Fabulous, slow-burn, New Adult romance
Reading Level: New Adult Romance
Release Date: April 25, 2017
Pages: 302 pages
Reviewed By: Kate McMurry
Allison Dennis is an emotionally damaged loner. After years in foster care, she was miraculously adopted at age 16 by a wonderful gay man, Simon, who remained committed to her even when his long-time partner deserted him because he did not share Simon’s desire to act as a father to a vulnerable teenager. As Allison begins her third year at university, she is still entrenched in the habit of barely looking beyond her nose at her fellow students when, without warning, she is hailed by a bubbly young woman and inexorably talked into participating in a social experiment near campus. The premise of the experiment is that she will stare into the eyes of a complete stranger, handsome Esben Baylor, for a full 180 seconds while a crowd looks on. Putting herself on display like this is so far out of the ordinary for Allison, it feels as if she’s stepped into another dimension.
Fellow university student, Esben Baylor, has become a social media star because of his unconventional social experiments, and prior to sitting opposite to Allison, he has engaged in this particular experiment already that day with multiple other strangers. Each time it was a moving encounter, but with Allison, the intensity of the experience is overwhelming.
Staring into Esben’s eyes, Allison undergoes a massive range of emotions, from pain, to fear, to joy, to excruciating passion, and becomes completely overwhelmed. When Esben reaches out to her to further explore the powerful connection between them, she flees from him. But the campus is a small, enclosed world, and inevitably, she runs into the fascinating Esben again.
The voice of the author of this New Adult romance novel is rather like Sarah Dessen, which is a semi-lit-fic style that I’m normally not a fan of when it is applied to romance, which such authors invariably fumble. Mainly because they rarely provide the happy ending that romance readers expect. If they have a romance at all, it is usually a secondary plot undergirding a main plot about a young woman’s melodramatically messy coming-of-age.
It seemed distressingly clear to me, on reading the first chapter of this book, that this was going to be a classic, lit-ficky, coming-of-age melodrama, which strongly contrasted with the premise of the story, as stated within the blurb for the book, which stresses that the romance is the core of the story. Given this contradiction, and the fact that I’ve been disappointed before, to be safe, before committing to reading this book, I skipped ahead on purpose to the very end and checked for a happily ever after. Once I saw that it is a traditional romance with the requisite HEA, I was willing to commit myself to reading it. An unhappy ending to a supposed romance novel is simply not to my taste.
Once I got past the very beginning of the novel, which exists to show us how alienated the heroine is, I soon came upon one of the best Meet Cutes I’ve ever read. In a romance novel, that first meeting is always the inciting incident that gets the story rolling and, wow, did it ever in this book!
What is amazingly out of character for the New Adult genre, which is more erotica than story most of the time these days, and which almost always has a “manwhore” hero, is that Esben is the dead opposite of that. As for graphic content, there is no overt sex between these two innocent protagonists, and what there is, is extremely tender as well as passionate, and it occurs toward the end of the book. Before that there is nothing but kissing. In other words, this is a “slow burn” romance–my favorite kind.
There is also essentially no cussing, in a world of New Adult fiction which is usually endlessly and irritatingly peppered with f-bombs. There are no bacchanalian drinking parties, which is another over-the-top convention in most New Adult novels. In fact, Allison only gets drunk one time with her best friend in her own dorm room, and it is used in the story in a non-destructive way, to loosen up the extremely socially anxious, introverted Allison so that she can confront Esben and have a crucial, emotionally open conversation that she would never normally be able to do. In other words, the drunkenness is used as, “in vino veritas,” rather than “in vino erotica.”
Also, though Allison’s best friend is a proudly promiscuous counterpoint to the virgin heroine, unlike every other Young Adult and New Adult novel I have read with this now very hackneyed confidant character, she does not push Allison to join her in her self-destructive lifestyle. Which, of course, in cliched sex-obsessed, romance plots is an extremely common means to push the heroine to decide to have a one-night-stand with the hero as the Meet Cute that kickstarts their romance. A trope, by the way, I am utterly sick of seeing, and have been since the early 90s soon after authors first began offering it in the Harlequin Blaze erotica-romance line of short, contemporary romance novels.
Throughout this book, the presentations of masculinity are extremely positive, particularly Esben and Allison’s adoptive, gay father. Though some romance readers, who prefer “Bad Boy,” alpha, promiscuous heroes (not me!), might consider Esben too saintly, in my humble opinion, there is dramatic leavening throughout the book, especially toward the end of the book, which adds great depth to Esben’s character and which is quite poignant and well motivated. As for the adoptive father, I’m quite envious of anyone who has a compassionate, attentive, affectionate father like Simon.
All in all, this is one of the best romance novels I’ve read in years.
I rate this book as follows:
Romance Plot: 5
Coming of Age Plot: 4