I mentioned in a recent Whatcha Reading? post that I “struggled with the rapid pace of the emotional development” in this novella, and that I had a hard time buying the HEA between the characters. All true. I don’t like insta-love, and in a novella it is so difficult to convince me as a reader that two characters who have never met before have enough time together to create a believable ending wherein they’re together and all is well. Alas, when I went back to read my notes to write this review, the circumstances surrounding how the heroine convinces the hero to stay the night with her really bothered me, and once I started writing, well, it got a little involved and ranty.
Here’s the plot summary: Penny Callahan is coerced* into hosting a library New Year’s Eve singles night** by Angie, her boss*** and ends up staying in the library overnight**** with Jack, a man who was forced into attending the singles night festivities by his mother. They have a fight, triangle wins – no, that’s a different story. They have a fight when she finds out his true identity***** which he’s been keeping from her******.
So there are some asterisks. Please note that from here onward, spoilers abound, ok?
Not kidding about the spoilers.
I really can’t talk about what didn’t work unless I explain the resolution (no pun intended).
Ok, here we go.
Asterisk 1, Problem 1: Penny’s boss.
Angie, said boss, pleads with Penny to cover the New Year’s Eve event at the library because Angie’s sister might be in labor. On the surface this seems ok, except for how Angie talks to Penny, who is allegedly her “dearest friend:”
“…Right now I’m sitting on my couch at home, wearing my pajamas. I’m eating my burger and fries in front of the television. This is basically a dream come true for me. Please don’t ruin it.”
“That’s the most pathetic dream I’ve ever heard,” Angie muttered.
“You’re not helping your cause. Plus, this event violates my New Year’s resolution before the New Year even begins.”
“I know. You want to avoid men for a year. So you can wallow in your loneliness.”
“No. So I can get my head on straight and stop picking men who lie to me.”
So, getting right to the conflict: Penny is swearing off men for the new year because she’s not confident in her choices in the past. I’m on board for that, because there’s a reason for her decision: she needs to focus on herself and her pattern of behavior in electing to spend her time with men who are deceitful.
But “most pathetic dream I’ve ever heard?” Not cool, especially because Penny’s current situation sounds like a pretty great evening to me. Perhaps a year of selecting better friends would be good for Penny, too?
Anyway, Penny eventually capitulates, and gets dressed. Meanwhile, Jack arrives with his mother, who without his knowledge has signed them both up for the library New Year’s Eve singles party.
Asterisk 2, Problem 2, and Asterisk 3, Problem 3: The event, and more of Penny’s boss.
The New Year’s Eve singles night was planned by Angie, not Penny. Despite knowing that Penny has social anxieties and is very introverted — because Penny Used Her Words and Told Her Several Times — Angie hands over the agenda without much warning as to what it says, and skips out the door.
I know that library programming is a big deal, and can be very difficult. I follow my library system’s social media accounts and their programming attempts to serve so many different communities at the same time (their summer science program, btw, was really cool, with local scientists and researchers doing somewhat messy experiments at different branches). So, I get it. I get that programming is tough.
But the secondhand embarrassment and cringe factor in the agenda for their New Year’s Eve singles night is so high, y’all. SO HIGH. Angie had designed an evening for single folks to mingle bookishly, but it’s Penny, who had no say in the festivities, who ends up leading the activities, which include:
- Reading love scenes from different books to one another in pairs in front of everyone
- Speed dating with a provided Q&A about favorite books and “the most unusual place they’d made love”
- Completing a scavenger hunt in the library
- Posing for pictures dressed up with props to mimic book covers
And then a champagne toast and they’ll be done, and I can finally pass out from effects of too much secondhand embarrassment.
No, wait, there’s more:
By the way, you might want to pay special attention to Brenda’s son. He seems . . .” She hesitated in the entrance. “. . . like he might need you.”
“Huh?” Penny asked, confused. “What does that mean?”
Her friend opened the door, calling over her shoulder, “You’ll see. And you might have to fill in for the missing woman. Bye!”
“What the—” Penny began, but the door slammed behind Angie.
She ran to the door and opened it. “What do you mean, I might have to fill in for the missing woman?” she yelled.
Angie had already started her engine, and merely gave her a jaunty wave before driving off through the snow.
So, yay, Penny has to participate in all the events Angie designed to keep the numbers even.
This was the first sign of the imminent collapse of my ability to suspend disbelief. I didn’t like that Penny had to participate in activities she hadn’t designed, I found the idea of reading love scenes aloud to a stranger in front of other people (also all strangers) really abhorrent, and I wanted to punch Angie in the nose:
She glanced down at Angie’s notes. Read this next sentence exactly as written, her friend had ordered, underlining the demand twice.
“You should listen closely to the scene each person has chosen, because it will illustrate something about what he or she is looking for in love and . . . lust.”
I am going to fucking kill Angie, good friend or not.
Ma’am, you might have to get in line. Angie set Penny up to be uncomfortable and, as the only library employee running the after-hours event, really flipping vulnerable in a number of ways. I wasn’t curious or entertained; I was repulsed and worried. I didn’t think the set up was entertaining or funny or charming. I thought Penny was unsafe and in a potentially dangerous position, and I didn’t think she would have agreed to do any of the activities Angie planned had she been asked, either.
Then there are the other women at the event, who are also placed in situations that made me deeply, cringingly uncomfortable. One piratically-obsessed man at the event chose a pirate romance love scene, but instead of reading it aloud himself, his partner, a woman he doesn’t know, has to read the other half of the dialogue:
The man had almost finished reading his love scene with his partner, whose eyes had grown almost as wide as Penelope’s over the past few minutes….
“—beneath him, her legs limp with ecstasy. The dread pirate Rafael took Chastity’s chin firmly in his hand, asking, ‘Do you now admit that you are completely mine, forever?’ ”
The man next to Jack read with commendable, if misguided, enthusiasm.
His partner in the game, a middle-aged woman dressed in a conservative black dress, appeared to take a moment to gather herself before reading her part.
“‘Yes, my virile pirate master,’ she replied, her voice hushed and filled with awe at his prowess. She could smell his enticing scent: sandalwood, musk, and man. It was a scent she couldn’t resist. A scent that made her loins throb even now, after having been satisfied so thoroughly. So powerfully. ‘I will belong to you forever, body and soul. Let us make beautiful pirate babies.’ ”
By the end of her section, the poor woman could barely speak. She trailed into silence, her shoulders hunched.
“That’s the end of the scene,” the skinny man announced. A look of profound relief crossed his partner’s face, and she slumped in her chair.
“So, Clarence,” Penelope ventured, “why . . . why did you pick this scene?” It was the same question she’d asked after each team finished. This time, though, it seemed to stick in her throat, reluctant to emerge.
“Well, I may not have a peg leg, but I own a pirate costume, including an eye patch.” Clarence waggled his brows. “And when I have a woman over, I like to put it on and shiver her timb—”
“Okay, I think we’ve got it,” the librarian interrupted.
“Have her walk my wooden plank, if you know what—”
“Thank you, Clarence,” she said firmly. “Now we need to move on to the next pair.”
I just…what did I just read?
I want to go find that woman and get her out of there, and punch Clarence, too. Her vulnerability and embarrassment isn’t really funny for me. It was painful.
Asterisk 4, Problem 4: Penny and Jack
As I mentioned, Jack was tricked into attending by his mother, Brenda, who is there to meet a good looking gentleman and have a good time, possibly all night. Jack doesn’t want to be there. He’s grumpy and surly and glaring at everyone, until he decides he wants Penny, and then he has to compete with two other guys for her attention.
The narration alternates in third person point of view between Jack and Penny, and from Jack’s pov there’s a good bit of of judging the other women for what they wear, a brief summary of where his daughter is, and the amicable arrangement he has with his ex-wife, and then his rapidly changing thoughts about Penny.
Even if she’d engineered this entire train wreck of a gathering, the little librarian was clearly the prize in the room.
“Prize?” “Little librarian?” Ew.
Due to some (also sexist) complaints from another of the attendees, Penny and Jack end up reading love scenes to one another, and, uh-oh, Penny selects a book that…Jack wrote. Jack, it turns out, is a bestselling author under the name “John,” and rather reclusive. The intrusiveness of his fame is a plot point later in the book, so hold that thought.
Penny doesn’t get to read her scene, though Jack reads a scene from Jane Eyre, which is Penny’s favorite book – and there are a number of Eyre references in the novella, which were fun to discover. That part I liked very much.
Jack notices Penny, and then notices her some more, noticing, of course, that she’s noticeably Not Like Other Women:
Her intellect turned him on. Made him hungry.
So did the rest of her. He wanted to sift her soft brown wisps of hair through his fingers. He could stare at her pretty face for hours, admiring her pale skin, enormous brown eyes, and pink lips. And her body . . . Christ. She was sexy in a subtle, appealing way. He’d found his gaze traveling below her face more and more as the evening continued. Her green dress clung to her slim body in the right places. It emphasized her small, high breasts, the subtle curve of her hips. It stopped just above her knees, revealing killer legs.
She wasn’t flaunting herself. She didn’t move like a woman aware of her body and how it could entice men. He’d seen no posing. No affectation. Nothing but innocent beauty and sensuality. And it was arousing him more than he could have ever imagined. More than was comfortable.
For the past hour, Jack had found himself shifting in his chair, fighting an insistent throb in his cock. And that’s why there was no fucking way Cologne Guy was going to be her partner for the next game, despite the other man’s protests.
“That’s not fair, Brenda,” Cologne Guy whined.
My Suspension of Disbelief is collapsing further under the weight of Sexist Male Gaze.
I’m beginning to think contemporary romance and I need to take a break, because I’m very tired of feeling bad after I read descriptions of the heroines like that one: “slim,” “not aware of her body,” “innocent beauty and sensuality,” “not flaunting herself” (unlike one of the other women, who Jack mentally names “Skintight Dress”). I’m tired of sexist misogyny being reinforced in descriptions from the person who is supposedly the hero, especially if I’m required to spend a lot of time in his head for the narration from his point of view.
I’m weary of the “she doesn’t know she’s beautiful” trope, especially when combined with infantilization of the heroine (e.g. “little librarian”) and the treatment of said heroine as a possession.
Because of course, when Jack’s mom orchestrates that Penny and Jack will be a pair for the next game, her actions prompt a protest from Cologne Guy:
“I’m going to go talk to Penelope about this,” Cologne Guy said. “I know she’ll—”
Jack came up beside him and spoke quietly. “Don’t bother. She’s mine.”
His mother gave him a startled look. Then she smiled at him, as brightly as he’d seen in years. Her gaze searched for Carl, and when she found the older man, she headed in his direction.
Cologne Guy shook his head. “You didn’t even know her before tonight. You spent the first hour of the event glaring at her. She’s been avoiding you for the second hour. And now you’re saying she’s yours? Come on, buddy. Get serious.”
Jack raised his eyebrows in surprise.
Me, I raised my middle finger at Jack. “She’s mine?”
Does ANYONE have any CONCEPT of CONSENT and NORMAL CONVERSATION and WHERE are the ACTUAL ADULTS and WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING RIGHT NOW.
If the collection of characters had been something other than an assembly of Nice Guys® and Women Trying Too Hard® (plus two lesbians who were set up by Angie who are perfectly matched, like All Lesbians Go Together or something) I might not have been as angry about the Pompous Male Posturing® but I’m already tired of these people, and the event still has hours to go.
And it’s the bulk of the book, too, the one night on New Year’s Eve. One night to true love.
So anyway, Jack and Penny end up paired for the next activity, and the other activities happen after that, including the “Pose like a book cover” one where there’s a camera with a remote control and props set up, so Penny and Jack do this BDSM-style cover with a rope and noose around his neck or something, but at that point I was reading faster because I couldn’t figure out how they were going to get from “just met” to “HEA” when the story was still at the library.
Asterisk 5, Problem 5: Jack’s Identity
Jack hides from Penny that he’s really John, author of the book she chose in one activity (but didn’t read from) because his ex-wife gave an interview that really upset him and created too much publicity around him and his daughter, whom he wants to protect.
I spent a good 15 minutes trying to figure out how famous this guy is that he worries about being recognized, but doesn’t seem to seriously worry for more than a few minutes about being recognized in a library. Moreover, his mother would probably know about his desire to remain out of the public eye, so wouldn’t an event at a library among avid readers dramatically increase the likelihood of recognition? Penny doesn’t recognize him, there aren’t that many pictures of him in the world to begin with, so why is this a big, important secret?
Meanwhile, Penny is trying to avoid dating for a year because she believes she’s in the habit of selecting men who are deceitful and who lie to her a lot:
“The problem isn’t that two random guys turned out to be cheating assholes. The problem is that I picked those men in the first place. My judgment is suspect, Jack. I clearly don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe I don’t value myself enough. Maybe I don’t read other people well enough. But until I get my head straight and can tell a good man from a bad one, I shouldn’t be dating.”
“Thus the New Year’s resolution?”
“Thus the New Year’s resolution,” she affirmed.
She’s identified what she thinks is a pattern in her behavior and she’s decided to do something about it.
GO PENNY, because that is hard, hard work to do on yourself, so well done. (And to heck with you, Angie, for interfering with and mocking that work).
Jack/John doesn’t take her all that seriously, either:
Penny waited for him to get up, but he didn’t move. He seemed lost in thought. “You don’t trust yourself anymore,” he murmured, as if to himself. “I don’t trust other people, but you don’t trust yourself.”
At that, she sat up straight. “What do you mean, you don’t trust—”
“I have a proposal to make,” he said, interrupting her. “Give me the rest of the night. Talk to me. Let us get to know each other. Before we leave here, I’m going to try to convince you of two things. First, that what happened to you last year wasn’t because you have bad judgment. It’s because two jerks saw a woman with an open, honest heart and took advantage of it. Of you. And that’s their problem, not yours. You didn’t do anything wrong. You just need to find a man who appreciates that heart and wants to take care of it.”
He took her hand in his, brushing his thumb over the backs of her fingers. “Which brings me to the second thing. By the end of the night, I mean to convince you I’m that man. I’m the man for you.”
Hold up. Let’s recap a second.
- Jack/John is lying about what he does for a living and who he really is.
- He knows that he is withholding this information from Penny, and continues to do so.
- So effectively he is also taking advantage of her by continuing a deception when she’s told him how she feels about being lied to.
And when Penny figures it out, they’ve already had sex on top of the giant stuffed animals in the children’s section (EW) and this is where I had another REALLY BIG problem.
Asterisk 6, Problem 6: Deception for Everybody!
Penny is livid that Jack/John kept his profession and public identity a secret – which…you just met in an artificially intimate and cringe-filled environment so it kind of makes sense that he’s not telling you everything about himself…but ok, fine, she’s mad. She asks him to leave the library – where they’ve been stuck all night.
Except, not really.
“You told me you were the man who’d take care of my heart. You told me I could trust myself. You told me I could trust you. Instead, you fucked me, using a false name and a false life history. If that’s love, I want none of it. Not an atom. Not a second.”
“Everything I’ve told you is true,” he said. “Everything except what I do for a living. My legal name is John, but I’ve always gone by Jack. I told you about my daughter. I told you about my mother. And I was going to tell you about my writing.”
“I don’t believe you. You had plenty of opportunities to say who you were, and you didn’t.” Her brown eyes were swollen, and the look in them sliced through him. The sense of betrayal written on her face made him frantic, grasping for an argument that might make her understand what he’d done. That might make her forgive him.
He bent down, grasped the keys she’d dumped in his lap, and dangled them in the air. “You lied to me too. Unless you just found these in the last few minutes, you’ve known where they were the whole time.”
“I wanted you!” she cried, slapping the tears from her cheeks. “I hid the keys because I wanted you, and I didn’t want to wait to be with you.”
“And your car?”
She bowed her head. “The battery is fine.”
“That’s my point. When you find someone you want, someone you could love, you do whatever it takes to get that person. Sometimes you even lie. Especially if that lie won’t hurt anyone. Not in the long run.”
Ok, how about All Of The No.
So Penny hid Jack’s keys so he’d think he had lost them. Then she went out to her car and came back with the lie that “it wouldn’t start” and that roadside assistance wouldn’t be there at any time in the future, so they’re both stuck at the library, where they can conveniently bang on stuffed animals in the kids’ section (AGAIN WITH THE EW).
If a hero had done that to a heroine, hidden her keys and lied about his transportation so they’d be stuck in a place where they could conveniently have wild sexxytimes atop stuffed animals (shudder), that would be wildly unacceptable to me. But she does it, and it’s supposed to be ok? It’s still arranging consent under false circumstances.
And Jack/John concealing his authorial identity is a much bigger deal?
HOW. HOW IS THAT.
His not telling her about his identity is a much bigger deal than her hiding his keys and pretending her car was broken so they could get busy in the children’s area (AGAIN WHY)? Lying is ok when it is in pursuit of a person who gives your potentially meaningful pants feelings (TM Captain Awkward)?
ALL THE NO.
Jack/John’s exit from the library took me to 76% of the story, and the next and final chapter is two months later, in February.
Brenda comes in to thank Penny for the New Year’s Eve event, where she met her new boyfriend Carl, and to give Penny a new copy of Jack/John’s latest book, which is dedicated to Penny under the initials “PC.” He quotes Jane Eyre and she goes to find him and they go make out happily ever after.
The majority of their time together is New Year’s Eve in the library, and they declare themselves in love for ever and ever in February without really talking about what Penny did, or why he has concerns for his privacy, and why giant stuffed animals had to be involved in any of this.
That sound you hear is the final collapse of my disbelief, followed by the sonic mayhem of What the Fuck did I Just Read?
I really didn’t like the high amount of vulnerability, both physical and emotional, expected of the main and ancillary characters, all under the guise of “loving books.” They’re at a library event for singles because they all love to read – this makes sense. But the activities themselves are so awful and intrusive, I couldn’t get past the embarrassment.
Penny has to lead borderline inappropriate games in her workplace, and is the only staff member there (HOW IS THIS SAFE). Some of the other women who attend are placed in embarrassing situations reading aloud explicit sex scenes out of context – picked by a grossly behaving guy, which adds to the secondhand cringe feeling. Again, no one beside Penny is there to keep people from being additionally awful. HOW IS THIS OKAY.
Then Penny lies about her car and hides John/Jack’s keys, but she’s the injured party because despite his telling her about the things that matter most to him (his mother, his daughter, his ex-wife and co-parent) she’s butthurt because he didn’t tell her he’s a famous author.
Then he dedicates a book to her, and it’s all okay now.
I liked the Jane Eyre references, and I liked Brenda a good bit. I liked that the women who worked together under Angie seemed to have a good relationship, and aside from Angie’s awfulness, seemed to have kind friendships with one another. I have heard enough positive praise about this series from several readers that I have Hidden Hearts, which is book six, in my TBR.
But Penny being upset about John/Jack’s deception seemed completely unreasonable in light of her own actions, nor was I convinced by the one night insta-love. The more I thought about Penny’s actions, the more angry I got.
So, yeah. This novella didn’t work for me.