This Week, I Read… (2021 #31)

#87 – Pretty Face, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I’m not sure where the magic, likability, or personality of the first book in the series went, because it certainly isn’t here anymore.

I’ll admit my personal biases up front–despite the fact that I’ve read quite a few of them, age-difference romance is not a trope I favor. Nor are coworker romances (though they can be tolerable sometimes, I often find the power dynamics gross) or a-hole heroes.

So I’m striking out on all the tropes this particular installment relies on–I didn’t know the a-hole hero in the first book was setting a pattern for the whole series (and it obviously was, looking at the blurbs for the future books.)

But a lot of my problems with this book don’t even stem from the tropes I don’t care for. This one felt far more “British” than the last one, by which I mean, I’m an American reader and even if I loosely understand how the peer system is set up, I’ll simply never understand fully its political and social implications, so having everyone in this book be related to someone hoity-toity and constantly referencing a family feud generations old that turns out to just be a shady business deal…I’m over it. I never cared. On top of that, I felt like the references to famous places were much more heavy-handed here, and while I have been to England, I haven’t been to London, so they didn’t mean much to me.

I buy the central conflict of “we can’t be in a relationship for these rock-solid social, personal, and professional reasons.” Because both our leads do have excellent reasons not to bang. But they throw all of those out a window really quickly when a Depressing Plot Twist leaves the hero vulnerable, and the nonsexual part of her supporting him through it was actually really sweet, but then of course they go home and bang. I’ve run into this behavior pattern before in romances, and I’m not even saying it’s not realistic, people seek comfort. But I generally don’t think it’s healthy, and these two have way more obstacles than most standing between them. And I definitely think these two got in the sack sooner than their previous dynamics warranted.

All of that felt rushed, like we have to have them together quickly, because the meat of the story is apparently how they a) fail to keep it secret and b) fail to manage any of the other consequences of their impulsive decision. Most of the middle of the book is a train wreck with a Snidely Whiplash-esque villain metaphorically tying our leads to the tracks via social media pressure, since he’s runs a sleazy tabloid.

The thing that’s ultimately saving this from being a one-star disappointment of a sequel is the final personal conflict between the leads, which involves a different Depressing Plot Twist, but does display how far the hero has come from being the a-hole he started as. (Unlike in the first novel, where I felt that Richard displayed no real change in self from getting together with Lainie, Luc definitely gets a full personal arc here as a result of his relationship.) I think it all played out in both a realistic and satisfying manner–even if I don’t think their romance was handled well in the beginning, as rushed and shaky as it was, it definitely gets a solid ending.

Going to give this series one chance to bounce back–let’s see if I can learn to like the next grumpy hero.

#88 – Making Up, by Lucy Parker

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Better for me than the second book, barely, but definitely not as good as the first–more like a 2.5, but I’ll round up for the sake of Goodreads’ lack of half-stars.

Plot gripes: thin and rushed. When I went to record the page count (I keep track of my monthly totals) I was shocked, yet not really surprised in retrospect, that this book is over a hundred pages shorter than its predecessor. The chemistry between the leads is hand-waved with a “they used to be frenemies in school” backstory that’s eluded too frequently but not filled in until their climactic get-together moment. (I think ultimately that’s a good choice, but it does make the beginning feel a bit empty.) Their relationship jumps right to “we’re having sex but we don’t know about the rest of it” and stays there until the final conflict, both of them refusing to address their status in any meaningful way. And then when things look dire, hero makes a quick decision and they eventually get their HEA. That epilogue was terrible, though.

Character gripes: Trix is fairly solid and gets the most development. Leo’s is much shallower, and his final decision not to take the big opportunity he’s been granted in favor of fighting for their relationship feels a bit hackneyed, since we never really learn why he’s so passionate about his art/makeup artistry in the first place (in contrast to getting at least a cursory explanation of Trix’s childhood fascination with circus arts.) The subplot with Leo’s jealousy about the fake, reality-show narrative of Trix’s romance with Jono was fine with me–he acknowledged that it was his feelings and not reality that was the problem. The subplot with Jono’s actual romance with Cat was awful, and Cat was awful, and I get that she’s supposed to be a bona fide Mean Girl, but I don’t think she added anything to the story overall. I could see so clearly how she was only there to throw wrenches in the plot, and if she was supposed to be a foil for Trix (ie, “look at how badly Cat is coping with her trauma vs. Trix”) then it would have worked better if she weren’t an entirely unsympathetic shrew of a person who does nothing but be mean to everyone and make constant trouble.

Even though there were parts of this I did genuinely like, there were plenty I didn’t, and after three books by this author I think it’s pretty clear that I don’t vibe with her style. Shelving her under “glad she works for other readers but not so much for me.”

#89 – The Heart Principle, by Helen Hoang

  • Rating: 3/5 stars

I was looking forward to this a great deal, having loved the first two books. And this book isn’t terrible, but it’s not what I expected based on its predecessors.

A lot of the same elements are there–a main character with autism and a narrative dealing with how it affects their life. A romantic partner who accepts them. Other people who don’t, necessarily. Communication issues. So the core structure is there.

But the problem with this story is that it’s actually two stories, and I don’t feel like those two stories mesh together well.

The first half of the book is solidly a romance and I was definitely on board to give this book the third five-star rating of the series. Then it shifts drastically away from the romance for the next 40-ish percent of the book–in fact, the hero barely appears at all. Quan’s POV chapters become shorter and fewer while the narrative focuses on Anna, and she barely mentions him, because her life becomes a hell of constant caregiving, family drama, emotional blackmail, gaslighting…I mean, I’m not against romances dealing with heavy, serious topics, but this is a plunge into such a severe emotional misery that Anna’s narrator really did sound like she was crying many times. (Listening to the audiobook may have exacerbated how miserable it felt, actually, because her performance was so good, by which I mean, dramatically heart-breaking. I might have been able to keep a little more distance between myself and the text if I’d been reading words on a page instead.)

The last ten percent is by far the worst part of the story, because while the main characters are back together in what appears to be a romance, it didn’t strike me as particularly romantic, because it’s a quick-and-dirty summary of Anna’s continued mental illness (autistic burnout) and slow recovery, again with very little actual presence of Quan, who is quietly being her caretaker in the background with absolutely no fanfare (story-wise) like she got when she was taking care of her dad. That, even more than Quan’s relative lack of screen time in Part II, really felt off and even angered me, because while he’s clearly more emotional capable of being a caretaker–he basically said so early on, though not in direction comparison to Anna–the breezy, “let’s wrap up literal months of story time in a few quick chapters” pace really does him a disservice by minimizing his role in Anna’s progress.

After building him up through the first half as a hero with some baggage to carry, but basically a really stand-up dude, the rest of the book gives the impression that Quan’s journey is secondary to Anna’s, that he’s not as worthy of development, not as important. And I think that’s crap. He deserved better.

Though the audiobook did not include the author’s note that people reviewing the print edition have been mentioning gave context to the story, I did skim an interview with the author that said much the same thing (apparently,) that this book is “half a memoir.” And while I recognize that writing about such personal topics may be liberating and cathartic, and I mean no disrespect or insult to her or anything she’s gone through…I expected a romance, and I only got that for half the book. This is being marketed as a romance following on the heels of two other wildly successful romances previous, and I don’t feel ultimately that this story is enough of a romance to meet my expectations. The first half of the book is what I wanted, most of the second half is still a good story but not a romance at all, and the final part is simply bad.

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