Third Time’s the Charm and Links on Readers Reading

Happy Reading

The first book I read from Entangled Publishing’s Indulgence line (the only one I’ve tried so far) made me wary of trying another. My second try was more successful. The third, Stephanie Draven’s In Bed With the Opposition, I loved.

The opening set-up and some basic tropes felt familiar: Grace Santiago is loyal and a bit self-sacrificing. She failed out of law-school thanks to the fallout of her fling with Ethan Castle, and in the book’s opening she runs into him–still gorgeous and sexy, now rich and famous–at a Crab Fest that her boss, octogenarian Maryland Senator Kip Halloway, has insisted on attending. I didn’t love the fact that Grace still wasn’t over Ethan, or that she’d spent years letting the senator’s grandson string her along because of her unrequited conviction that he’s perfect for her. It’s not the era of Persuasion any more, and a woman who can’t move on and make a life for herself seems not fully adult. But Grace knows that too: in the opening scene, she thinks of herself as “a hound” trailing after her boss, and she’s ready to break out of that role. It’s clear that she’s ambitious and good at her job. Ethan’s return to her life might be the catalyst for change, but she already felt the need for it. Moreover, we learn that Ethan’s perspective on their past relationship is very different from Grace’s, and she has to reconsider history, and her own self-image, in light of that. Draven began deconstructing the tropey set-up almost as soon as she introduced it.

This is really the heroine’s story. Grace becomes more assertive and self-confident over the course of the book, determined to go after what she wants: “This time, Ethan Castle wasn’t just going to happen to her. This time, he was a choice. Her choice.” Ethan is less well-developed. He has a melodramatic backstory that isn’t fully resolved or tied into the romance, though I could see how it did tie in (I didn’t feel it was necessary, though). Grace, the smart good girl afraid to let go, risk and mess up, was someone I could identify with, and maybe that helped make her feel more fully rounded.

The political background is unusual in category romance (I described this on Twitter as “Harlequin Presents meets The West Wing“). Grace’s loyalty to her aging senator boss, who is past his prime (I can think of a few real-life parallels), is believable and thoughtfully explored. I liked the complexity of his character–for instance, he makes sexist gaffes, but has a history of hiring and promoting women long before it was common. Blain, the golden boy grandson Grace aspires to marry, turned out to be more interesting than I expected, too. The secondary characters add depth to Grace’s story. Unlike many romance heroines, she’s enmeshed in a family and community.

I loved the voice and humor in Draven’s writing. Grace the “hound” thinks of her cell-phone as “her own personal dog whistle.” Seeing Ethan at the Crab Fest, she thinks she isn’t going to let Ethan “smash his way through her thick shell to get to the tender insides.” Ethan thinks that working “to reelect a fossil like Kip Halloway . . . would be the final fucking snowflake in the winter of his professional discontent.” Oh, and the sexual tension is great. (I would note that the copy-editing fell apart in the last quarter. Also, a couple of times Ethan refers to Grace’s “Latin curves.” That wouldn’t have bothered me in her point of view, because it would have seemed kind of America Ferrera in Real Women Have Curves, but from his it seemed like he was stereotyping and exoticizing her.)

Grace and Ethan and their story have some of the exaggerated features (“kabuki, silent film,” I told myself at a few exasperated points) of category romance, but their emotions and interactions are realistic. This romance was a delight to read, especially in an often-disheartening election season.

Other Readers Reading

One of my favorite things about the book blogosphere is the peek it offers into other readers’ minds. I’m fascinated by how books work on different readers, and how other readers approach books (that’s part of what drew me to teaching English). Here are some recent examples I enjoyed:

  • Moriah Jovan has a guest post on “The PlaceHolder Heroine” at Dear Author. This post got some people’s backs up, probably because Moriah speculated on other readers (could we all agree that any statement about why “readers” like something popular is not meant to apply to every reader, and not get mad if it doesn’t apply to us? Probably not. These questions are interesting to think about, but seem like a minefield of potential offense these days). I loved seeing Moriah explore an idea she hadn’t fully figured out. Her thoughts are far more tentative than conclusive. That led to some thoughtful responses in the comments.
  • Megan Mulry has embarked on a project to read the first ten Harlequin Presents novels, and she blogs about one at HarlequinJunkie. I like following Megan because although we have some basic things in common–same age, married with two kids, came late to romance-reading (also, the plot of her first book is one of my recurring youthful daydreams)–she’s pretty much my opposite in personality and, often, in reader taste. I like seeing such a different perspective, which often challenges me to think about my gut reactions to my reading.
  • If you missed the live-tweeting, Miriam E. Burstein of The Little Professor also has a blog post on Clandestine Classics‘ version of Jane Eyre (there’s a link to the Storified tweets as well).
  • On a very different subject, Rohan Maitzen has a great piece at the LA Review of Books on George Eliot’s secular ethics. She connects her reading of Silas Marner to contemporary American prejudice against atheists and concludes:

Against those “argumentative tendencies” that seem to define the cultures of atheism and religion alike today, Eliot offers us novels like Silas Marner, novels that express her own faith that with sufficient understanding and attention to what is apart from themselves, people can be their own salvation. It’s a vision at once rigorous and humane, one that could lead us to a new, shared “basis of moral solidarity.”

That hope for respect, sympathy and reconciliation seems vain, but also sorely needed, in this divisive election season.

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9 Responses to Third Time’s the Charm and Links on Readers Reading

  1. Ros says:

    One of my favourite lines in the Draven book was when Ethan is thinking back to his previous relationship with Grace and how much it had meant to him. He says something like, ‘I gave her my box set of The West Wing. Surely that meant something?’ I laughed out loud at that and several other lines. I would guess that for someone who recognises all the sources she mentions at the end, the book would be even sharper and funnier. I only have a passing acquaintance with US politics, and little interest and I still really enjoyed this.

    I agree about Ethan’s backstory. I didn’t think that was necessary, either.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out. You are absolutely correct that they were tentative/pensive. I was thinking out loud.

    As for talking about why “other” readers like what they like, it’s always on my mind. As a writer, it’s MY JOB to figure out what pushes readers’ buttons.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      For me, part of the point of blogging is testing out ideas. So I am happy to be argued with, but of course I prefer when it is not hostile arguing. ;)

      I find it interesting to speculate on the appeal of popular cultural phenomena–books, movies, whatever–but I take for granted that anything super popular is appealing to different audiences in different ways. Any speculation about reasons for popularity is bound to be provisional and incomplete. I guess some people would like to see that overtly stated? I think when readers say “That’s not MY experience so you’re WRONG,” they’re just as guilty of over-generalization, because they aren’t every reader.

      • I think when readers say “That’s not MY experience so you’re WRONG,” they’re just as guilty of over-generalization, because they aren’t every reader.

        Exactly so. But you know the funny thing about that is my post didn’t apply to ME, either! I don’t read that way, and so I wasn’t coming at it from “I see my inadequacies reflected in Bella and that’s why I can relate to her.” I happened to be on an unrelated blog one day a while back, talking about something else and pulled that in as a reference, and it was there (because of the milieu) the idea of X type of reader occurred to me.

  3. Alex says:

    Funnily enough, as I was reading this, but before I got to the West Wing reference, the first thing that came to mind was the Donna – Josh storyline. I haven’t come across these publishers. Do you know if they are available in the UK?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Hi Alex, they are an e-only Romance publisher, and I think their books are available to you from their site (the book link in the post goes there) or from Amazon. (Ros, who commented that she was reading it, is in the UK).

    • Ros says:

      Yes, you can get them from Amazon or from Books on Board if you’re in the UK, but they are digital only.

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