January’s TBR Challenge theme is “We Love Short Shorts!” and I planned to pick one of the many category romances languishing on my Kobo reader. But then I knocked JoAnn Ross’s Tempting Fate off the bookshelf in my bedroom, and decided a book with a university administrator heroine might be just the thing when I felt overwhelmed by my own first-week-of-semester administrative duties.
The copy I have is a Mira re-release very kindly sent to me by Janet because of the heroine’s job. But Tempting Fate was first released as the last of a Harlequin Temptations trilogy called “Lucky Penny.” There is, in fact, a lucky penny in the book, but it features very lightly. Ross hints at a contrast between the supernatural/superstitious idea that the hero and heroine are “fated” to be together and their rational, logical natures–she’s an accountant and he’s a scientist. But this contrast isn’t really sustained or developed.
I spent the first part of the book going “Oh, come on” every few pages. The heroine, Brooke, is Director of Appropriations at a college, which means that she reviews everyone’s research funding and decides what to cut, because federal funding has been cut. That’s not how research funding works! (Although the part where she has to take everything to the Board is spot on). There are also some howlers like the professor in the “poly sci” department. And did people still refer to female undergrads as “coeds” in the 80s?
Then there’s the research the hero, Donovan, is conducting: teaching sign language to Gloria the gorilla. I used to assign a couple of readings on apes and language, so I’m aware of the controversies around such research (to be fair, some of them post-date this novel). Gloria not only signs but types, and she uses more abstract language than I think any researcher has claimed for a real-life ape. This part was sheer fantasy. But we’ll come back to Gloria.
About 50 pages in, I decided to think of this book as set in an alternate reality, kind of like Harlequin Presents Greece is not real Greece. Once I willfully suspended my disbelief, I found the book an easy if unexciting diversion in a stressful week, a C read but not a disaster.
This is a second chance romance: Brooke and Donovan dated in college, but broke up when Donovan turned down Brooke’s marriage proposal and went off to Cornell for grad school without her. He loved her. But they weren’t open with each other, something they aren’t that much better at when they reunite 10 years later, both now employed at the same college. They’re as attracted to each other as ever. But Brooke, in particular, is wary of being hurt again. Plus she’s cutting Donovan’s budget, and doesn’t expect that to go over well–he’s always put his apes ahead of her.
I liked that Brooke has been married and divorced, not celibate, in the time since her romance with Donovan (although of course things were never as good as with him). I liked that she went to work for a Silicon Valley startup out of college, when Silicon Valley was just starting up. She is good at her job, and not swayed from doing it well by her feelings for Donovan. She keeps confidentiality and won’t tell Donovan what she’s doing with his budget until the Board approval is final (though I wish they had talked frankly about how he’d feel and what they’d do if she did have to cut it, like grown-ups).
Donovan was fine, but I was disappointed that I was promised an “absent minded professor” type and got a standard-issue hot romance hero who one time wore two different colored shoes.
I liked that the sex scenes weren’t explicit (although they were rather flowery). It made me wonder why, exactly, such scenes have tended to get longer and more graphic in the last 30 years. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but I don’t believe that it makes them any better at conveying emotion or advancing the plot or character development.
Sometimes, the writing in this book made me cringe. Remembering some woodland sex in their college days, Donovan tells Brooke, “God, you were beautiful, your slim girlish body bathed in the gold and claret glow of the sunset.” Yeahhhh. I’d give that language a pass from the narrator (although I wouldn’t admire it) but in dialogue?
Most of the book didn’t go that overboard, although I did get tired of hearing about their golden (hers) and emerald (his) eyes. But there were good bits too:
In this community of scholars, unlike in the rest of the world, the new year did not arrive when the calendar turned to January. It began, as it had for the last one hundred years [since the college was founded], on the first Tuesday after Labor Day. The first day of classes, the opening day of the fall semester. A time when both students and professors maintained the loftiest of ideals and no goal, no matter how ambitious, seemed out of reach.
I know that feeling well, and here I saw the slightly over the top language–“the loftiest of ideals”–as gently mocking our tendency to make, in the fervor of the new year, plans we ought to know are overly ambitious.
And Gloria the gorilla? She was my favorite character, implausible as she was. She has a taste for TV cop shows and can be found watching Streets of San Francisco dubbed in Italian, or anything else that’s on. Unlike Brooke and Donovan, she knows exactly what she wants, and says so–“You Gloria new television buy. . . . Good idea, yes?” And she has a part to play in the book’s climax. Maybe, for Gloria, I’d bump my grade to a C+. I won’t forget her in a hurry.