Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with an eARC in exchange for my honest review!
What’s new, everyone? Elle Kennedy (Off-Campus, Briar U) has published Bad Girl Reputation, the second standalone entry in the Avalon Bay series. In the eponymous beachside town, Genevieve “Gen” West and Evan Hartley had once been childhood best friends who ended up dating as teenagers, their on-again/off-again relationship driven by ruffling each other’s feathers, testing their jealousy meters, and partying their brains out. One day, though, Gen skedaddled out of Avalon Bay with no explanation, leaving a bewildered and brokenhearted Evan to find his own form of recovery by constantly going on rebound dates. That was all a year ago. Now, Gen has returned to Avalon Bay for the funeral of her neglectful mom, leading to a reunion with Evan that dredges up a boatload of complicated feelings and memories of toxic behaviors for both parties involved. Will they be able to keep themselves secure and sober while rekindling their romance, or will they drag each other back down into their irresponsible old patterns?
I may not have been the hugest fan of the Avalon Bay series opener Good Girl Complex, but I dove into its sequel with an open mind, considering how much I’ve enjoyed Kennedy’s Off-Campus series and its Briar U spinoff series. As it turns out, I had a pretty fun time with Bad Girl Reputation, what with Gen and Evan’s fiery push-and-pull chemistry, the tight-knit and heartfelt nature of the coastal community they live in, and the themes of self-improvement and forgiving others for their mistakes.
Gen was an intriguing character from the start. While we’d never met her in Good Girl Complex, her partier ways and her turbulent relationship with Evan had been brought up multiple times—and never in a positive light. I was able to see the reason for that myself in the first quarter of this second chance romance, which shows the two of them dragging each other back down into a toxic whirlpool, even as Gen is attempting to stay on the wagon. Evan has his own baggage to handle, having to cut down on his penchant for drinking and brawling.
Then there’s the boatload of jealousy that they purposely stir up in each other, which, admittedly, was a big turnoff for me as a reader. I know this is supposed to be part of the messy side of their dynamic and they have to conquer it, but it irked the hell out of me nonetheless. In addition, there’s a beat in the beginning that makes Evan feel a bit like a Nice Guy who believes Gen owes him sex and a relationship like she’s a vending machine who needs to pop out her merchandise after he’s dropped in the coins. It goes by quickly and I’m able to root for them to work out later on, but it’s still present.
As the book develops, Gen and Evan prove how truly capable they are of shedding their destructive tendencies and maturing into better people while managing to preserve the mischief and passion in their cores. The evolution they make happens for each of them individually as well as for their relationship, helping them step away from the toxic co-dependency on which they’ve hinged in the past. The banter they toss back and forth is entertaining to consume, too.
As heavy as this book might sound, though, I don’t think it actually spends that much time unpacking all the hardships of alcoholism and drug abuse in spite of how much Gen and Evan struggle with them. It tackles those issues from a fairly glossy perspective, which has garnered some criticism from readers. As much as I would have been into a darker version of what Gen and Evan had to do to best their addictions, I’m also satisfied with this rose-colored depiction. I’ve read enough contemporary romances that get surprisingly intense despite their fluffy-looking covers that I’ll just want trigger warnings handled with a lighter tone sometimes.
Getting to know the Avalon Bay gang was a fun element of Good Girl Complex, so I’m glad its follow-up introduces us to even more of the town and makes it feel that much more alive. Riley, a teenage boy whom Evan befriends through a Big Brother program, is a particularly charming newcomer. The villain that comes in the form of creepy cop Rusty Randall can be a bit too mustache-twirly for my taste, but he’s a serviceable obstacle for Evan and Gen to overcome.
What I really appreciate is the arc that’s explored for Shelley, the outrageously irresponsible mother of Evan and his twin brother Cooper (the latter was one of the MCs in Good Girl Complex). After having abandoned them, she now has the habit of returning to town every once in a while, pretending like she’ll stick around and rebuild a healthy relationship with them, appealing to them for money, and then skedaddling out of Avalon Bay with said money. Cooper is the one who’s hardened himself and doesn’t expect his mom to change for the better, while Evan has always been lenient with their mom and holding out hope for her. But after how deeply she screwed them over during her last visit (which you can consume for yourself in Good Girl Complex), even Evan intends to not let Shelley off the hook this time. However, she goes on her own journey while her son and Gen take up the main plot, and it becomes quite heartening as it interweaves with the book’s thematic core of mustering up the courage to work on your own character and creating enough space in your heart to be compassionate towards those who are undergoing such a process.
If you’re willing to accept the time that the green-eyed monster spends roaring out of Gen and Evan and the somewhat sugarcoated approach to their vices, then I think Bad Girl Reputation will have plenty of merits for you to enjoy.
Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!
Windup score: 78/100