Book Review: The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren

Title: The Soulmate Equation
Author: Christina Lauren
Publisher: Gallery Books
Publication date: May 18, 2021
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Single mom Jess Davis is a data and statistics wizard, but no amount of number crunching can convince her to step back into the dating world. Raised by her grandparents–who now help raise her seven-year-old daughter, Juno–Jess has been left behind too often to feel comfortable letting anyone in. After all, her father’s never been around, her hard-partying mother disappeared when she was six, and her ex decided he wasn’t “father material” before Juno was even born. Jess holds her loved ones close, but working constantly to stay afloat is hard…and lonely.

But then Jess hears about GeneticAlly, a buzzy new DNA-based matchmaking company that’s predicted to change dating forever. Finding a soulmate through DNA? The reliability of numbers: This Jess understands. At least she thought she did, until her test shows an unheard-of 98% compatibility with another subject in the database: GeneticAlly’s founder, Dr. River Pena. This is one number she can’t wrap her head around, because she already knows Dr. Pena. The stuck-up, stubborn man is without a doubt not her soulmate. But GeneticAlly has a proposition: Get to know him and we’ll pay you. Jess–who is barely making ends meet–is in no position to turn it down, despite her skepticism about the project and her dislike for River. As the pair are dragged from one event to the next as the “Diamond” pairing that could make GeneticAlly a mint in stock prices, Jess begins to realize that there might be more to the scientist–and the science behind a soulmate–than she thought.

Funny, warm, and full of heart, The Soulmate Equation proves that the delicate balance between fate and choice can never be calculated.

When you pick up a new Christina Lauren book, you know you’ll get crazy good chemistry, unlikely pairings, great banter, and lots of clever plotting. The Soulmate Equation is no exception — yet another really fun modern romance with a few tricks up its sleeves.

Main character Jess, on the cusp of 30, spends all day, every day at a local coffee shop, working on her freelance statistics jobs alongside her best friend Fizzy, a successful romance writer. They use the free wifi, buy snacks and drinks every 90 minutes so they’re not just mooching, people watch, get work done, and enjoy one another’s company. And they always notice the arrival of “Americano”, the surly yet gorgeous businessman who arrives every morning exactly at 8:24, orders the exact same drink, and leaves without making eye contact with a single person.

Jess is getting by, but she has constant worries. She needs to keep and attract more clients to feel financially secure, and as the single mother of a 7-year-old, she’s only too aware of how precarious their situation could be. One dropped client could mean no ballet lessons for Juno, but one more could mean she’d be able to save for braces. Fortunately, Jess and Juno live in the same complex as Jess’s Nana and Pops, the loving grandparents who raised Jess, and their love and support makes a huge difference.

Everything changes one day when Fizzy learns that “Americano” is starting an online matchmaking business, which the friends just can’t believe. He is so stern and buttoned-up! Fizzy, being her usual effervescent self, stops him in the coffee shop and asks him, and while he says it’s not exactly a matchmaking service, he does leave a card and invites them to learn more. Never one to waste time, Fizzy insists that they go check out the office same day.

Lo and behold, “Americano” is actually Dr. River Pena, a geneticist and found of GeneticAlly, a company that uses DNA analysis to assess compatibility and match people biologically determined to be likely soulmates. It all sounds a bit crazy, but Jess is reluctantly fascinated by the statistics quoted during their presentation, and Fizzy just wants a chance for some reasonably good hook-ups. Fizzy submits a sample, and Jess eventually does too, after a day when she feels particularly down about how unchanging her life feels.

Things truly get crazy when Jess is urgently called back to the GeneticAlly offices. Her tests have come back, and she’s matched at a 98% compatible score, something never seen before. The company reps are thrilled, especially at the idea of the great press they’ll get ahead of the company’s IPO… all except Dr. Pena, who, it turns out, is Jess’s match. But how can this be? They can barely tolerate one another!

You can see where this is going, right? Jess agrees to spend time with River for the sake of the company, even though she knows the data must not be right. How can numbers predict who you’ll fall in love with? An even scarier thought for Jess is, what if the numbers really are true? Can science say you’ll fall for someone even when all first impressions say the exact opposite?

Watching Jess and River get to know one another and start to acknowledge their developing chemisty is quite fun. Jess is an amazing and responsible mother, so she’s very cautious about letting River into her life. Meanwhile, River is a serious scientist who’s never made time for love, but he’s staked his entire career on this company and absolutely believes in it — so if he denies that their results mean that they’re meant for one another, what does this mean for his faith in his own work?

The flirtation and courtship and physical attraction between these two is adorable, and I love how they each open up to one another, allowing the other person to see and understand their vulnerabilities, their past experiences, and their hopes and fears. They’re incredibly sweet together, and if you don’t melt during some of the scenes of River helping Juno with her homework, then you have no soul. (Too harsh? Sorry.)

One thing I always appreciate in Christina Lauren books is how smart and competent and professional their female characters are. Jess is a statistician — how cool is that? And it’s not just a throwaway. Not that I understand her work, but I liked reading about her projects, her thought processes, and how she applies her knowledge of data and statistics to understanding River’s work and GeneticAlly’s match results.

Fizzy is an awesome best friend, and I love that she’s a romance writer. There are a few lines about her work that made me think she’s standing in for the author duo and proving wrong (in the funniest way possible) every lousy, ill-informed comment about writing romances that they’ve ever been subjected to. Fizzy is funny and supportive and silly, and I’d love to read even more about her!

The Soulmate Equation is a lot of fun, and it’ll leave you with all sorts of warm, fuzzy feels. I read it over the course of two gray, drizzly days, and it made me feel like the sun was shining again! If you enjoy smart contemporary romance that feels authentic even when it’s funny, don’t miss this one!

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Buy now at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Book Review: When He Was Wicked (Bridgertons, #6) by Julia Quinn

Title: When He Was Wicked (Bridgertons, #6)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2004
Length: 426 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

In every life there is a turning point . . .

A moment so tremendous, so sharp and breathtaking, that one knows one’s life will never be the same. For Michael Stirling, London’s most infamous rake, that moment came the first time he laid eyes on Francesca Bridgerton.

After a lifetime of chasing women, of smiling slyly as they chased him, of allowing himself to be caught but never permitting his heart to become engaged, he took one look at Francesca Bridgerton and fell so fast and hard into love it was a wonder he managed to remain standing. Unfortunately for Michael, however, Francesca’s surname was to remain Bridgerton for only a mere thirty-six hours longer—the occasion of their meeting was, lamentably, a supper celebrating her imminent wedding to his cousin.

But that was then . . . Now Michael is the earl and Francesca is free, but still she thinks of him as nothing other than her dear friend and confidant. Michael dares not speak to her of his love . . . until one dangerous night, when she steps innocently into his arms and passion proves stronger than even the most wicked of secrets . . . 

Another flight, another Bridgerton book! Book #6, When He Was Wicked, tells the story of the 6th Bridgerton child, Francesca — who spends much of the book series (as well as practically all of season 1 of the Netflix series) off-screen.

A rare glimpse of Francesca

We’ve heard about Francesca from afar during the previous couple of books. A year younger than her sister Eloise, Francesca is largely absent from the goings-on in the earlier books, at first being too young to be out in society, and later, already away from London.

We learn in book #4 (I believe) that Francesca is already a young widow at age 24. We hear of her through other family members, and know that she was married to an earl and lives at their estate in Scotland. That’s pretty much all we know, other than that she seems to never be around for family gatherings.

“It’s as if I don’t exist,” she said…

Finally, in When He Was Wicked, Frannie’s story takes center stage.

We start the book, however, not with Francesca, but with her husband’s cousin. Michael Stirling is first cousin to John Stirling, Earl of Kilmartin. Michael has a reputation as a terribly wicked rake (of course! don’t all the attractive men?), but he’s also loyal and devoted to John, who is more brother to him than cousin. Michael also has the bad luck and bad timing to fall head over heels in love with Francesca at first sight — which happens to be only a day and a half before John marries her.

Michael hides his feelings, and becomes a true friend to Francesca. The three — Michael, John, and Francesca — are inseparable, and best of friends. But two years later, when the unthinkable happens and John dies suddenly, Michael and Francesca are torn apart as well. Michael, as John’s heir, will step into his role as Earl. He feels horrible guilt over living what should have been John’s life, and cannot bear the idea of being close to Frannie and being her main support while knowing the guilty truth of his secret love for her. Michael flees to India as soon after John’s death as he can, and Francesca is left widowed, in mourning, suffering, and feeling abandoned by the person she most counted on.

Years pass, and Francesca realizes that she wants a baby. And of course, the only way to get a baby is to marry — so she leaves the estate in Scotland to spend the season in London and look for a suitable husband. Michael shows up as well, ready to fully assume his duties as Earl, which also means finding a wife.

As the widowed Countess of Kilmartin, Francesca takes up residence in the Kilmartin home in London, and so does Michael, where the two soon find themselves too close for comfort. After a series of misunderstandings and confrontations, there’s finally a kiss, and Francesca is shocked and embarrassed to realize that she feels attracted to Michael. And, as such things go in romance novels, she assumes it’s one-sided and flees back to the Scottish estate, only to be pursued by Michael, where things quickly become hot and heavy… and as the title lets us know, very, very wicked.

I enjoyed the storytelling very much in this book, and felt quite sorry for poor Frannie, widowed too young, facing a lifetime on her own, and longing so much for a family that she’s even willing to consider marriage without love if it’ll allow her to have babies. There are some very sweet moments between her and her mother Violet, in which they share thoughts on widowhood, losing the love of one’s life, and how to move on. Violet is open to Francesca in a way which we haven’t seen with her daughters in other books, probably because none have been as vulnerable as Francesca, and it’s lovely.

Michael is given equal time with Francesca as a point-of-view character, and I found his outlook refreshing and insightful. As is typical in romances set in this period, his sexual conquests aren’t seen as shameful (only women can be ruined by inappropriate conduct, not men), but at least we get to hear his perspective on all the women he’s been with and how they were all really just stand-ins for Francesca. Michael’s sorrow and guilt regarding his cousin seem genuine and heartfelt, so that as he and Francesca start to explore their attraction and growing feelings, it makes sense that Michael would be held back by his inner doubts even while yearning to be with the woman of his dreams.

I’m not sure that I loved Michael’s ultimate gambit for tying Francesca to him. He can’t make progress by words or wooing, so he sets out to seduce her, figuring he’ll make her want him even if she doesn’t love him. (Spoiler alert — she does love him!) The sexual advances and hot-and-heavy scenes are all entirely consensual — he asks her every step of the way — but I still felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of his using her arousal to push her into a relationship she might not otherwise be ready for.

He’d awakened the wanton within her, and she wanted her revenge.

It’s not a surprise that true love and a wedding and babies are the end game here — in that sense, When He Was Wicked is no different from the other books in the series. Still, the plot here is quite good, and I liked getting to know Francesca, and seeing a very different view of the social pressures of Regency society. Francesca is no virginal debutante — she’s a widow of means who has the social and economic power to remain unmarried and independent for the rest of her life, if she so chooses. In When He Was Wicked, we see marriage and courtship through a practical lens — if a young widow wants a baby, then how else is she to get what she wants but to find a suitable husband and make it happen?

I also found the chronology of When He Was Wicked interesting, as it overlaps with events from the previous two books, and I thought author Julia Quinn pulled off the interwoven events and details very well! Overall, this is another delightful addition to a series that becomes more and more addictive as it goes along. This many books into the series, it’s hard to stop.

That’s six Bridgerton children happily married, two more to go!

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Buy When He Was Wicked at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Book Review: To Sir Phillip, With Love (Bridgertons, #5) by Julia Quinn

Title: To Sir Phillip, With Love (Bridgertons, #5)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2003
Length: 383 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Sir Phillip knew from his correspondence with his dead wife’s distant cousin that Eloise Bridgerton was a spinster, and so he’d proposed, figuring that she’d be homely and unassuming, and more than a little desperate for an offer of marriage. Except . . . she wasn’t. The beautiful woman on his doorstep was anything but quiet, and when she stopped talking long enough to close her mouth, all he wanted to do was kiss her…

Eloise Bridgerton couldn’t marry a man she had never met! But then she started thinking… and wondering… and before she knew it, she was in a hired carriage in the middle of the night, on her way to meet the man she hoped might be her perfect match. Except… he wasn’t. Her perfect husband wouldn’t be so moody and ill-mannered. And he certainly should have mentioned that he had two young – and decidedly unruly – children, as much in need of a mother as Phillip is in need of a wife.

Bridgerton books have become my go-to comfort reads, and an absolute must for long plane trips. They’re sweet, light, and easy, but never fail to entertain. Let’s dive in.

Since watching Bridgerton on Netflix, I’ve had a soft spot for Eloise — that’s the letter E, which makes Eloise the 5th Bridgerton child and the 2nd girl in this large family. TV Eloise is awesome — independent, outspoken, intelligent, and not too wound up in societal niceties.

In book #5, many years have passed since we first met Eloise. Here, she’s 28 years old and a spinster. She hadn’t minded her spinster status so long as she had her best friend Penelope to keep her company, but now that Penelope has gotten married, Eloise suddenly isn’t so content any more.

As the story opens, we learn that Eloise has been in correspondence for a year with a man named Sir Phillip Crane, the widower of her deceased 4th cousin Marina. After sending Sir Phillip a note of condolence after Marina’s death, the two have continued to write and to get to know one another via letters. Finally, Phillip suggests that she come to his country estate for a visit to see if they might suit one another for marriage.

Eloise being Eloise, rather than accepting the invitation and traveling with her mother’s permission and a suitable chaperone, decides to just go, and sneaks off while her family is busy at a soiree so she won’t be missed right away. She shows up unexpected on Phillip’s doorstep, and the two do not suit at all at first glance. He’s gruff and unwelcoming and taken aback by her arrival, and she’s tired, talkative, and unimpressed by his lack of hospitality. She’s even less impressed to learn that he has 8-year-old twins who are out-of-control hellions — whom he completely failed to mention in his letters.

He’s clearly looking for someone to take control of his children, and assumed a spinster would be grateful for marriage to a man with wealth and an estate. Eloise, meanwhile, having turned down six previous offers of marriage, has always hoped for a love match (after seeing her parents’ loving marriage, as well as the romances of her four older siblings). She’s not willing to settle, and is already contemplating her escape back to London — but as she and Phillip slowly start to become acquainted, there’s something holding her there, making her want to at least give him a chance.

Clearly, we all know where this is going to end up, and that Eloise and Phillip will end up falling madly in love after all. The fun is in getting there.

Eloise speaks her mind and thinks for herself, and makes it clear that Phillip needs to step up and be a better father as well as a better companion if he’s going to be worthy of her. She’s a delight.

The best scene in the book, in my humble opinion, is when Eloise’s brothers descend en masse to make sure that this oaf hasn’t ruined their sister. Seeing four big Bridgerton brothers ganging up on Sir Phillip is awesome. But hey, at least they don’t actually strangle him, so he comes out of it okay. They’re there to make sure a marriage takes place, no two ways about it, and really, the couple is left with no choice.

I did really enjoy To Sir Phillip, With Love, but didn’t find it quite as entertaining as some of the other books in the series. For as much as I love TV Eloise, I felt that her book personality here was a little more generic than I’d expected, making her just a little bit less quirky and unusual. Still, she’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed seeing the growing connection between her and Phillip, as well as her developing relationship with his children — who, it turns out, are less awful and more suffering from lack of attention than Phillip realizes. (And of course, Eloise is the guardian angel who heals the rift between father and children.)

Will I keep going with the Bridgertons? Of course!

That’s five Bridgerton children happily married, three more to go!

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Book Review: The Intimacy Experiment by Rosie Danan

Title: The Intimacy Experiment
Author: Rosie Danan
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Naomi and Ethan will test the boundaries of love in this provocative romance from the author of the ground-breaking debut, The Roommate.

Naomi Grant has built her life around going against the grain. After the sex-positive start-up she cofounded becomes an international sensation, she wants to extend her educational platform to live lecturing. Unfortunately, despite her long list of qualifications, higher ed won’t hire her.

Ethan Cohen has recently received two honors: LA Mag named him one of the city’s hottest bachelors and he became rabbi of his own synagogue. Taking a gamble in an effort to attract more millennials to the faith, the executive board hired Ethan because of his nontraditional background. Unfortunately, his shul is low on both funds and congregants. The board gives him three months to turn things around or else they’ll close the doors of his synagogue for good.

Naomi and Ethan join forces to host a buzzy seminar series on Modern Intimacy, the perfect solution to their problems–until they discover a new one–their growing attraction to each other. They’ve built the syllabus for love’s latest experiment, but neither of them expected they’d be the ones putting it to the test. 

In author Rosie Danan’s follow-up to The Roommate, the story focuses on Naomi Grant, who we meet as a supporting character in The Roommate. Here, Naomi takes center stage, and really, she’s a fabulous main character.

Naomi is a sex worker with an advanced degree — a former adult performer (aka porn star) who has shifted her career by becoming co-CEO of a wildly successful sex-positive online platform, Shameless. Naomi sees her calling as being a voice for sex-positivity and helping people experience love, intimacy, and sexual expression in ways that are fulfilling and empowering. However, her very public background means that she can’t get a teaching job at any of the local colleges, no matter where she applies.

Enter Ethan. After meeting at an education conference, Ethan sees Naomi as a potential partner for his project of bringing new members to his floundering synagogue. Ethan is a young rabbi (formerly a physics teacher) with energy, enthusiasm, and compassion. His synagogue, like so many, is largely populated by an older crowd, and without an infusion of members, it won’t be able to survive. Ethan hears Naomi speaking passionately about her goals in education, and approaches her with a proposition — to teach a course on modern intimacy, sponsored by his synagogue.

After some doubts, Naomi agrees. Naomi is a fearless, hard-edged woman who never backs down from a challenge, but she also remembers her early life as Hannah Sturm, a Jewish girl raised without much formal religion who abruptly left her past behind after a disastrous public shaming that left her with some deep-seated scars (and which directly led to her embracing the porn industry). Naomi can’t really believe that a respectable rabbi would want to be associated with her scandalous personal brand, but Ethan thinks it’s a perfect match.

Together, they build a curriculum for a seven-part series that covers everything from courtship and first dates, to satisfying sex, to how to break up. With each new lecture, the course draws more and more participants, but it’s not without controversy: The stodgy, traditionalist synagogue board members think associating their shul with someone like Naomi Grant is damaging to their reputation and goes against their core values, and give Ethan some increasingly dire warnings intended to push him to cut ties with Naomi. But Ethan, despite his warmth and patience, also has a backbone, and he’s not going to back down from what he believes is the right thing to do.

Needless to say, alongside their professional partnership, Ethan and Naomi have instant chemistry, and the more they work together, the more they realize that it’s not just physical. Yes, they’re wildly attracted to one another, but they also connect on a deeper level, and find that their feelings are growing in ways that neither expected.

There’s a lot to love about The Intimacy Experiment. First off, this book is way more Jewish than I would have expected! As someone who grew up around synagogues and JCCs, I was tickled pink every time there’s a mention of something I could relate to. It was really intriguing and surprising to discover how much the plot is driven by the very real challenge facing synagogues today — how to reach and engage unaffiliated Jewish young adults and bring them into organized religious institutions at a time when synagogues and religion may be viewed as ultra-conservative relics of the past.

Before starting the book, I felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of seeing a rabbi as a romantic lead, but I got over it! Ethan is smart, sweet, and compassionate, and his spiritual journey is described in very meaningful ways. And yes, there are sex scenes, but by the time the book gets there, I’d gotten to know Ethan as a person, not just as his title, and it didn’t bother me.

If you’re familiar at all with The Roommate, you’ll know that that book — while a great read — is also very explicit when it comes to sex. The Intimacy Experiment has sex scenes as well, but they don’t permeate the entire book they way they do in The Roommate. Instead, The Intimacy Experiment focuses on — as the title promises — intimacy, as we see the developing feelings between Naomi and Ethan and see how they apply Naomi’s lecture topics to their own relationship.

Beyond a really engaging plotline, The Intimacy Experiment has the clever and funny writing that the author excels at. While the book has heavier, more serious moments of introspection and processing earlier trauma, the overall tone is lightened up by the banter and frankness of its characters.

Also, and I can’t stress this enough, Naomi’s no-bullshit, no-shame approach is hilarious:

Naomi wondered how many women who got asked to be maid of honor used to fuck the groom, and on camera no less.

Ethan does manage to keep up, though.

“You don’t kiss like a rabbi,” Naomi said, her voice full of furious accusation, as she tugged him past the innocent bystander hunting for their lost keys.

Ethan focused on exhaling. “How many rabbis have you kissed?”

Naomi brought her fingers up to her swollen lips. “Evidently, not enough.”

While I really enjoyed this book, I did find myself annoyed by its use of the standard romance trope of miscommunication/bad assumptions — the point in the plot where a couple who are totally into one another end up fighting or breaking up because they misunderstand the other’s intent or feelings. Here, Naomi and Ethan each assume that the other deserves better, but don’t discuss it. For two intelligent, articulate, aware characters, it seems unrealistic and just there because a standard romance needs this type of plot element.

My other quibble with the book may stem from my own lack of knowledge, but in one scene, Ethan takes a selfie at an Oneg Shabbat at the synagogue following Friday night services, and in another, he has Shabbat dinner at his mother’s house, where a dish with butter is served alongside a dish with meat. Ethan is a Reform rabbi, and I grew up in Conservative Judaism, so I may be off-base, but it seems to me that a rabbi of any branch of Judaism would keep kosher and observe Shabbat. But, since the book seems to get so much right in its Jewish elements, I can’t help wondering if I’m just assuming things that aren’t universally true.

All in all, The Intimacy Experiment is a really enjoyable read, with an engaging romance and a surprisingly rich level of food for thought. Based on my experience with her two books so far, Rosie Danan is an author to keep an eye on!

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Buy The Intimacy Experiment at AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Also by this author: The Roommate: AmazonBook DepositoryBookshop.org

Book Review: Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (Bridgertons, #4) by Julia Quinn

Title: Romancing Mr. Bridgerton (Bridgertons, #3)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2002
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Everyone knows that Colin Bridgerton is the most charming man in London. Penelope Featherington has secretly adored her best friend’s brother for…well, it feels like forever. After half a lifetime of watching Colin Bridgerton from afar, she thinks she knows everything about him, until she stumbles across his deepest secret…and fears she doesn’t know him at all.

Colin Bridgerton is tired of being thought nothing but an empty-headed charmer, tired of everyone’s preoccupation with the notorious gossip columnist Lady Whistledown, who can’t seem to publish an edition without mentioning him in the first paragraph. But when Colin returns to London from a trip abroad he discovers nothing in his life is quite the same – especially Penelope Featherington! The girl haunting his dreams. But when he discovers that Penelope has secrets of her own, this elusive bachelor must decide…is she his biggest threat – or his promise of a happy ending? 

Bridgerton books have become my go-to for those times (like long flights) when I want to be entertained, without having to make too much effort. Romancing Mister Bridgerton, the 4th in the series, was a perfect choice for a travel companion for me this week.

This time around, it’s Penelope’s turn to find romance!

While the Bridgertons series revolves around the eight children of the Bridgerton family, each getting a book in which to find true love and marriage, the love interests in each book are just as important as the Bridgerton family member at the center of the action.

In the 4th book, it’s 3rd son Colin Bridgerton who takes center stage. At age 33, everyone agrees that it’s about time for Colin to settle down with a wife and start a family. He’s restless and unfulfilled, though, lacking a greater purpose beyond being a member of the ton and attending social functions. When his restlessness hits, he takes off, and has traveled extensively around the world, returning to England for brief periods before he’s driven to set out again.

Meanwhile, Penelope Featherington, at age 28, is now considered firmly “on the shelf”, having navigated many social seasons without a single proposal to show for it. Best friends with Colin’s younger sister Eloise, Penelope has been a fixture in the Bridgerton household for years. Unbeknownst to Colin, Penelope has also been secretly in love with him for over a decade, but being an overlooked wallflower, she has no hope that Colin will never notice her in any but a brotherly fashion.

Anyone who’s watched the Bridgerton TV series on Netflix will already know what Penelope’s huge secret is… but for those who don’t already know, I’m not spilling the beans! Trust me — it’s huge, and could have a permanent impact on Penelope’s social standing if it ever got out. In book #4, the truth is about to be revealed, and Penelope may not be able to stop it.

Meanwhile, she and Colin are thrown together more frequently, and each begins to learn more about the other and see their previously unnoticed depths, as well as the chemistry that begins to spark between them. Naturally, they fall in love, but (as is the case in all of these books) complications pop up and threaten to derail their blossoming romance.

Romancing Mister Bridgerton is such fun! It’s especially rewarding to get to see Penelope taking center stage — the overlooked girl growing into a confident woman who just needs to learn to use her voice. She’s a terrific romantic heroine, not the classic beauty, but a vibrant, intelligent woman who doesn’t need to be a cookie-cutter replicant of society’s ideal.

Colin has always been a favorite for me, and his sense of humor and playfulness make him funny and relatable to read about. Colin and Penelope make a charming couple, and it made me so happy to see them together!

This book sets up the events of #5 with a sort-of cliffhanger about Bridgerton sister Eloise, so I have a feeling I won’t be waiting too long to continue with the series.

My usual random thoughts:

  • Years have gone by, and all of a sudden, Hyacinth is out in society! And Gregory is in university! Kids grow up so fast these days.
  • We learn that Francesca (that’s Bridgerton child #6, for those keeping score) has not only married off-screen but is already widowed. I don’t believe we’ve really seen her much in the books so far, so she feels like a non-entity to me, but I guess she’ll get her turn in a couple more books.
  • The Bridgerton family dynamics make these books so much fun. It’s delightful to see all the sibling bickering and Violet (Mama Bridgerton) rolling her eyes at her children’s outrageous behavior.
  • I love that Julia Quinn has created a whole little world among the ton. Even though some people are only mentioned in passing, I feel like a lot of these characters are well enough known by now that I’m exclaiming over who’s gotten married, as if they were actually part of my social circle.

This wouldn’t be a Bridgertons review if I didn’t include at least a few juicy and/or fun selections:

Sex…

When he felt her relax slightly beneath him, he pushed forward a bit more, until he reached the undeniable proof of her innocence.

… and true love…

He smiled, and suddenly she knew that his words were true. Everything would be all right. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but soon. Tragedy couldn’t coexist in a world with one of Colin’s smiles.

… and some family silliness…

Penelope tried to signal discreetly at her husband, but all her attempts at circumspection were drowned out by Hyacinth’s vigorous wave and holler of, “Colin!”

Violet groaned.

“I know, I know,” Hyacinth said unrepentantly, “I must be more ladylike.”

“If you know it,” Violet said, sounding every inch the mother she was, “then why don’t you do it?”

“What would be the fun in that?”

Ah, these books go down like candy! They’re sweet and fluffy, and I’m enjoying every moment. Even while chuckling over some ridiculous societal affectation or silly romance wording, I’m still having a great time. At this point, I’m all in, and won’t stop reading until every one of those eight Bridgertons is happily married.

Four down, four to go!

Book Review: An Offer From A Gentleman (Bridgertons, #3) by Julia Quinn

Title: An Offer From A Gentleman (Bridgertons, #3)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2001
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Will she accept his offer before the clock strikes midnight?

Sophie Beckett never dreamed she’d be able to sneak into Lady Bridgerton’s famed masquerade ball—or that “Prince Charming” would be waiting there for her! Though the daughter of an earl, Sophie has been relegated to the role of servant by her disdainful stepmother. But now, spinning in the strong arms of the debonair and devastatingly handsome Benedict Bridgerton, she feels like royalty. Alas, she knows all enchantments must end when the clock strikes midnight.

Who was that extraordinary woman? Ever since that magical night, a radiant vision in silver has blinded Benedict to the attractions of any other—except, perhaps this alluring and oddly familiar beauty dressed in housemaid’s garb whom he feels compelled to rescue from a most disagreeable situation. He has sworn to find and wed his mystery miss, but this breathtaking maid makes him weak with wanting her. Yet, if he offers his heart, will Benedict sacrifice his only chance for a fairy tale love?

In a world filled with serious books, it’s nice to have fluffy fun like the Bridgertons books to turn to for a bit of escapism every now and then.

In the 3rd book in the series, it’s Benedict Bridgerton’s turn to find love. The Bridgerton family is famous for its eight astonishingly attractive children, conveniently named in alphabetical order. And while the book series started out of order by focusing on Daphne, oldest daughter yet fourth child, the rest of the series remains true to the alphabet. Which brings us to Benedict.

Benedict is the second son — no title, but from an esteemed family and with a very agreeable fortune nonetheless, so now that his elder brother the Viscount is happily married, Benedict is considered prime pickings for the society season.

Meanwhile, we meet poor Sophie Beckett, the unacknowledged illegitimate daughter of an earl. Taken in and raised by her natural father, she’s introduced to the world as his ward, but when the earl remarries, his new wife is shrewd enough to know the truth. Once Sophie’s father dies when she is fourteen, her stepmother Araminta is persuaded to provide a home for Sophie thanks to a strings-attached bequest, but rather than treating her with kindness, Araminta forces Sophie into the role of an overworked servant. Araminta’s daughters aren’t any better, although the younger of the two shows hints of friendliness, despite being too frightened of her mother to actually be nice to Sophie or defend her in any way.

Sophie’s luck finally changes when she gets the opportunity to attend the most anticipated party of the season, a masquerade chez Bridgerton. With help of the family servants, Sophie is dressed up in borrowed finery, dons a mask, and swoops into the ball, immediately catching Benedict’s eye. The two feel an instant spark and spend glorious hours together, only to be separated when Sophie must rush off at midnight, her only chance of making sure that she’ll be home and back in her servant’s clothing before Araminta and the girls arrive home.

Yes, it’s a Cinderella story! I had no idea when I picked up the book, but it became obvious right from the start. And while I might have moaned a bit, it actually became a really fun theme for the book. Author Julia Quinn is skillful enough to play with the underlying fairy tale and keep it fresh while weaving its traditional patterns into the story.

In fact, once we move past the ball and the couple’s inevitable separation, the story becomes even more interesting. The Cinderella-like aspects become quieter background elements, and instead we get to focus on Sophie’s struggles, as she’s treated horribly by Araminta and then thrown out, penniless, to fend for herself. Although she’s the daughter of a noble, she’s forced to seek work as a servant in order to survive, and she shows great strength and courage in dealing with her unfair lot in life.

Naturally, Sophie and Benedict do reconnect, as he rescues her from a threatened rape (what the synopsis above refers to, maddeningly, as “a most disagreeable situation” — argh!). There’s a lot of will-they, won’t-they shenanigans, flirtation, chemistry, desire… but also, an interesting dilemma for both characters due to their very different social stations. Sophie is a housemaid, so the most she could realistically hope for from Benedict would be to be established as his mistress. It’s expected that Benedict marry and produce children, and someone of his status could never marry a servant.

Despite her longing for Benedict, Sophie can’t allow herself to even consider becoming his mistress. She knows the pain of being an unwanted bastard child, and swears that she’ll never have a child under those circumstances. So is there any hope for these two crazy lovebirds? Well, of course there is! This is a romance, after all! Naturally, they’re going to find a way to make it all work out… and have some steamy, decidedly not-society-approved sexytimes too.

An Offer From A Gentleman is a fast, fun read, but doesn’t skimp on sentiment along the way. Beyond the core love story, we get to spend more time with Bridgerton family members, especially the big brood’s mother, Violet, who is wonderful in so many ways. She’s fabulous in how she treats Sophie and stands up for injustice, and I just loved her to pieces in this book.

Sure, I have quibbles… like wouldn’t it have been nice for love to be enough to get Benedict and Sophie to choose each other, without needing the big reveal about being an earl’s daughter to help smooth the way? Granted, not everyone is willing to accept a Bridgerton marrying an illegitimate daughter, but for most, Sophie’s blood connection to nobility raises her high enough to be tolerable — whereas if she were “just” a servant, they could never be admitted into society as a couple.

A few random thoughts on things that stuck out to me while reading this book:

  • It’s funny seeing the previous books’ main characters (Daphne and Anthony) show up as background characters in this book. They’re married, they’re happy, they have oodles of children — and there’s just nothing else to say about them. So, according to these romances, you stop being interesting once you get married?
  • The younger Bridgertons are growing up! Gregory and Hyacinth aren’t little children any more, but it will still be weird to see them as romantic leads in books 7 and 8.
  • It’s really hard not to be mad at how badly poor Sophie was treated all her life, especially by her father. He made sure she had a home once her mother died, but never showed her any affection.
  • Lady Whistledown continues to be funny and sharp. Here, her updates include news on the “maid wars’, in which Araminta and Lady Featherington steal each others’ servants back and forth.
  • By including Sophie, we get more of a view into the life of a servant at the time. I was glad to break away from only focusing on the upper class, with servants only appearing when needed to serve.
  • Is it realistic that Violet and her daughters would invite Sophie to join them for tea every day? Why Sophie and not other servants? Sure, Violet is discerning enough to realize that there’s something going on between Benedict and Sophie, but would a society mama really tacitly encourage this connection?

As always, as a visitor to the world of romance reading, I got all sorts of amusement from the romance-y writing:

There was a fire burning within her that had been simmering quietly for years. The sight of him had ignited it anew, and his touch was like kerosene, sending her into a conflagration.

Spoiler! Sophie ends up arrested (until the Bridgertons ride to the rescue). And in one shocking moment:

Sophie just managed to snap her mouth closed, but even so, she had to clutch tightly on to the bars of her cell, because her legs had turned to instant water.

What’s “instant water”? Is that like instant coffee?

When Sophie just happens to stumble across a pond where Benedict is skinny-dipping:

He heard a gasp, followed by a huge flurry of activity.

“Sophie Beckett,” he yelled, “if you run from me right now, I swear I will follow you, and I will not take the time to don my clothing.”

The noises coming form the shore slowed.

“I will catch up with you,” he continued, “because I’m stronger and faster. And I might very well feel compelled to tackle you to the ground, just to be certain you do not escape.”

The sounds of her movement ceased.

All in all, An Offer From A Gentleman is a light, engaging read, and just so much fun. And even though poor Sophie suffers, we know it’s all going to work out perfectly for her — because these books always have happy endings!

Will I continue with the Bridgertons series? Absolutely! After all, the score is now three Bridgerton siblings happily married — five more to go!

Book Review: The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons, #2) by Julia Quinn

Title: The Viscount Who Loved Me (Bridgertons, #2)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2000
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

1814 promises to be another eventful season, but not, This Author believes, for Anthony Bridgerton, London’s most elusive bachelor, who has shown no indication that he plans to marry. And in all truth, why should he? When it comes to playing the consummate rake, nobody does it better…

–Lady Whistledown’s Society Papers, April 1814

But this time the gossip columnists have it wrong. Anthony Bridgerton hasn’t just decided to marry–he’s even chosen a wife! The only obstacle is his intended’s older sister, Kate Sheffield–the most meddlesome woman ever to grace a London ballroom. The spirited schemer is driving Anthony mad with her determination to stop the betrothal, but when he closes his eyes at night, Kate’s the woman haunting his increasingly erotic dreams…

Contrary to popular belief, Kate is quite sure that reformed rakes do not make the best husbands–and Anthony Bridgerton is the most wicked rogue of them all. Kate’s determined to protect her sister–but she fears her own heart is vulnerable. And when Anthony’s lips touch hers, she’s suddenly afraid she might not be able to resist the reprehensible rake herself…

Reading the Bridgertons series is such a fluffy, escapist treat, despite the fact that I’m not much of a romance reader, and some sections made me roll my eyes so hard that they hurt. But after watching the Netflix series, it’s hard not to want to keep going and read more, more, more.

The setting is Regency-era London. The Bridgertons are a large family, with eight children (named in alphabetical order, which the high society ton find amusing). Lady Bridgerton is a widow, and she’s determined to see all of her children settled into happy marriages. In the first book in the series, The Duke & I, daughter Daphne ends up quite blissfully married (to a Duke, obviously). Now it’s time for the the rest of her children to get paired off as well.

In The Viscount Who Loved Me, the focus shifts to Anthony Bridgerton, the oldest of the Bridgerton children and the head of the family since their father’s death eleven years earlier. Anthony has never truly gotten over losing his father, and through his grief and his devotion to his father, has somehow managed to convince himself that he won’t live longer than his father did. Now at age 29, he’s sure — even while acknowledging to himself that he’s not really being rational — that he’ll be dead within 10 years. Constantly aware of his impending date with death, Anthony has played the rake up to now, but wanting to leave behind his own legacy, has decided that it’s finally time to marry and have children.

One firm rule he’s sworn to keep to is not to marry for love. After all, despite his parents’ love match, love isn’t really a requirement for marriage at that time. He seeks a wife who’s pretty, pleasant, from a good family, and who’ll make a good mother. But love will not be a factor: His deep-seated fear is that if he loves his wife, the knowledge of his premature death will make his life too painful to bear. Again, not rational, but it’s what he believes.

Anthony decides that he’ll marry Edwina Sheffield, considered to be the diamond of the season. Edwina and her older half-sister Kate are both having their first season. They live with Mary, Kate’s stepmother and Edwina’s mother, but have little in the way of financial means since the death of their father. Not being able to afford the expense of two full London seasons, Kate has postponed her own debut until the practically spinster-ish age of 21, when Edwina would also be old enough to be out.

Kate is a wonderful character, devoted to Mary and Edwina, smart, and outspoken. She’s fiercely protective of Edwina, and Edwina has stated that she won’t marry without Kate’s approval of her potential husband. Kate doesn’t play games and doesn’t expect many suitors, especially since her own looks can’t (in her opinion) hold a candle to Edwina’s delicate, classically beautiful appearance. She knows that one of them must come out of the season married, and married well, in order to support the rest of their family, and assumes Edwina has a much better chance.

Because of Anthony’s reputation as a rake, Kate immediately rules him out as a husband for Edwina, especially after hearing him state that it’s okay for a man to maintain a mistress after marriage, so long as he doesn’t love his wife. She thinks badly of him and informs him that she won’t allow him to wed Edwina. The two engage in lots of bickering and heated exchanges, but over the course of their encounters, they both become aware of a spark between them.

I’m sure you can guess where this is headed! Sparks fly, and a potential scandal forces them into marriage, even while neither is wiling to admit their desire and unwanted feelings for one another.

A few random thoughts on things that stuck out to me while reading this book:

  • As in The Duke & I, the male love interest is flawed and carries emotional baggage. Like Simon, Anthony is damaged by the trauma he experienced earlier in his life, and this influences his attitude and emotions regarding love and marriage.
  • We can’t really be mad when the norms of a historical period don’t match our own, but certain things make me bonkers anyway. Like how Anthony at age 18 becomes the Viscount and head of the family, meaning (among other things) that all the Bridgerton properties — their London house and their country estate — belong to him and him alone. I get it, that’s how things worked then, but it makes me mad on Violet’s behalf (the mother of the Bridgertons) that she owns nothing and technically is dependent on Anthony.
  • Also, there’s the tired old sentiment that men who are rakes are daring and dashing and make desirable husbands. Their bad reputations (so long as they have money and social standing) seem to only make them more desirable. Whereas young women must be pure and virginal, and can be ruined by being alone with a man or exchanging a kiss. Stupid double standards.
  • When we first meet Edwina, I expected her to be the standard romance character of the beautiful but shallow girl who everyone falls in love with — so I was happy to discover that there’s a lot more to her. She’s a supportive sister and daughter, she loves to read and study philosophy, and her true desire in a husband is to marry a scholar with whom she can study and learn. How refreshing!
  • I had to laugh at the scene of Anthony and Kate’s scandalous encounter that drives them into marriage. Kate is stung by a bee, and Anthony becomes so frantic about it (an allergic reaction to a bee sting is what killed his father), that he decides to suck the venom from the site of the sting — just above her breast. Okay, I have never heard of someone sucking out a bee’s venom, and it just seemed ridiculous. Of course, the women who stumbled upon them in the midst of this ridiculousness didn’t know what had happened and of course it was highly scandalous behavior… but still, so silly.
  • In the first book, main character Daphne went into marriage with zero knowledge of sex, after a pre-wedding talk with her mother that conveyed absolutely no actual information. Here, Mary does better with “the talk” on the night before Kate’s wedding, but manages to leave Kate with certain impressions that are detrimental to her marriage.

As I mentioned, romance is not a typical genre for me, and so some of the language just makes me laugh. I don’t know how much of this also has to do with the book being written 20 years ago, but I’m guessing that a lot of it is just typical romance language, and the statements made by certain characters are true to the general portrayal of Regency-era gender roles. Some choice bits:

A taste of attitude:

Anthony leaned forward, his chin jutting out in a most menacing manner. “Women should not keep pets if they cannot control them.” “And men should not take women with pets for a walk in the park if they cannot control either,” she shot back.

Bridgerton chuckled. “The only reason to give up one’s mistress is if one happens to love one’s wife. And as I do not intend to choose a wife with whom I might fall in love, I see no reason to deny myself the pleasures of a lovely woman like you.”

“The talk””

“Men and women are very different,” Mary continued, as if that weren’t completely obvious, “and a man—even one who is faithful to his wife, which I’m sure the viscount will be to you—can find his pleasure with almost any woman.”

Which leads directly to Kate’s fears and insecurities:

But she’d been consoling herself with the memory of the desire she had felt—and she thought Anthony had felt—when she was in his arms. Now it seemed that this desire wasn’t even necessarily for her, but rather some primitive urge that every man felt for every woman. And Kate would never know if, when Anthony snuffed the candles and took her to bed, he closed his eyes . . . And pictured another woman’s face.

And then there’s the sexy-times, which I generally find hilarious:

She wouldn’t recognize the first prickles of desire, nor would she understand that slow, swirling heat in the core of her being. And that slow, swirling heat was there. He could see it in her face.

Kate gasped as his hands stole around to her backside and pressed her harshly against his arousal.

“You’ve never seen a naked man before, have you?” he murmured. She shook her head. “Good.” He leaned forward and plucked one of her slippers from her foot. “You’ll never see another.”

His hands slid to the top button of his trousers and unfastened it, but stopped there. She was still fully clothed, and still fully an innocent. She wasn’t yet ready to see the proof of his desire.

Kate’s eyes widened as he left the bed and stripped off the rest of his clothing. His body was perfection, his chest finely muscled, his arms and legs powerful, and his— “Oh, my God,” she gasped. He grinned. “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

I’m not really mocking the book, just noting that romance language never fails to entertain me and make me giggle over scenes that aren’t meant to be funny. I’ve become very fond of the characters in the series (having watched the Netflix series definitely helps), and for sure I’ll be reading more.

That’s two Bridgerton siblings happily married — six more to go!

Book Review: The Duke & I (Bridgertons, #1) by Julia Quinn

Title: The Duke & I (Bridgertons, #1)
Author: Julia Quinn
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: 2000
Length: 433 pages
Genre: Historical romance
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From New York Times bestselling author Julia Quinn comes the first novel in the beloved Regency-set world of her charming, powerful Bridgerton family, now a series created by Shonda Rhimes for Netflix.

In the ballrooms and drawing rooms of Regency London, rules abound. From their earliest days, children of aristocrats learn how to address an earl and curtsey before a prince—while other dictates of the ton are unspoken yet universally understood. A proper duke should be imperious and aloof. A young, marriageable lady should be amiable…but not too amiable.

Daphne Bridgerton has always failed at the latter. The fourth of eight siblings in her close-knit family, she has formed friendships with the most eligible young men in London. Everyone likes Daphne for her kindness and wit. But no one truly desires her. She is simply too deuced honest for that, too unwilling to play the romantic games that captivate gentlemen.

Amiability is not a characteristic shared by Simon Basset, Duke of Hastings. Recently returned to England from abroad, he intends to shun both marriage and society—just as his callous father shunned Simon throughout his painful childhood. Yet an encounter with his best friend’s sister offers another option. If Daphne agrees to a fake courtship, Simon can deter the mamas who parade their daughters before him. Daphne, meanwhile, will see her prospects and her reputation soar.

The plan works like a charm—at first. But amid the glittering, gossipy, cut-throat world of London’s elite, there is only one certainty: love ignores every rule…

After binge-watching Bridgerton on Netflix, how could I resist reading the book that inspired the series? I’m not a big romance reader, and when I do read romance, it tends to be contemporary. But giving into my Bridgerton obsession, I dove into The Duke & I, and finished it in one day!

First, for the TV viewers: No, this is not an integrated society as in the Netflix series. The Duke & I is pretty traditional Regency-era romance, dukes and earls and the gossip of the ton, very solidly white. (Not in my imagination, of course — once you’ve encountered the TV version of Simon Bassett, there’s no way you’ll ever envision him as anyone else!)

Back to the book: The Duke & I has a very traditional romance feel to it, and let’s keep in mind that it was originally published 20 years ago! Daphne Bridgerton is the 4th child of the large Bridgerton family, which very conveniently names its children alphabetically, so it’s easy to keep track of who’s who. The oldest daughter, Daphne is now in her second season out in society, and while she’s received marriage proposals, not a single one has appealed to her. Having grown up with three older brothers, Daphne is perhaps too comfortable with the males of the species, so she’s seen as a great girl and a good friend, but not a romantic prospect. (Men can be stupid.)

Simon, the new Duke of Hastings, is the epitome of eligible bachelors, and “ambitious mamas” are continuously throwing their marriageable daughters at him. Simon is very good friends with Daphne’s oldest brother Anthony, and when he encounters Daphne dealing with an insistent suitor, he’s happy to come to her aid. The two form an agreement: By pretending to be courting, Simon will avoid the mamas, and Daphne will become instantly more alluring to other men, who will now appreciate her more after seeing Simon’s interest. (Again, men can be stupid).

Of course, their fake relationship leads to real feelings, but there’s a catch. Simon has sworn never to marry or have children, as a sort of posthumous revenge on his abusive father who treated Simon horribly and only cared about the continuation of the Basset family line. Simon has sworn to deny his late father’s ultimate goal by letting the family name die with him. Daphne, on the other hand, having grown up in a large, loving family, yearns for a family of her own.

After a compromising encounter, a duel, threats by her brothers, and all sorts of drama, Daphne and Simon do end up marrying. But while their honeymoon is a blissful sexual awakening for Daphne, all is not wine and roses. Simon has told Daphne that he can’t have children, but when she discovers that his “can’t” really means “won’t”, their young marriage in on the brink of collapse.

Okay, so anyone who’s interested in the book or in the TV series knows that there a major controversy about Daphne’s action and the issue of consent. So, I’ll throw up a big spoiler alert before going further.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!

He shifted restlessly, and Daphne felt the strangest, most intoxicating surge of power. He was in her control, she realized. He was asleep, and probably still more than a little bit drunk, and she could do whatever she wanted with him. She could have whatever she wanted.

The most controversial scene in the book is one in which Simon comes home very drunk, after the two have had a major falling out. Daphne gets a very belated lesson on how babies are actually made, and realizes that Simon has been pulling out when they have sex in order to make sure she doesn’t become pregnant. Daphne initiates sex, and Simon, though drunk, is a willing participant, until they get close to climax, at which point Daphne does not let him pull out as usual. He feels betrayed, and leaves her.

The TV version takes away the issue of Simon being drunk, but does still have Daphne take control of the situation so that Simon can’t pull out when he wants to. Again, he feels betrayed.

If you look on Goodreads or elsewhere, there’s a lot of discussion about whether Daphne raped Simon in this scene. I have mixed feelings. The sex act itself is consensual. You could argue that Simon was too drunk to consent, but in the context of their marriage, which has included a lot of very enthusiastic sex up to this point, I think it’s hard to make the case that Simon was not a willing participant.

Was she right to force him to finish inside her? Well, no, she did take away his choice there. But I think it’s a more nuanced situation.

Daphne was utterly and completely ignorant about sex prior to her marriage. She had absolutely no idea about the specifics of having babies, other than knowing that it happens during marriage. Daphne’s mother Violet comes to give her “the talk” the night before the wedding, and completely fails to give her any actual, specific information. No mention of body parts or anatomy, no discussion of how it all works, and nothing about how babies are made.

It’s only a housemaid’s random comment about “seed” and a “womb” that lead Daphne to start piecing things together, and to understand that Simon is choosing to “spill” his seed outside her (ugh, romance euphemisms). She feel betrayed by Simon, who let her believe that he was physically unable to father children, rather than explaining anything to her with honesty. And Simon absolutely knew that Daphne was clueless about how it all worked — he does a very good job of introducing her to sexual pleasure, but deliberately doesn’t explain things to her that would work against his own intentions.

So, yes, Daphne is wrong to do what she did — but Simon is wrong too, and Daphne’s mother essentially created the potential for this conflict by allowing her daughter to enter marriage with no knowledge about “the marital act” whatsoever.

END SPOILERS

Beyond all that, however, I can’t deny that The Duke & I was a compelling and enjoyable read. The characters are lots of fun, especially Daphne’s older brothers, who are fiercely protective and also very funny.

As I mentioned, I’m not much of a romance reader, and some of the descriptions and language are a bit over the top for me:

His face was quite simply perfection. It took only a moment to realize that he put all of Michelangelo’s statues to shame.

Her legs snaked around his, pulling him ever closer to the cradle of her femininity.

LOL. Cradle of femininity? That’s definitely a new one for me!

Still, there’s no denying I enjoyed this book, problematic issues aside. There’s a lot of fault to go around, and also, this book was written 20 years ago. I’d hope that a writer today would make different choices about how to depict Daphne and Simon’s key conflict.

As a fan of the TV version, I missed all of the non-Daphne, non-Simon plot elements concerning Eloise, the brothers, etc. But, as far as I can tell, these plots are all addressed in other books in the Bridgertons series. Eight books, eight siblings… each gets their own story!

Will I continue reading the Bridgertons books? Well… who am I kidding? Of course I will! As much as this isn’t my preferred genre, I do love the characters and want to read more about them. Onward!

Audiobook Review: Well Played by Jen DeLuca

Title: Well Played
Author: Jen DeLuca
Narrator: Brittany Pressley
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: September 22, 2019
Print length: 336 pages
Audio length: 9 hours, 59 minutes
Genre: Contemporary romance
Source: Library
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Another laugh-out-loud romantic comedy featuring kilted musicians, Renaissance Faire tavern wenches, and an unlikely love story.

Stacey is jolted when her friends Simon and Emily get engaged. She knew she was putting her life on hold when she stayed in Willow Creek to care for her sick mother, but it’s been years now, and even though Stacey loves spending her summers pouring drinks and flirting with patrons at the local Renaissance Faire, she wants more out of life. Stacey vows to have her life figured out by the time her friends get hitched at Faire next summer. Maybe she’ll even find The One.

When Stacey imagined “The One,” it never occurred to her that her summertime Faire fling, Dex MacLean, might fit the bill. While Dex is easy on the eyes onstage with his band The Dueling Kilts, Stacey has never felt an emotional connection with him. So when she receives a tender email from the typically monosyllabic hunk, she’s not sure what to make of it.

Faire returns to Willow Creek, and Stacey comes face-to-face with the man with whom she’s exchanged hundreds of online messages over the past nine months. To Stacey’s shock, it isn’t Dex—she’s been falling in love with a man she barely knows.

It’s a pleasure to return to Ye Olde Renaissance Faire in Well Played, the sequel to last year’s Well Met.

In Well Met, the love story centered on Emily and Simon. In Well Played, Emily’s best friend Stacey takes center stage. Stacey is a home town girl, born and raised in Willow Creek, Maryland. While she once had the prospect of a fashion internship in New York, she gave it up when her mother had a sudden heart attack. Now, years later, Stacey lives in the apartment above her parents’ garage, works as a dental office receptionist, and lives for the few weeks each summer when she volunteers at Faire.

This year, things feel decidedly off for Stacey. Emily and Simon have announced their engagement, Faire is over, and she faces a long year ahead until she can break out her wench’s costume once again. After a few too many glasses of wine, she sends a drunken message to Dex McLean, the hottie musician with whom she’s had no-strings hook-ups the past two Faire seasons.

Of course, she’s horrified the next morning, until she sees that Dex has actually replied, and what’s more, sent a really appreciative message in return. From there, the two begin to text and email, and as the months go by, their communication becomes more personal and intimate. Stacey is shocked but delighted — could Dex really be this deep? Could he really be ready for a more serious connection?

I’m sure you can see where this is going. I certainly did from their first exchange. So…

Minor spoiler ahoy!

It’s not really Dex with whom she’s been texting and emailing all this time, but his cousin Daniel, the cute redhead who manages Dex’s band. Stacey and Daniel had been casually friendly over the years, but she never really noticed him, being so wowed by Dex’s glamor. A minor slip-up in an email right before Faire starts the next summer leads Stacey to realize that she’s been fooled all these months — but was this cruel catfishing, or is there a reasonable explanation?

I’ll be honest — no matter the explanation, this felt too uncomfortably on the catfishing side of the line, even though Daniel was coming from a place of misguided good intentions. Yes, there might be an element of Cyrano here (as the characters discuss), but at the end of the day, he just wasn’t being honest with her.

Do these two lovebirds overcome their obstacles? This is a romance — what do you think?

Once they get past the initial arguments, Stacey and Daniel become even more deeply connected, but naturally there are some major miscommunications that lead to a huge fall-out and break-up. And as in Well Met, I was wishing for some good old adult conversation rather than emotional storms where no one quite manages to say what they mean or what they want.

Still, the book is lots of rom-com fun. On a more serious side, I thought Stacey’s dilemma about wanting to see the world but feeling tied to her hometown and and worrying about her mother’s health felt realistic and very sympathetic. Stacey is a great character, and her journey through this book says a lot about growing up, finding independence, leaving the nest, and figuring out the right balance between dreams and obligations.

Of course, the Ren Faire setting is just as great as in the first book, even though there’s much less time spent there in Well Played. A good portion of the book takes place during the year in between Faires, and I missed spending more time on Faire preparation, costumes, and the day-to-day experience of the glories of Faire.

A note on the audiobook: Well Played has the same narrator as Well Met, and she does a great job with the characters and their dialogue, particularly capturing their different voices for when they’re themselves and when they’re in their Faire personae. A great listen!

I really enjoy the characters and the relationships in this series, and I’m excited that a third book is on the way! Lots of fun for anyone in the mood for light, upbeat romance with a memorable setting. (Plus, kilts and corsets!)

Book Review: Spoiler Alert by Olivia Dade

Title: Spoiler Alert
Author: Olivia Dade
Publisher: Avon
Publication date: October 6, 2020
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Romance
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Olivia Dade bursts onto the scene in this delightfully fun romantic comedy set in the world of fanfiction, in which a devoted fan goes on an unexpected date with her celebrity crush, who’s secretly posting fanfiction of his own. 

Marcus Caster-Rupp has a secret. While the world knows him as Aeneas, the star of the biggest show on TV, Gods of the Gates, he’s known to fanfiction readers as Book!AeneasWouldNever, an anonymous and popular poster.  Marcus is able to get out his own frustrations with his character through his stories, especially the ones that feature the internet’s favorite couple to ship, Aeneas and Lavinia. But if anyone ever found out about his online persona, he’d be fired. Immediately.

April Whittier has secrets of her own. A hardcore Lavinia fan, she’s hidden her fanfiction and cosplay hobby from her “real life” for years—but not anymore. When she decides to post her latest Lavinia creation on Twitter, her photo goes viral. Trolls and supporters alike are commenting on her plus-size take, but when Marcus, one half of her OTP, sees her pic and asks her out on a date to spite her critics, she realizes life is really stranger than fanfiction.

Even though their first date is a disaster, Marcus quickly realizes that he wants much more from April than a one-time publicity stunt. And when he discovers she’s actually Unapologetic Lavinia Stan, his closest fandom friend, he has one more huge secret to hide from her.

With love and Marcus’s career on the line, can the two of them stop hiding once and for all, or will a match made in fandom end up prematurely cancelled?

Spoiler Alert is a body-positive yet somewhat angsty romance, ultimately a feel-good story but one that makes its characters work pretty hard to get there.

April Whittier is a 36-year-old geologist who’s comfortable in her own skin, despite the constant pressure from parents who’ve always wanted to fix her through diets or exercise or “foundation garments”. As she gets ready to start a job with much less focus on image, April decides to come out as a cosplayer by posting a photo of herself in her full Lavinia glory.

Lavinia is one half of the madly shipped pairing of Lavinia and Aeneas from the hugely popular Gates of the Gods book series and TV adaptation. In the world of Spoiler Alert, Gates of the Gods is the biggest thing on TV, adapted from the books series by author E. Wade — but the author has only published three books so far, and the TV series has moved beyond book content in its later seasons, with plotting and scripts by the showrunners. By most accounts, their work is a disaster, at least according to true fans. Only the cast knows what’s coming up in the final season which has just finished filming (and they’re sworn to secrecy) — but privately, most of the cast feels like their characters have been ruined and given plotlines that destroy or negate seasons worth of development.

Marcus Castor-Rupp is one of the stars of Gates of the Gods, in the leading role of Aeneas. Almost 40, Marcus is known for his gorgeous face, fine physique, sharp acting skills… and lack of intelligence. His public persona is all about his good looks. He’s a truly pretty face, but there’s no there there.

When April posts her cosplay picture on Twitter, the trolls come out. When some particularly cruel comments are posted which tag Marcus, as if inviting him to have fun mocking April, Marcus swoops in in hero fashion and declares April gorgeous and asks her out. It may be a publicity stunt, but April decides to be brave and accepts.

Their date is horrible. April wants to get to know Marcus, and Marcus is dull as rocks (or duller than rocks, since April is a geologist and finds rocks fascinating.) But finally, April starts to realize that the pretty boy facade might hide someone else, a man of intelligence, and almost unwillingly, she’s intrigued.

As April and Marcus get to know each other better, a further complication arises: They are each active fanfiction writers, and their fanfic alter-egos are actually close friends, and maybe even more. While April admits to her fanfic identity up front, Marcus does not, knowing that his writing could get him fired and make him untouchable in Hollywood if anyone ever found out. As they continue dating, Marcus digs himself a deeper and deeper hole — the closer he gets to April, the more he wants to tell her the truth, but that would mean admitting he lied in the first place, which he’s sure would drive her away.

There’s a lot to really enjoy about Spoiler Alert. I liked the fictional world within the world, learning about the plotlines and characters of Gates of the Gods throughout the story. There are snippets of fanfic included in between chapters, as well as some rather hilarious script selections from the truly awful movie and TV productions Marcus was in before hitting it big.

I also appreciated the confidence both April and Marcus have when it comes to their chosen professions. They both have devoted themselves to becoming great at their work, and they have faith in themselves and their own abilities. (Also, it’s kind of awesomely funny every time we find out about yet another skill that Marcus has learned in preparation for roles — not just horseback riding and sword skills, but also how to chop like a chef and even ride a unicycle.)

April describes herself as fat, and she’s okay with that. While others (especially her mother) might try to change her or make her feel unworthy due to her size, April knows she’s an attractive woman and dresses to show herself to best advantage. She’s also clear that she wants to be loved for herself, and not despite or because of her fatness. She’s also very sex positive, understanding what she like and what she wants, and being very upfront about giving and receiving pleasure.

Both April and Marcus carry heavy baggage from the pain of their childhoods. April’s parents fat-shamed her her entire life, and it’s amazing that she grew up to be as well-adjusted as she is. Marcus, the son of two academics, was made to feel slow, lazy, and stupid throughout his childhood and adolescents, because his undiagnosed dyslexia made his schooling a nightmare. His sense of shame from this stays with him and absolutely informs the “just a pretty face” act that he puts on in public. Even though he’s recognized his dyslexia and learned adaptations to help him succeed, the scars have stayed with him.

Other stuff I like:

  • April and Marcus’s hot chemistry
  • How frequently we hear Marcus think about how gorgeous April is and how attracted he is to her
  • April and Marcus’s ages — they’re adults, not teens or early 20-somethings. I like the maturity and the stage of life they’re both in, where they’re both successful, but feel like it’s really time to make changes in their lives if they’re ever going to.
  • The story within a story, particularly when it comes to the Lavinia and Aeneas characters
  • The tongue-in-cheek humor shown in the fanfic and the script snippets
  • The way Gates of the Gods is clearly meant to be a Game of Thrones-type production
  • April’s professional pride and success
  • The celebration of fandom culture as a whole — I loved the positive portrayal of cosplay and fanfiction and cons. The author makes this world rich and vibrant and so much fun.

Some quibbles:

  • SO much pain and angst. I appreciate how thoughtful April and Marcus are and how deeply they feel everything, but the scenes of anguish and mental suffering are way too frequent and long. As April’s fanfic persona points out to Marcus’s early on, some writing should be tagged “misery ahoy”.
  • Perhaps one reason the angst felt like too much to me has to do with the overall length of the book. For a fun, upbeat romance, it’s long. I think the story would have been stronger with about 30-40 pages whittled down, at least.
  • The conflict over secret-keeping is obviously going to cause a break-up. We readers can see exactly where it’s going, right from the start of the relationship. Being obvious isn’t a deal-breaker, but at some point I found myself just waiting for the inevitable.

For those who prefer to know in advance, the sex scenes in this book are explicit, which usually isn’t my taste in romance reading. However, there aren’t so many that it’s overwhelming, so overall I was okay with it.

Whew. This is a long review. I love the positive messages conveyed by this steamy love story: You don’t have to fit some society-determined idea of what perfect is to be attractive, sexy, desirable, and most importantly, to be loved. The body-positivity is lovely, and the plot itself and the charming characters are really enjoyable and entertaining.

I understand that there will be a follow-up novel focusing on Marcus’s best friend and his love interest, and I will definitely be on board!