Words Worth Noting

Favorite Quotes

"Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connait point. French. Pascal. The heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing."— Madeleine L'Engle

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Review: It Had to Be You

It Had to Be You It Had to Be You by Susan Elizabeth Phillips
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Love in the Time of Slick Willy, the Juice and the Donald.
This one was quite a throwback. Since this summer I've been making a conscious effort to better understand the genre I've been so engrossed by recently by reading some of the best known books in the romance canon, and It Had to Be You came highly recommended. It's one of Eloisa James's favorite books and appears on many best of all time lists. But reading It Had to Be You was an unsettling, frustrating experience for me. This pioneering, popular and well-received sports romance was published in 1994, the year of Nicole Brown-Simpson’s death, and former football superstar O.J. Simpson’s ill-fated low speed chase/attempt to evade arrest for killing her. It was also the second year of the Clinton presidency, two years before Monica Lewinsky burst into public consciousness, and, perhaps most important, just a few years after “Backlash” told of a powerful postfeminist reactionary political wave sweeping across America. That’s all to say it was a heady time, right on the cusp of some sort of transition in gender and racial politics.

So I should have been prepared for what a contemporary romance set in the testosterone heavy world of the NFL might look like. It shouldn’t have been a huge surprise that the sexual politics made my head spin. And yet it still threw me for a bit— the gender dynamics aren’t pretty. They’re neither reactionary nor progressive, yet unsettling all the same. It was an unsettling time. For all that’s wrong with 2019, this book made me incredibly happy that it’s not 1994 and that I could leave that world by closing the book. When I think about reading It Had to Be You I'm reminded of that terrible, scornful, old-school, Victorian set down— that someone is no better than they should be, meaning they're lacking but that's to be expected because of who they are or where they come from. This novel made me think its gender politics were awful and yet possibly realistic for the time, in other words, no better than they should be. The gender dynamics between the characters are too muddled and confused to be truly enlightening or thought-provoking, but they are unsettling. So maybe that's as it ought to be. Intentional or not, it was a terribly unsatisfying and muddled time for women. It Had to Be You certainly reflects that.

The heroine, Phoebe Somerville, is an heiress, a buxom “bimbo”, secretly celibate sex-bomb, and a kind and intelligent woman who craves the love she never had growing up. She’s also a rape survivor, who’s suffering from a great deal of trauma and tries to use her body and her sexuality as armor and as a tool of manipulation in every aspect of her life even as she feels ashamed of her body and uncomfortable and insecure about her sexuality.

When Phoebe inherits (with conditions of course) an NFL team from her horribly abusive, recently deceased father, she amps up the overt, outrageous sexuality and downplays her intelligence as she enters a new workplace dominated by men. She thinks she’s adapting to the way the world sees her and using her body and looks to her advantage, and it appears that we are supposed to understand that this is a workable strategy, but it’s also clear throughout that this strategy causes her great pain. It makes her hate herself and puts her continually at odds with her employees, other businesspeople, and her potential love interest who is also a colleague.

Is Phoebe's false sexual flamboyance and bravado a source of strength, shame, or success? Or all three? More to the point, why is this her only professional strategem? Phoebe’s choices are cringe-inducing. I found it very hard to keep reading at times. But then I questioned myself. Am I slut shaming this heroine, am I being prudish? Possibly. But I don’t think so. So the question remains: Why are bare cleavage and the sexual manipulation of men the predominant way that Phoebe uses her talents in business dealings until the very end? While she’s at it why does she not on her own at least learn something about the industry independently rather than solely relying on her burgeoning relationships with the men in her organization? And, above all, if it’s a smart strategy why is it such a continual source of pain? The workplace plotlines strained my belief in the character and the narrative as a whole.

In contrast, the love story and Phoebe’s reawakening after sexual trauma are handled incredibly well. The connection between Phoebe and Dan and how their physical relationship progresses is believable, specific, not at all cliched. Their relationship hinges on consent and trust as much as chemistry, and Phillips handles it beautifully.

It is hard to write a novel that is both sexy and gritty about social reality in that particular historical moment while avoiding being particularly political or preachy. That's a hard needle to thread with the social forces, hard choices and traps women faced navigating a still hostile working world in the wake of the women’s movement. Phoebe is navigating an unjust situation and system. That is inherently political. It Had to Be You seems to want to be on the side of gender equality but not idealistic, not too orthodox, not too feminist maybe?

But the problem with the way Phoebe's written transcends gender politics. It's more fundamental than that. People say and do disrespectful, humiliating things to Phoebe; Phoebe says and does humiliating things to herself. And that lasts pretty much throughout the book in terms of her professional persona even though she grows in her personal life. Self-objectification and playing dumb are her favorite business strategies. And that's the contradiction I couldn't quite believe. Quirks and imperfection are human. Phoebe is human and therefore an imperfect heroine. Plus, all women struggle with self definition in a world that values and condemns female sexuality, but I'm unconvinced that she would choose to be imperfect in this particularly sexually exploitative, self-sabotaging way for this long in her professional life. I don’t buy that it would have gotten her the positive results she’d need to want to stick to that strategy for well over a decade. These choices make the book no better than it should be.

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Review: Unfit to Print

Unfit to Print Unfit to Print by K.J. Charles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I swooned.

Wonderful combination of period detail, mystery and romance. I found myself highlighting something on every other page like a maniac. The writing is crisp and original and the relationship just made me swoon-- it's got depth and chemistry and heat.

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Review: Beard with Me

Beard with Me Beard with Me by Penny Reid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Author Penny Reid issued a lot of caveats when she published this novel. It's heavier than the other stories in the Winston Brothers series. As she's written, it's a tragic love story rather than a romance that ends with a happy ever after-- at least temporarily (the story continues in the next book). I'm a fan of the HEA in love, and I tend to avoid narratives that involve abuse. But I love Reid's work and this series especially, so I took a chance and it was completely worth it. This is Billy Winston’s coming of age and origin story as well as his love story with Scarlet. It’s what made Billy a surly resentful patriarch instead of the stern but sweet hero he was growing into. It's a compelling story, beautifully rendered. For me the proof was that by the end Beard with Me made me want to reread the first 5 books, and I can’t wait to read book 7.

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Review: Get a Life, Chloe Brown

Get a Life, Chloe Brown Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was clear the minute I started to read. Get a Life Chloe Brown is a different romance novel. And I was thirsty for it—I’ve read a lot of disappointing books of late.

The premise is original; the main character, a wealthy and sheltered young Black British woman who is intelligent, genuinely witty and is living with chronic health problems, has a not so near death experience and decides to radically change her life for the better. Chloe Brown doesn't look or sound like any I've seen before. Her challenges go way beyond the typical negative self talk and stubborn miscommunication I’m used to; and the writing stands out too. It’s vivid, full of rich, specific detail, crisp, and quotable. I found myself frequently nodding and highlighting passages in appreciation. Like this one:
“Slowly, slowly, she sank to the ground. Put her clammy palms against the cool tiles. Breathed in. Breathed out. Breathed in.

Breathed out, her whisper like cracking glass, “If I had died today, what would my eulogy say?” This mind-blowing bore had zero friends, hadn’t traveled in a decade despite plenty of opportunity, liked to code on the weekends, and never did anything that wasn’t scheduled in her planner. Don’t cry for her; she’s in a better place now. Even Heaven can’t be that dull.”

It got better from there. The thing I admire the most is that this book doesn’t just tell the reader how special Chloe is; it shows you. As in the passage above, Chloe’s interior monologue is funny, her voice unique. Another example, from a pivotal point early on:
“Her moment of communion with the universe rudely interrupted, Chloe hauled herself into a sitting position. Strangely, she was now feeling much better. Perhaps because she had recognized and accepted the universe’s message. It was time, clearly, to get a life.”

That sold me. Definitely recommend.

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Review: Well Met

Well Met Well Met by Jen DeLuca
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At the risk of sounding like the grinch who killed Romancelandia, I have to admit that I don’t get this one, and that surprised me given what I’d heard. Well Met is sweet and the setting, a Renaissance Faire, and setup are original. And that is admirable and worthy of note. Yet the book as a whole still felt a bit beige, like a serviceable rather than joyful read for me. I just didn’t find compelling. It was hard to escape the feeling of wanting more.

A woman moves to a small town in Maryland and moves in with her older sister and niece to take care of them in the wake of a serious car accident. The heroine Emily is also going through a difficult time in the wake of a bad breakup. While she’s in town, she chaperones her niece as a volunteer in their local renaissance faire and instantly strikes up an intense love-hate connection with the faire’s organizer. That’s all great. But things go a little off track, veering into stereotypes and overplayed tropes from there. First and foremost this is an enemies to lovers story of the weakest form about two people who know very little about each other and have a couple really minor, tepidly unpleasant exchanges. At worst, the hero is a super watered down Darcy type perhaps. Enemies is a big stretch. The second problem is that the heroine is annoyingly insecure in a way that is frustratingly common for women in romance. When they finally connect it’s still a sweet story but a little underwhelming.

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Review: The Kingmaker

The Kingmaker The Kingmaker by Kennedy Ryan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lennix Moon Hunter is a passionate advocate for Native American people, women and other oppressed groups. Maxim Cade is an environmental scientist who describes himself as a capitalist crusader. Their values are actually a lot more in sync than that description implies. I won’t spoil it but they meet cute in the most woke millennial way possible.

The story is surprisingly epic. It spans two decades and four continents and involves more than a little political intrigue and suspense. But it feels intimate because it’s first and foremost a really sweet love story about intelligent and caring but extremely ambitious people who really get each other but meet in genuinely challenging circumstances. The early sequences in Arizona and Amsterdam when Lennix and Maxim are first getting to know and falling for each other are especially sweet and charming. Even when the story expands, Ryan’s writing is always lyrical, passionate, and original. The way the two main characters think and speak made me want to spend time with them for as long as possible. At the end I wanted more.

One of my favorite parts:

If a kiss has a color, this one is the muted shades of the sky overhead, a ménage à trois of midnight and indigo and moonshine silver. If a kiss has a sound, this one is the concert of our breaths and sighs and moans. If a kiss has a taste, it tastes like this. Hunger flavored with yearning and spiced with desperation. With bites and growls and tender licks and soothing whimpers. Perfectly served portions of sweet and scorching.

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