October 2012, Series Romance
Harlequin Presents #220, $4.99, 192 pages, Amazon ASIN 0373528884
Well, at the very least this book made me think, and react. Not always in a good way, mind you, but Iím not indifferent to it. That said most of it is bad news, and Iím not exaggerating when I say that on many levels, this is a troubling book. Too much analysis for a Harlequin Presents? I say about damn time.
So probably the only thing I liked, unequivocally, was how Ms. Anderson deals with responsible technology usage. Nadia Keenan and Ethan Rush are waging a very public online war about relationships, dating, and gender attitudes towards both Ė but are they reporters? Are they columnists? Nope, theyíre just some dumb clucks who use the internet as venting space and vendetta grounds, and it comes back to bite them in the ass. See, Nadia, got screwed over by a ďvirginity collectorĒ, and as part of her personal vendetta she started a blog called WomanBWarned, which is basically a database of guys who screw and dump, reader (or user Ė or usee) contributed.
Letís pause there for a moment and think. The internet is now our village. A womanís first reaction after her baby drowned in a pool is to tweet the news to her 5000 followers. I know someone who met her fiancť on World of Warcraft. Whether you agree with it or not, to form a community in a virtual space is not intrinsically irrational, unreasonable, or flawed. So Nadiaís WomanBWarned, and Ethanís responding blog? Not dumb. What Ms. Anderson examines, rather nicely, are the responsibilities and consequences attached to online engagement of any sort, especially that around your personal life. Itís the sort of thing that makes me stand up and cheer, because I see a lot of irresponsible internet usage around me.
Now, that being said, I can also say that Nadia and Ethan are unequivocal jackasses. (Or, if you want I can use more gender-specific terms: Nadiaís a bitch and Ethanís a bastard. But it really doesnít matter.) They are positively hateful towards each other for some very stupid reasons, and I donít admire them. Not one bit. See, Ethan hears that women on WomanBWarned are defaming him as a Mr. 3 Dates and Youíre Out kind of guy, so he traces Nadiaís site to her workplace and accosts her. After some spiteful wordplay they agree to go on three dates to prove each other wrong, and post the results online.
All of this could have worked in two ways. First, Ms. Anderson could have taken a lighthearted, donít-take-me-seriously-but-letís-have-fun-with-it route (because the premise is kind of ridiculous), but instead the characters are deadly serious. Second, she could have had the space (literal and metaphorical) to write a dark, complex story, but she doesnít. What happens is an in-between tonal war that results in one of the most distasteful and disturbing scenes Iíve ever read. For the level of emotional, and to an extent, physical brutality, the first time they have sex is passed off as mutual, acceptable lust. I read it as mutual rape.
It makes me wonder what the hell the author, and Harlequin/Mills & Boon, were thinking. For half of the book Nadia and Ethan have so many issues, and are so hateful, that I was almost intrigued. How would Ms. Anderson redeem them, I wondered? But no, nothing so interesting. Midway through Ethan and Nadia start falling in love rather than lust, and believe you me, it sure doesnít work. We finally get an explanation for Ethanís jerk behaviour towards women, and if youíre thinking scared-of-commitment-because-of-parental-issues, you got it in one. Finally everything wraps up in a nice happy red bow, previous issues forgotten.
Strangely enough, the inner battle is most evident when it comes to the swearing. At one point Nadia accuses Ethan of offering ďa quick frolic like thatís a Band-AidĒ. A quick frolic?! Normally I would just roll my eyes and let it pass, but the little details have real implications. If Nadia had said ďa quick fuckĒ, it sounds angry, hurt and real, and it fits the angry, hurtful tone set before. A quick "frolic", in this context, doesnít even live on the planet. The details in prose make the difference between books that indulge in fantasy but that are fundamentally grounded, and books that have no place on the shelf because they do not respect readers enough to know that we can tell the difference, thank you very much.
Mountains out of molehills? Honestly, the molehills are symptomatic of a larger one in series romance, and particularly Harlequin Presents, that needs to be re-examined. If I give Ms. Anderson the benefit of the doubt, Iíd say that there is a disturbing, dark, complex story warring with page limit, prescribed acceptable themes to the publisher, and the glove police who ignore screwed up elements but watch for contraventions of weird superficial rules they have plastered on the walls at 225 Duncan Mill Rd, Toronto. There are fantastic books being written for Harlequin and Mills & Boon, but Iím seeing them less and less, especially in the Harlequin Presents line. And, yes, thatís a problem.
-- Jean Wan
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