[ ] Dance till dawn[ ] Go skydiving[ ] Wear a bikini in public[ ] Start living
Two best friends jump-start their lives in a summer that will change them forever…
Single mom Ellen Fox couldn’t be more content—until she overhears her son saying he can’t go to his dream college because she needs him too much. If she wants him to live his best life, she has to convince him she’s living hers.
So Unity Leandre, her best friend since forever, creates a list of challenges to push Ellen out of her comfort zone. Unity will complete the list, too, but not because she needs to change. What’s wrong with a thirtysomething widow still sleeping in her late husband’s childhood bed?
The Friendship List begins as a way to make others believe they’re just fine. But somewhere between “wear three-inch heels” and “have sex with a gorgeous guy,” Ellen and Unity discover that life is meant to be lived with joy and abandon, in a story filled with humor, heartache and regrettable tattoos.
The Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Published by HQN Books on August 4, 2020
Buy on Amazon
I received a complimentary ARC from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The Friendship List by Susan Mallery
Ellen Fox is a thirty-four year old teacher who is also a single mom to seventeen year old Cooper. It’s only been them their whole lives since his father didn’t want anything to do with him. Ellen always thought she was doing a great job raising her son until she overhears him one day saying he can’t go away to his dream college because he can’t leave his mom because she needs him. This causes Ellen to rethink her whole life with her lifelong, best friend, Unity Leandre. Unity is a thirty-four year old widow who lost her husband, Stuart, three years ago in combat. Ellen and Unity both realize that they are not truly living life and each come up with a list stating all of the things they wanted to do by the end of summer. The one who does the most on their list wins a weekend at the fancy spa paid for by the other!
Ellen is also good friends with Coach Keith Kinne, who coaches Coop in football. Keith is a divorced, single dad of seventeen year old Lissa. When Ellen and Coop go on a three week college visit bus tour with Keith, Lissa, and other high school students, sparks start to fly between Ellen and Keith. At first they are not sure if they want to cross that line, but once they do, Ellen realizes all that she has been missing out on. When Ellen confesses her list to Keith, he is determined to help her cross more items off of it.
While Ellen is gone for three weeks, Unity meets Thaddeus Roake, great-nephew of one of her elderly clients. Unity is drawn to Thaddeus, but is also reluctant to move past grieving for Stuart. As Unity and Thaddeus spend more time together, Unity is starting to realize that she is also missing out on many things in her life. Just when it looks like she might move past Stuart, panic sets in and Unity withdraws from life.
It will take a lot of soul searching for both Ellen and Unity to understand how they have been actually living their lives and make the changes necessary for them to both be truly happy but in the end, they will both find their happy ending.
I really enjoyed The Friendship List. I liked all of the characters, especially the interaction between the teenagers. Some of the things that the adults talked to the teenagers about I was a little skeptical because I know most teenagers do not talk about those topics with most adults but it still made for fun entertainment. Overall this was a fun story about two women finding themselves again.
Excerpt of The Friendship List by Susan Mallery
“I should have married money,” Ellen Fox said glumly. “That would have solved all my problems.”
Unity Leandre, her best friend, practically since birth, raised her eyebrows. “Because that was an option so many times and you kept saying no?”
“It could have been. Maybe. If I’d ever, you know, met a rich guy I liked and wanted to marry.”
“Wouldn’t having him want to marry you be an equally important part of the equation?”
Ellen groaned. “This is not a good time for logic. This is a good time for sympathy. Or giving me a winning lottery ticket. We’ve been friends for years and you’ve never once given me a winning lottery ticket.”
Unity picked up her coffee and smiled. “True, but I did give you my pony rides when we celebrated our eighth birthdays.”
A point she would have to concede, Ellen thought. With their birthdays so close together, they’d often had shared parties. The summer they’d turned eight, Unity’s mom had arranged for pony rides at a nearby farm. Unity had enjoyed herself, but Ellen had fallen in love with scruffy Mr. Peepers, the crabby old pony who carried them around the paddock. At Ellen’s declaration of affection for the pony, Unity had handed over the rest of her ride tickets, content to watch Ellen on Mr. Peepers’s wide back.
“You were wonderful about the pony rides,” Ellen said earnestly, “And I love that you were so generous. But right now I really need a small fortune. Nothing overwhelming. Just a tasteful million or so. In return, I’ll give back the rides on Mr. Peepers.”
Unity reached across the kitchen table and touched Ellen’s arm. “He really wants to go to UCLA?”
Ellen nodded, afraid if she spoke, she would whimper. After sucking in a breath, she managed to say, “He does. Even with a partial scholarship, the price is going to kill me.” She braced herself for the ugly reality. “Out-of-state costs, including room and board, are about sixty-four thousand dollars.” Ellen felt her heart skip a beat and not out of excitement. “A year. A year! I don’t even bring home that much after taxes. Who has that kind of money? It might as well be a million dollars.”
Unity nodded. “Okay, now marrying money makes sense.”
“I don’t have a lot of options.” Ellen pressed her hand to her chest and told herself she wasn’t having a heart attack. “You know I’d do anything for Coop and I’ll figure this out, but those numbers are terrifying. I have to start buying lottery scratchers and get a second job.” She looked at Unity. “How much do you think they make at Starbucks? I could work nights.”
Unity, five inches taller, with long straight blond hair, grabbed her hands. “Last month it was University of Oklahoma and the month before that, he wanted to go to Notre Dame. Cooper has changed his mind a dozen times. Wait until you go look at colleges this summer and he figures out what he really wants, then see who offers the best financial aid before you panic.” Her mouth curved up in a smile. “No offense, Ellen, but I’ve tasted your coffee. You shouldn’t be working anywhere near a Starbucks.”
“Very funny.” Ellen squeezed her hands. “You’re right. He’s barely seventeen. He won’t be a senior until September. I have time. And I’m saving money every month.”
It was how she’d been raised, she thought. To be practical, to take responsibility. If only her parents had thought to mention marrying for money.
“After our road trip, he may decide he wants to go to the University of Washington after all, and that would solve all my problems.”
Not just the money ones, but the loneliness ones, she thought wistfully. Because after eighteen years of them being a team, her nearly grown-up baby boy was going to leave her.
“Stop,” Unity said. “You’re getting sad. I can see it.”
“I hate that you know me so well.”
“No, you don’t.”
Ellen sighed. “No, I don’t, but you’re annoying.”
“You’re more annoying.”
They smiled at each other.
Unity stood, all five feet ten of her, and stretched. “I have to get going. You have young minds to mold and I have a backed-up kitchen sink to deal with, followed by a gate repair and something with a vacuum. The message wasn’t clear.” She looked at Ellen. “You going to be okay?”
Ellen nodded. “I’m fine. You’re right. Coop will change his mind fifteen more times. I’ll wait until it’s a sure thing, then have my breakdown.”
“See. You always have a plan.”
They walked to the front door. Ellen’s mind slid back to the ridiculous cost of college.
“Any of those old people you help have money?” she asked. “For the right price, I could be a trophy wife.”
Unity shook her head. “You’re thirty-four. The average resident of Silver Pines is in his seventies.”
“Marrying money would still solve all my problems.”
Unity hugged her, hanging on tight for an extra second. “You’re a freak.”
“I’m a momma bear with a cub.”
“Your cub is six foot three. It’s time to stop worrying.”
“That will never happen.”
“Which is why I love you. Talk later.”
Ellen smiled. “Have a good one. Avoid spiders.”
When Unity had driven away, Ellen returned to the kitchen where she quickly loaded the dishwasher, then packed her lunch. Cooper had left before six. He was doing some end-of-school-year fitness challenge. Something about running and Ellen wasn’t sure what. To be honest, when he went on about his workouts, it was really hard not to tune him out. Especially when she had things like tuition to worry about.
“Not anymore today,” she said out loud. She would worry again in the morning. Unity was right—Cooper was going to keep changing his mind. Their road trip to look at colleges was only a few weeks away. After that they would narrow the list and he would start to apply. Only then would she know the final number and have to figure out how to pay for it.
Until then she had plenty to keep her busy. She was giving pop quizzes in both fourth and sixth periods and she wanted to update her year-end tests for her two algebra classes. She needed to buy groceries and put gas in the car and go by the library to get all her summer reading on the reserve list.
As she finished her morning routine and drove to the high school where she taught, Ellen thought about Cooper and the college issue. While she was afraid she couldn’t afford the tuition, she had to admit it was a great problem to have. Seventeen years ago, she’d been a terrified teenager, about to be a single mom, with nothing between her and living on the streets except incredibly disappointed and angry parents who had been determined to make her see the error of her ways.
Through hard work and determination, she’d managed to pull herself together—raise Cooper, go to college, get a good job, buy a duplex and save money for her kid’s education. Yay her.
But it sure would have been a lot easier if she’d simply married someone with money.
“How is it possible to get a C- in Spanish?” Coach Keith Kinne asked, not bothering to keep his voice down. “Half the population in town speaks Spanish. Hell, your sister’s husband is Hispanic.” He glared at the strapping football player standing in front of him. “Luka, you’re an idiot.”
Luka hung his head. “Yes, Coach.”
“Don’t ‘yes, Coach’ me. You knew this was happening—you’ve known for weeks. And did you ask for help? Did you tell me?”
Keith thought about strangling the kid but he wasn’t sure he could physically wrap his hands around the teen’s thick neck. He swore silently, knowing they were where they were and now he had to fix things—like he always did with his students.
“You know the rules,” he pointed out. “To play on any varsity team you have to get a C+ or better in every class. Did you think the rules didn’t apply to you?”
Luka, nearly six-five and two hundred and fifty pounds, slumped even more. “I thought I was doing okay.”
“Really? So you’d been getting better grades on your tests?”
“Not exactly.” He raised his head, his expression miserable. “I thought I could pull up my grade at the last minute.”
“How did that plan work out?”
Keith glared at him. “You think this is funny?”
Keith shook his head. “You know there’s not a Spanish summer school class. That means we’re going to have to find an alternative.”
Despite his dark skin, Luka went pale. “Coach, don’t send me away.”
“No one gets sent away.” Sometimes athletes went to other districts that had a different summer curriculum. They stayed with families and focused on their studies.
“I need to stay with my family. My mom understands me.”
“It would be better for all of us if she understood Spanish.” Keith glared at the kid. “I’ll arrange for an online class. You’ll get a tutor. You will report to me twice a week, bringing me updates until you pass the class.” He sharpened his gaze. “With an A.”
Luka took a step back. “Coach, no! An A? I can’t.”
“Not with that attitude.”
“You knew the rules and you broke them. You could have come to me for help early on. You know I’m always here for any of my students, but did you think about that or did you decide you were fine on your own?”
“I decided I was fine on my own,” Luka mumbled.
“Exactly. And deciding on your own is not how teams work. You go it alone and you fail.”
Tears filled Luka’s eyes. “Yes, Coach.”
Keith pointed to the door. Luka shuffled out. Keith sank into his chair. He’d been hard on the kid, but he needed to get the message across. Grades mattered. He was willing to help whenever he could, but he had to be told what was going on. He had a feeling Luka thought because he was a star athlete he was going to get special treatment. Maybe somewhere else, but not here. Forcing Luka to get an A sent a message to everyone who wanted to play varsity sports.
He’d barely turned to his computer when one of the freshman boys stuck his head in the office. “Coach Kinne! Coach Kinne! There’s a girl crying in the weight room.”
Keith silently groaned as he got up and jogged to the weight room, hoping he was about to deal with something simple like a broken arm or a concussion. He knew what to do for those kinds of things. Anything that was more emotional, honest to God, terrified him.
He walked into the weight room and found a group of guys huddled together. A petite, dark-haired girl he didn’t know sat on a bench at the far end, her hands covering her face, her sobs audible in the uneasy silence.
He looked at the guys. “She hurt?”
They shifted their weight and shook their heads. Damn. So it wasn’t physical. Why didn’t things ever go his way?
“Any of you responsible for whatever it is?” he asked.
More shaken heads with a couple of guys ducking out.
Keith pointed to the door so the rest of them left, then returned his attention to the crying girl. She was small and looked young. Maybe fifteen. Not one of his daughter’s friends or a school athlete—he knew all of them.
He approached the teen, trying to look friendly rather than menacing, then sat on a nearby bench.
“Hey,” he said softly. “I’m Coach Kinne.”
She sniffed. Her eyes were red, her skin pale. “I know who you are.”
“What’s going on?” Don’t be pregnant, don’t be pregnant, he chanted silently.
More tears spilled over. “I’m pregnant. The father is Dylan, only he says he’s not, and I can’t tell my m-mom because she’ll be so mad and he said he l-loved me.”
And just like that Keith watched his Monday fall directly into the crapper.
Keith left work exactly at three fifteen. He would be returning to his office to finish up paperwork, supervise a couple of workouts and review final grades for athletes hovering on the edge of academic problems. But first, he had pressing personal business.
He drove the two short miles to his house, walked inside and headed directly for his seventeen-year-old daughter’s room.
Lissa looked up from her laptop when he entered, her smile fading as she figured out he was in a mood. Despite the attitude, she was a beauty. Long dark hair, big brown eyes. Dammit all to hell—why couldn’t he have an ugly daughter who no guy would look at twice?
“Hi, Dad,” she said, sounding wary. “What’s up?”
She rolled her eyes. “Seriously? There is something wrong with you. I heard what happened at school today. I’m not dumb enough to date a guy like Dylan who would tell a tree stump he loved it if it would have sex with him. I’m not sleeping with anyone and I’m not pregnant. I told you—I’m not ready to have sex, as in I’m still a virgin. You’re obsessed. Would you feel better if I wore a chastity belt?”
“Yes, but you won’t. I’ve asked.”
“Da-ad. Why are you like this? Pregnancy isn’t the worst thing that could happen. I could be sick and dying. Wouldn’t that be terrible?”
“You can’t win this argument with logic. I’m irrational. I accept that. But I’m also the parent, so you have to deal with me being irrational.”
He pointed to her bathroom. She sighed the long-suffering sigh of those cursed with impossible fathers and got up. He followed her to the doorway and watched as she pulled the small plastic container out of the bathroom drawer and opened it.
Relief eased the tension in his body. Pills were missing. The right number of pills.
“You are a nightmare father,” his daughter said, shoving the pills back in the drawer. “I can’t wait until I’m eighteen and I can get the shot instead of having to take birth control pills. Then you’ll only bug me every few months.”
“I can’t wait, either.”
“It’s not like I even have a boyfriend.”
“You could be talking to someone online.”
Her annoyance faded as she smiled at him. “Dad, only one of us in this house does the online dating thing and it’s not me.”
“I don’t online date.”
“Fine. You pick up women online, then go off and have sex with them for the weekend. It’s gross. You should fall in love with someone you’re not embarrassed to bring home to meet me.”
“I’m not embarrassed. I just don’t want complications.”
“But you do want to have sex. It’s yucky.”
“Then why are we talking about it?” He pulled her close and hugged her, then kissed the top of her head. “Sorry, Lissa. I can’t help worrying about you.”
She looked up at him. “Dad, I’m taking my pills every day, not that it matters because I’m not having sex. I’m not. I’ve barely kissed a guy. Having you as my father makes it really difficult to date. Guys don’t want to mess with you and risk being beat up.”
She smiled even as she hit him in the arm. “You’re repressing my emotional growth.”
“Just don’t get pregnant.”
“You need to find a more positive message. How about ‘be your best self?’”
“That, too. Gotta go.”
“I’m having dinner with Jessie tonight. Remember?”
“No problem. Be home by ten.”
He got back in his truck but before starting the engine, he quickly texted Ellen. I need a couple of beers and a friendly ear. You around tonight?
The response came quickly. Only if you bring fried chicken. I have beer and ice cream.
You’re on. See you at six.
Excerpted from The Friendship List by Susan Mallery, Copyright © 2020 by Susan Mallery, Inc.. Published by HQN.
Q&A with Susan Mallery
Q: Where did the inspiration for The Friendship List’s plot come from?
A: The inspiration for The Friendship List came from a reader—but I don’t think it’s exactly the story the reader was asking for. A couple years ago, a reader suggested I write a story about empty nesters, a couple whose children had grown up and were moving out. I considered the idea, but it didn’t immediately sing for me.
Then, while washing dishes—which is when I often get ideas—I thought to myself, “What if it isn’t a couple, but a single mom? And what if she had her baby really young, like in high school? She would be in her midthirties when her kid went to college. What would that be like?”
That’s the spark that led to Ellen, a single mom who had her son when she was a senior in high school. Since then, she has put his needs first, always, to the point where she hasn’t dated really at all in her adult life. When her son was little, she worked her butt off to raise him and go to college to become a math teacher.
The story starts as Ellen overhears her son telling a friend he can’t go away to college because his mom doesn’t have a life without him. They’re a team, and she needs him. Ellen is horrified that she’s holding him back, and she knows she has to do something drastic to convince him that it’s safe for him to follow his dreams.
Unity, Ellen’s best friend for as long as they both can remember, is a young widow, still mourning the death of her husband three years ago. She’s stuck in her grief, and reluctant to change that because getting over her grief might mean really letting go of the love of her life forever. But for Ellen’s sake, Unity comes up with the friendship list—a series of challenges designed to shake up their lives.
One way or another, this will be a summer that will change them forever. The Friendship List is a celebration of friendship. I know authors aren’t supposed to have favorite books, but I have to admit, this is one of my favorite things that I’ve ever written—certainly the funniest. Every day, I couldn’t wait to get to my desk, excited to write that day’s fun scene. It was pure joy from page 1 to The End, and I hope you’ll love it, too.
Q: Who is your favorite character in this novel and why?
A: I love both of the friends, but Ellen probably squeaks out a narrow win over Unity simply because her journey was so much fun. Think about it—she had her kid when she was seventeen years old, and from that moment on, her life revolved around him so she missed out on the things most people experience in their twenties. Dating, parties, bar-hopping. She was home studying and taking care of her kid.
And in fact, he’s the impetus for her to change, as well, because she sees that what’s best for him now is for her to let go, to get a life of her own. When she realizes all that she’s been missing, she dives in with her whole heart and body, with such enthusiasm that she had me laughing every day. Suddenly she wants to try everything all at once. Love, love, love, love her.
Q: Of the challenges in the book, which was the most fun to write about? Why?
A: Oh, that’s a tough one! I don’t know if I want to tell you my favorite-favorite because it might be too much of a spoiler. So instead, I’ll tell you one of my other favorites, which is more of a teaser than a spoiler. ? One of Ellen’s challenges is to wear clothes that fit, instead of her normal habit of wearing clothes that are at least three sizes too large for her. Baggy is her comfort zone. The first time she wears an outfit that shows the shape of her body, her pal Keith can’t help looking at her in a whole new way. Here’s a clip:
He stared at her in confusion. Something was different with Ellen, he thought, trying to figure out what it was.
He cataloged her appearance. Her long hair was pulled back in a ponytail, just like always. She had on makeup maybe, which was a surprise, but made her eyes looked bluer than usual. As for what she was wearing, it was just some shirt thing and pants that stopped just below her knee. Nothing out of the ordinary except—
He swore silently. The clothes fit. For once they weren’t swirling around her, the extra fabric concealing every part of her body. He could see the shape of her waist and her hips, the outline of her thighs. And breasts. Ellen had breasts!
He realized he was staring and forced his gaze away. Of course she had breasts. Women had breasts. Ellen’s were no big deal. Only he’d never noticed them before and he didn’t want to see them now.
Q: What is your idea of a good personal challenge for yourself?
A: The challenges in The Friendship List are meant to push the women out of their comfort zone and be a little intimidating for them, so my personal challenge will have to do the same. Hmm… Oh! How about a plunging V neckline? Cleavage makes me really self-conscious, but I admire women who can proudly show off their curves.
I’m nervous just thinking about it!
Q: Do your characters tell you their stories a bit at a time or all at once? Do they ever pull you in unexpected directions changing up the plot you originally planned?
A: Yes, yes, and yes. It depends on the story. Very rarely, a story will come to me fully formed. Daughters of the Bride was like that. A gift book. That almost never happens. Usually, I get a spark of an idea. I write up some notes, then set it aside. If I’m still thinking about it, I know it has potential. I get a lot of ideas that never go anywhere. They might make fine stories for someone else, but if they’re not tugging at me, I let them go.
I’m on the extreme-plotter end of the plotter/pantser spectrum. (For those who don’t know, a plotter is a writer who plots the story in advance. A pantser is a writer who flies by the seat of her pants, without knowing where the story is going.) I generally work out story problems during my plotting process, which makes me feel free to relax and sink into the story while I’m writing.
When I get into the flow of a book, the characters do take over and sometimes they do surprise me. When they take me in a direction I didn’t expect, I have to step back to look at the big picture to adjust. I never try to force a character to do something that doesn’t feel right for him or her. Every decision must be motivated.
In The Friendship List, Unity threw me for a loop early on. I knew she was still in love with her late husband, but until I wrote a particular scene, I didn’t realize just how broken she still was. I did have to make some very serious adjustments to her road to a happy ending. And in the end, as I brought her out of that darkness, I cried. So satisfying!
Q: Do you have pets? How do the animals you have now or have had in the past influence writing animals into your stories?
A: Yes, I have three pets. Two ragdoll cats, siblings Alex and Lucy, and a miniature poodle named Kelli. I love animals of all kinds. I’m a big supporter of Seattle Humane and the amazing work they do for animals in and around Seattle.
Animals play a big role in my books. When they have a part in the story, they are genuine characters because I believe, like humans, each animal has its own unique quirks and personality traits. The book I’m working on right now will be the first book in my new series, Wishing Tree—Christmas romances—and there are two dogs in the book who I adore. Bella is a Great Dane who loves to play dress-up in cute canine ensembles, and who is intimidated by a dachshund named Burt. The first Wishing Tree romance will be out in 2021.
Q: Is there a genre of books that you have not written yet but might contemplate writing in the future? What might that be?
A: I recently toyed with the idea of writing a thriller. I even did quite a bit of research on Bitcoin, which was going to be a big subplot. I decided against the thriller, but research is never wasted—one of the characters in The Friendship List became a Bitcoin millionaire, and then a regular-money millionaire. Plus, I’m kind of proud of myself—it took me two weeks of research to be able to understand crypto-currency, but I’m now I’m at least cocktail-party level literate. ?
Q: What was the first book you sold/published and how did you celebrate when you received the acceptance letter from the publisher?
A: The first book I sold was a historical romance called Frontier Flame. A few months after that, I sold a book to (then Silhouette) Special Edition. Both books came out the same month, so the first time I was published was with two books. It was very heady! Of course, before that and after that I had many story ideas rejected. Even now, although infrequently, one of my ideas can be rejected. It happened recently. Still stings, but not as badly.
I celebrated my first sale by calling all of my writer friends and squealing over the phone, and then by going out for a nice dinner with my husband.
Q: What do you love to do when not writing?
A: I love hanging out with my friends—and I miss that right now because of the coronavirus. Friendship is one of the most fundamental relationships in a woman’s life. You might argue “in a man’s life, too,” but from what I’ve observed, most men don’t have the same visceral need for community that women do. My husband once told me, “You’re all I need.” Which is sweet and romantic and probably true. I love him dearly, more than any other human being on the planet, but I need friends, too. My friends are the family I chose, and I nurture those relationships in every way I can.
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Reviewer: Sue is a retired IT Computer Programmer who loves to read just about any type of romance….Contemporary, Historical, Comedy, or Suspense. She tends to like sassy heroines and hot alpha heroes (although the occasional nerds are fun too!) with lots of fun witty banter. She lives in a small suburb of Cleveland, OH with her almost perfect husband. She has three adult daughters who all live nearby, with the oldest being married.