This month’s TBR Challenge them is “Lovely RITA,” a book that won or was nominated for a RITA (Wendy helped us find them). I had a handful of contenders in my TBR, but I dismissed the ones that are later in a series I haven’t started, because I’m a bit obsessive about reading in order. My initial plan was to read Laura Drake’s The Sweet Spot, a second-chance romance that won best first book last year (gosh, she’s been busy since then), just because almost no one I know read or talked about this one. But I was short on time because I’m getting ready to go on vacation, so I went with Sarah Morgan’s Doukakis’s Apprentice, a Harlequin Presents.
Morgan writes my kind of Presents: on the light and comic rather than super-angsty side. I’d never call her books parody, but I think she relates to the conventions of the line somewhat the way her heroines relate to her heroes: the heroine may roll her eyes at and gently mock his alpha machismo, but she’s attracted to it, too. Reading a Morgan Presents, I always feel like she’s saying to the reader, “Yeah, this is kind of over the top, but isn’t it fun?” And because of that attitude, I find that it is. Doukakis’s Apprentice was a delight, even when I was rolling my eyes at the 100th description of Damon Doukakis’s broad, broad shoulders and the way he “wore his masculinity like a banner, overt and unapologetic.” It’s over the top, yes, and it is a lot of fun.
The story initially appears to be a typical revenge plot, with a hero having all the power and a downtrodden martyr heroine. Damon Doukakis buys Polly Prince’s father’s advertising company to get revenge against her father and against Polly for something she did at 14; Polly is left to try to save everyone’s job, and is willing to do (almost) anything to help her co-workers out. She’s been her dad’s underpaid executive assistant for years, never got to go to university for a business degree, but is the one holding the company together. Damon, of course, thinks she’s lazy and spoiled. The alpha-doormat dynamic is not one I care for, so luckily the story moves past that very quickly. Polly stands up for other people from the get go, and for herself before very long. Damon is quick to recognize he was wrong about her, and he doesn’t take out his anger at Prince père on innocent employees.
Morgan subverts the story expectations she sets up–or maybe subvert isn’t the right word, but the familiar tropes unfold in unpredictable ways. Similarly, Polly and Damon have to revise their initial impressions and expectations of each other. Polly turns out to be far more competent and emotionally tough than Damon thought, and Damon more principled and emotional than Polly gave him credit for. I liked the way their strengths balance each other, and I believed by the end they’d be a great team in both business and private life.
I think my favorite scene is the one where Damon keeps trying to have a “morning after” conversation with Polly so he can let her down gently, and Polly just wants him to look at her budget spreadsheet:
“Sorry, but this account is really important. . . . You’re behaving really weirdly, if you don’t mind me saying. Just a couple of days ago you were telling me to take my lazy self and do some work and now you’re telling me to stop thinking about work. It’s very confusing. . . .”
“Why were you a virgin?”
“What sort of question is that?!” Her face turned scarlet. “Because no man ever wanted to take me to bed before, I suppose. And now can we end this conversation? I don’t know much about morning-after etiquette, but I’m pretty sure that embarrassing your partner isn’t on the list.”
I’ve described category romances as being like silent films: because of the length restrictions, the story is condensed and telegraphed in big, sort of symbolic scenes, the emotions real but often presented in unsubtle ways. That’s definitely true here–the romance goes from enemies to engaged in a few days–but if you’re prepared to accept that lack of realism, it’s a delicious fairytale treat by a master of the form.
My main quibble was the poor copyediting–Damon’s sister changes names, for instance. And I could have done with not quite so many mentions of Damon’s bigness and hardness; I got it! He’s the hero! Polly, I absolutely loved, from the moment I met her asleep at her laptop wearing flamingo-pink tights.
I am so glad I signed on for the TBR Challenge. It’s helped me fall for romance reading again and I’ve found some really great books buried in my library.