell in love and got engaged in their twenties, all that happens off page. The story is set almost exclusively in the “now,” but still delivers clear threads about what happened in Journey’s and Cameron’s past, which helped me as a reader appreciate the poles-apart nature these two exhibit.
In fact, one of my favorite aspects of this book is how clearly Journey and Cameron’s histories have and still affect them. Harmon pulls this off without resorting to lengthy flashbacks to when Journey’s mother died or to Cameron’s multiple moves. Yet I fully appreciated how Journey felt like he missed his teenage years stepping up for the family—and thus desired “escape” as an adult. The tension that this causes with his younger siblings zings between the brothers. At one point, it’s up to Cameron to quietly point out this dependency. Harmon does a lovely job portraying the Sutton family dynamic of obligation and escape, of feeling and foisting guilt. Yet Journey’s situation is not construed as an entirely hateful source of obligation and resentment. Harmon manages to show how the younger siblings’ dependency on Journey instead is rather structured like that old “boiling a frog” syndrome…they’re not even really conscious that they’re doing it and/or by the time they are, there’s no help for it.
Of course, there’s also the enormous tension between Cameron and Journey. I particularly enjoyed not knowing how quickly these two might “mend the fence” as it were—or how permanently it might get mended. For one thing, Journey is very upfront about the fact that he is only staying in Coral Cove for a few months, indicating that any potential romance has a built in expiration date. Then, as the time passes, we see more and more of Journey’s handler (or whatever you call the person who arranges wildlife photography shoots). Harmon works these and a few other scenes into situations where the small town grapevine means Cameron catches wind of Journey’s plans…and it unfolds in such a way that it seems obvious that Journey’s going to split as soon as possible. On the flip side, there is also sort of a running gag where Journey happens to hear Cameron himself loudly and unequivocally tell someone else that he has zero plans of getting back together with Journey—unknowing that Journey is literally right behind him. Put together, I thought this created a great sense of hope that Journey and Cameron will beat the odds, but at the same time, priming me for a possibly bittersweet ending.
Overall, I think this was a fantastic read with charmingly imperfect characters. Journey and Cameron clearly struggle with their attraction to and history with each other—trying to have it both ways and not get their hearts broken in the process. As someone who spent more than a decade literally halfway around the world from their own family, I closely identified with some of the struggles Journey has about being present. For readers who enjoy established couples, friends-to-lovers, opposites attract, and small town settings with nosey neighbors, I think you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this book.