I picked up Kate Clayborn's debut romance, Beginner's Luck, after spotting it on the "best of 2017" list of Emma Barry, an author for whose writing and blogging I hold a deep respect. When I first began reading, though, I have to admit I was a bit underwhelmed by Clayborn's tale. The story, which opens with a prologue about three female friends who have recently won the lottery, is a bit of a slow starter, which seemed decidedly at odds with the first person present tense in which the author chose to relate it. And even though the lottery win is the hook that ties the series, entitled Chance of a Lifetime, together, the big payout isn't really a driving force, at least in this first book. But given the recommender, I decided to keep reading, and I'm glad I did. Because Clayborn's debut is not only strong on the character-development front; it also made me think about the purposes (and the potential problems) of the "groveling" scene that so often appears towards the climax of traditional romances, as well as the genre's linkage of "grand gestures" to groveling scenes.
Beginner's Luck's female protagonist, Kit Averin, is decidedly anti-lottery, having suffered a few too many moves during her childhood due to the losses sustained by her gambling-addicted father. Out of her three friends, Kit is the only one to keep her job post-lottery, because she loves her work as a scientist so much. She's kept the news about her win not only from the public at large, but also from her colleagues at the material science department where she earned her Master's degree and where she now works as a lab technician. In fact, Kit has kept her secret so quiet that a recruiter from Beaumont Materials, a large commercial company, thinks he can wrest her from her job with the temptation of a high-paying salary and lots of new lab equipment.
But even if Kit weren't morally opposed to working for a corporate concern, she'd never consider the offer of Beamont Materials' recruiter, smooth-talker Ben Tucker. Not only is he too good-looking for his (or her) own good, he did so little research on her that he had no idea that she was a she and not a he. Besides, after her peripatetic childhood, the last thing Kit wants to do is move to a strange town in Texas and start anew. Kit loves her job, loves her friends, and loves the ties she is building in her (unnamed) college town, including the old Queen Anne house she's just purchased with her lottery winnings.
Unlike Kit, Ben couldn't get away from home fast enough. In response to his mother's leaving him and his father for another man when he was a teen, Ben let his simmering rage boil over one time too many, leading to six months in juvenile detention and a guilt complex a mile wide. He's spent the years from 17 to 31 in Texas, trying to shake off his bad rep and his feelings of abandonment. But an accident suffered by his beloved father has brought him home again, where he plans to split his time between nursing Dad, overseeing Dad's building materials salvage yard, and wooing a potential candidate his boss insists must come and work for their company. In fact, wooing said candidate will free him and his friend Jasper from their anti-compete clause, allowing them to leave Beaumont and start their own recruitment company, something they've been itching to do for the past few years.
Needless to say, of Ben's three jobs, none goes as easily as he had hoped, especially the job of recruiting E. R. Averin—E for Ekaterina, as it turns out. As Ben's attraction to Kit crosses the line from admiration to actual kissing, Ben is wise enough to fire himself from the job of recruiting her. But not before he shares some insider information with Jasper, information that Jasper, eager to win his and Ben's freedom, uses in a way that has Kit steaming with betrayal.
The slow-build romance between Kit and Ben is appealing, but it was the aftermath of the betrayal where things got really interesting to me, on three fronts. First, on the front of Kit's job prospects. Kit's been so emotionally wounded by her upbringing that she's utterly determined to remain fixed fixed in place. As Kit herself describes early on in the story, being recruited by Ben gives her a "quick-shot feeling of fear that would go through me at the very idea of having to pick up and leave here, start all over again. I can't do that anymore. I've had my fill of it" (p. 15). She's even gone to therapy to help her deal with her childhood, and she recognizes that her fear of change is a real issue for her. I've seen such determined holding on to the present in other romance novel protagonists, and so I thought for sure this narrative, like so many others, was going to frame its heroine's emotional growth journey as one towards accepting greater risk And it does—just not in regards to her job. As Kit tells herself after one too many a man tells her what she should want, the urge to always move faster, go higher, make more money, is only one way to live a life; there are other goals that are equally, or for Kit, perhaps more, important:
Who are these men to say that I have to live a life where work takes over, where I'm always worried about the next thing? Who are these men who think having vision means making money, making things? And who are these fucking men to tell me what's easy? What's easy about becoming a part of a community, about reading the local paper every week, making sure you try something new, even if it's scary and you have to go by yourself? What's easy about making best friends, about forming relationships that are going to last, when someone has your back and you have theirs? What's easy about trying to make a home for yourself, when you've never had one before? (131)
The second surprise had to do with the grand gesture Ben makes to show his regret for having messed up Kit's work life. Getting on a plane, flying halfway across the country to apologize—in a rom com, you'd expect such a gesture to lead immediately to forgiveness, to a teary but happy couple embrace. Yet Clayborn's story suggests that the big gesture may be less about the person wronged, and more about the person who's done the wronging:
"Just let me be here with you. I'm so worried—"
"You know what, Ben? I'm sorry about that. I'm sorry that you're worried. I know that's hard. But this isn't about you. This is something that's going on with me, and I get to pick who I want to have around. I get to choose. And it's not you. It's really, really not." (185)
The final surprise had to do with the groveling mentioned above. Or, rather, the lack thereof. Because Ben's been there and done that, and knows it's just not worth it. As Ben's father explains to Kit:
"That night Laura [Ben's mother] calls, all upset, asks how he's doing. She told me he'd ridden his bike to where she'd worked, waited outside for her until she showed up. Begged her to come back, promised he'd be a better kid. He cried his heart out, I guess, and Ben wasn't much of a crier, ever" (211).
Ben's childhood groveling, even though he wasn't in the wrong, didn't change his mother's mind. And it won't change Kit's mind, or at least, it shouldn't. Because he shouldn't have to grovel, shouldn't have to beg, for her to be willing to forgive him, for her to want to be with him.
And Kit realizes she shouldn't be waiting for him, either, waiting for him to sell her on the idea that they belong together: "For all my talk to Ben about choosing for myself, I'm not choosing anything right now" (213).
Because a relationship isn't something you should be talked into, or groveled into, wanting. It's something you should choose because you want it for yourself.
Salvage yard: California home design
Bike in grass: Alamy stock
Chance of a Lifetime #1