Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Loving Your Company, Not in Love with You: Kilby Blades' SNAPDRAGON

Apologies for the lack of posts of late. Rabid Olympics-watching combined with an over-long bout with perimenopausal PMDD brain fog led to an unintended reading and blogging hiatus. But RNFF is back today with a recommendation for an unusual erotic romance, which begins with a woman and a man meeting at the ultimate "meet-cute" site: a friend's wedding.

But the meeting between Darby Christensen 32, a high-powered psychiatrist and research psychopharmacologist, and thirty-one year-old Michael Blaine, an equally career-focused architect, doesn't resemble the usual rom-com meet cute. As the lone unmarried woman among her group of female friends, Darby may be used to the husband and baby talk, but it hardly makes her feel part of the crowd during the reception for the latest one in their group to marry. Especially when her friends' eyes start to glaze over when she tries to talk about what's most important to her: her job. Most of her friends have given up promising careers in favor of being wives and mothers, and spend more time talking about breastfeeding and diapers than they do about pay scales or awful bosses. Darby has no desire to be either a wife or a mother, and when the conversation turns to whether Daniel Tiger or Peppa Pig is better at teaching kids about sibling rivalry, she's so out of there.

On the beach near the hotel where the wedding reception is being held, she runs in to a blue-eyed, dark-skinned handsome stranger, a fellow wedding guest. Michael Blaine, it turns out, is the friend of today's groom, who also happens to be one of Darby's oldest friends. The two escape the "when are you going to find a girl/guy" pressure cooker of the reception by taking a walk together, a walk which includes neither the usual banal chitchat of the newly-met, nor a contrived rom-com excuse to fall into bed together, but instead some open, honest discussion about their friend, their own sexual pasts, and their mutual seventy-hour work weeks, which has made successful dating pretty much impossible. Neither has the time nor the energy to devote to romancing a potential romantic connection, although each is deeply lonely for companionship. As as Michael explains:

"The truth is, I like you. I think you're the kind of girl I'd like to have dinner with and take to social functions. I think we'd  have more good conversation, some fun times, and sizzling hot sex.... But I don't need to start something with you to know how it'll end. Experience has taught me that women are biologically incapable of having unattached relationships. Since I'm too busy for the kind of commitment they want, I go without. I'd rather do that than lead them on." (Kindle Loc 260)

Darby's response challenges both Michael's assumptions and the sexism that underlies them:

"But your broad categorization of women is short-sighted." And borderline sexist. She bit her tongue again. "If you think there aren't plenty of single women who want to stay that way, you are mistaken. My parents' marriage was a disaster, and the idea of emulating that repulses me. Despite all you've heard about biological clocks and maternal instincts, not all women have them. I have a career I love that has me working just as many hours as you do, probably more. The last thing I need is to come home after a hard day to somebody who is biologically incapable of not needing his ego stroked" (267)

Finding someone who is willing to be a companion, a friend, and a sex partner, but who won't be disappointed that he or she isn't the center of a partner's attention—that is the challenge for high-powered career-focused professionals such as Darby and Michael. Michael describes his ideal:

"I want a woman who doesn't confuse me loving her company with me being in love with her. She has to know that whatever we have today may not be there tomorrow, not because I'm heartless or distant or incapable of intimacy—but because right now, I choose my career, and my love isn't in play—only my companionship." (298)

Michael knows that he's going to be promoted to partner some day, a promotion that will likely lead to a transfer far away from the Chicago they both call home. And he has no desire to leave a broken-hearted girlfriend behind. His job must come first, before a girlfriend, before a relationship, before family. Before everything.

A sentiment with which Darby, estranged from her senator-father and equally committed to her patients and her research, entirely agrees. And thus the two find themselves spending the night in bed, not for a one-night-stand, but as an interview of sorts, an interview for the role of mutual part-time sexual partner, dinner companion, and person to hang with in the all-too-rare free hours between work commitments.

"You're hired" is all Darby writes on the note she leaves behind before she takes off the next morning for her scheduled flight back to Chicago. The only terms the two negotiate before they begin their unusual arrangment is that 1. their jobs come first, and 2. when their relationship ends, it will end without drama:

"We promise each other that when it ends, it ends in a single word—whether that be tonight or a year from now. No awkward confrontation. No messy breakup talk. That's the shitty part anyway, right? We agree to keep it fun and simple. And, when it stops being fun, or stops being simple, it's over." 

Rather than a safeword to interrupt unwanted BDSM sex, Darby and Michael agree on a safeword to signal the end of their relationship. That safeword: Snapdragon.

The relationship that develops between Michael and Darby in the months that follow their arrangement proves far from superficial. The two share dinners, attend charity events together, and spend hours and hours in bed having amazingly intense sex. And they also do a lot of talking. About their jobs, about their career goals, about their large and small triumphs. And when they have shitty days at the office, they begin to talk about those, too, which in turn leads to far more personal conversations—about their difficult childhoods, their current privileged lifestyles, the good they want to do in the world. And Michael gradually begins to treat Darby more as a beloved partner than as a casual friend.

But when a colleague's inadvertent comment shows Darby that there's a lot more to Michael than he ever lets her see, Darby's thrown for a major loop. Because "when it came to Darby, Michael knew everything" (3018), but "she only knew parts of Michael, the parts of him he wanted her to see. That the parts of him he wanted her to see were narrower than she'd believed. That there was too much she didn't know about the man who, for all intents and purposes, she was dating" (3013). Should Darby be the first to say "Snapdragon"? Or might Michael be preparing to say it himself?

The arc of most romance novels centered around the "we're not really having a real relationship" trope usually focuses on one or both partners learning to overcome a fear of commitment. Unlike those novels, Blades' romance directly challenges the underlying assumption that not wanting a long-term partner or a child is a psychological problem you'll naturally overcoming when you meet the right person, but might instead be the valid choice of a mature adult.

But also that one's choices, one's priorities, have a funny way of shifting over time . . .

Photo credits:
Beach walk: Rick Tagaki, PopularPhotography
"You're Hired": YouthVillage
Snapdragons: Park Seed

Love Conquers None Book #1
Luxe Press, 2017

Friday, February 9, 2018

Romancing the Rings: Olympics Romances by Rachel Spangler and Tamsen Parker

With the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics taking place today, a post on Olympic-set romances seems more than in order. Luckily, many romance authors have penned and published love stories set against the backdrop of fictionalized winter sports competitions in celebration, several with clearly feminist themes.

My favorites to date are by lesbian romance author Rachel Spangler, and erotic romance writer Tamsen Parker. Spangler's a new-to-me author, while Parker's an old book friend, and I've enjoyed reading their stories this week in preparation for the real-life athletic contests to come.

Spangler's Edge of Glory features two athletes who belong to the same athletic association—the USSA (United States Ski & Snowboard)—but who have very little else in common. After a long and successful career in the upcoming sport of snowboard cross, thirty-year-old Corey LaCroix is spending as much time fending off questions about retirement as she is training for the upcoming Olympics. The sport's become far more regimented, far less free-spirited than it was when she she was a carefree 18-year-old winning her first gold medal, and she's wondering whether her own freewheeling days of hearty partying and sleeping with any woman eager to fall into her bed are—or should be—behind her, too.

Like the sport she loves, Corey has a reputation for being laid back and rule wary. A happy likable jokester, Corey's always been able to charm anyone who crossed her path. But she has her work cut out for her when twenty-five year-old Elise Brandeis, Ice Princess of the ski slopes, arrives to train at the "Lake Henry" New York Olympic training center the summer before the next winter games. Spending a year off the slopes after a knee-tearing crash has Elise chomping at the bit, ready to begin serious training again. And she's determined nothing—especially not a cocky, undisciplined, court-jester of a woman like Corey LaCroix—will distract her from making the Olympic team.

Spangler crafts a slow-to-develop romance, as these two opposites gradually become friends before they test the waters of sexual compatibility. Although lines like these—"Elise's droll comments probably put a lot of people off, but [Corey] didn't mind having her chops busted by beautiful women. She preferred sass to sycophants any day" (Kindle Loc 1324)—made this reader more than willing to hang in there and watch the sparks fan into flame.

Spangler's true gift as a writer is her strong, nuanced character development, creating both primary and secondary characters that move far beyond the feel-good human interest bio stories we get during the typical television Olympic broadcasts. Though it's obvious from the story's start that wound-too-tight Elise could benefit from a bit of Corey's sheer joy in life, friendship, and competition, it never makes Corey the key to Elise's salvation; instead, Elise learns from her coach, from an upcoming snowboarder, and Corey's sister and trainer, as well as Elise, that being a world-class competitor does not mean you can't have any friends, and that joy, not anger, is what sustains a person through the long haul of a bid for the Olympics.

Corey's self-explorations are more bittersweet. Always one to live in the moment, she finds it nearly impossible to even consider what her life might be like if she's no longer is able to—or has the desire to—compete, never mind make plans for that inevitability. After a career built on risk-taking, can Corey really give it all up? And if she does, what will she have left?

Can two highly competitive women at two very different places in their athletic careers, forge a relationship that lasts beyond the highs (and lows) of the Winter Games?

In contrast to Spangler's long contemporary Olympic romance, Tamsen Parker has penned not two, not three, but five short Olympic-set romances. The length of these Snow & Ice Games books is far shorter than most of the romances Parker has written in the past, which makes for a sometimes frustrating experience for readers familiar with the fully-developed plots and characters of her earlier work. But publishing a series of books that feature not just heterosexual couples, or just gay couples, or just lesbian couples, as market forces typically demand, but one in which, as in real life, all three types of couples play leading roles, is well worth celebrating, even if one might wish to spend more time luxuriating in each couple's story.

For me, this week's installment of Parker's "Snow and Ice Games" was On the Edge of Scandal, the third book in the series. It's one of the three hetero romances of the group, featuring a woman hockey player who is growing increasingly frustrated with the obnoxious behavior of her long-time boyfriend. Brody's come to the Games to support college senior Bronwyn, even though he didn't make the men's hockey team as he had hoped to. Which Bron knows is "super sweet. It was. What's less sweet is that I feel like he wants me to hand him a goddamn cookie for it every time I see him" (Kindle Loc 45). Brody spends his time mouthing off in the stands ("She's not bad for a girl, right?"), calling Bron "Winnie" (a nickname she hates), and getting pissy and demanding when he's not allowed in the Olympic Village to sleep in Bron's bed.

All of which drives Bronwyn's Olympic coach, twenty seven-year-old Asher Levenson, to teeth-gnashing. Especially because he's been fighting off a stupid crush on Bron for the past two years. During the regular season Bron may play for BC, not for the BU team he coaches, but even crushing on a competitor is a no-no. Never mind on a player he's in the middle of coaching.

Ash, unlike privileged, attention-hound Brody, understand that Bron has to make her own decisions, even if one of those decisions is putting up with a romantic partner who doesn't grant her half the respect he knows she deserves. And so he doesn't interfere, even when Brody pulls him into a pissing match over Bron.

But when Brody's small slights and minor betrayals transform into one major, and very public, mistake, Ash is hardly crying in his coffee when Bron finally gives Brody the heave-ho he deserves.

But dumping a guy you've been with for eight years leaves a big hole a person's life, a hole that only grows larger as the tension of the SIG games increases. Ash promises to give Bron whatever she needs in order to get through this difficult time, and keep her, and the team, on track for the gold. How can Bron confide that her go-to form of stress relief has always been human contact?

Parker does fabulous work in the first third of the novel showing how a smart, competitive young woman can convince herself (or be trained by gender expectations to accept) that a boyfriend's sexist treatment is just par for the course: "If I were the bitchy and vindictive type, I could point out that while they may not be bruisers like he is, the people on those buses actually made their SIG teams, so maybe he should shut up. But I'll be good, be nice" (323). I especially cheered after reading this line, one of the few times in a romance novel where the word "feminism" isn't used as a straw-man whip to chastise the behavior of a romantically-inclined woman: "His sexist ranting pisses me off, but I don't have time to lecture him on feminism. Again" (140).

Olympic Village sex is safe sex: 37 condoms per athlete handed out
to the 2018 Winter Olympians, according to South China Morning Post
The latter parts of the story are more complicated, featuring as it does a growing romantic and sexual attachment between a player and a coach. Many a reader (and many a feminist) might find such a relationship problematic. Parker, however, takes the stance that while such rules may be be designed to protect girls, they can also function to infantilize adult women, policing their sexual choices in a way that is equally beholden to patriarchal norms. As Bronwyn tells Ash after he apologizes for "taking advantage of her" during a mutually-instigated kiss:

"You know, I'm really fucking tired of dudes telling me what I should do. I don't mind it on the ice, because you know what you're talking about and I trust you out there, but in here? Do you really think I'd be here if I didn't want to be? Do you think I would be lying in a bed with you if I felt like you were manipulating me? I don't. If anything, I feel bad because you're probably feeling guilty for betraying your professional moral code." (1367)

I'm really interested to hear other readers' thoughts on the way Bronwyn and Ash's romance plays out, in public and in private. And responses to the other books in Parker's series, which may not be as overtly feminist as On the Edge of Scandal, but which are just as deliciously readable.

What are your favorite Olympic-set romances?

Photo credits:
Snowboarder: Ski-BUMS
Skier Julia Mancuso training: Wall Street Journal
BU vs. BC women's hockey: SBNATION
Olympic condoms: Cosmopolitan

Edge of Glory: A Romance
Bywater Books, 2017

On the Edge of Scandal
Snow & Ice Games book #3
SMP Swerve/St. Martin's, 2018