April TBR Challenge report

by Sunita

I signed myself up for SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge as part of my effort to read more of the books I already have. I’ve reviewed the first three months’ books at Dear Author, and I’d planned to do the same for this one. April’s category is Contemporary Romance, which means I had a lot to choose from, so I chose a contemporary Harlequin romance that also filled a category in my PopSugar Challenge. It was by a new-to-me author, Sophie Pembroke, and it was her first book for Harlequin after a contemporary trilogy at a smaller press. I used to read a lot in the Harlequin Romance line but then fell away from it, so I looked forward to seeing what the more recent books looked like (this was a September 2013 release).

Spoilers for the book follow, so don’t read if you don’t want to know.

coverStranded With the Tycoon started out promisingly. Lucinda (Luce) is a university lecturer who runs into an old acquaintance from college when she’s attending a conference in Chester. The hotel has lost her reservation, but Ben is providentially standing by when it happens. This is providential because Ben’s company owns the hotel, and he just happens to be booked into a suite with two bedrooms. He offers one of them, she accepts, they spend a chaste night together, and they make plans to drive Luce to her home in Cardiff the next day. But a snowstorm requires them to divert to Ben’s cozy cottage in the Brecon Beacons.

Luce is academic, uptight, and the rock of her family. Ben is carefree, never spends two nights in a row with a woman, and does his hotel job well but it’s just a job (despite being the family business he runs with his brother). Opposites attract indeed. But Pembroke’s writing is smooth and she does the familiar with just enough individual touches to make it a good read.

I was enjoying this until the last quarter. The academic parts didn’t ring quite true, but they were close enough that it wasn’t a big deal. Luce and Ben’s will-they-won’t-they was augmented with plenty of scenes that brought them to life as individuals. I enjoyed when they finally got together (mostly fade to black, since the book is in Harlequin’s sweet-romance line), and I was glad Luce made it home to make a slapdash but well-received Christmas Eve dinner for her family.

And then there was a plot twist that made me stop reading. Completely. As in, I may have yelled, and I certainly put the book down. Then I reread to make sure that it was what I thought it was. And it was.

Luce is a committed academic researcher. She has a very good position and she’s good at it. She’s single and always has been. Ben has participated in many a short-term encounter. But we’re supposed to believe that not only did Luce not care about contraceptives, she was unfazed by the outcome of not caring. Here, in its entirety, is how the information is presented:

She needed to tell someone her news, and Ben was still away. She’d thought about calling a few times, always late at night when she was tucked up in bed, but she couldn’t tell him this over the phone. It wasn’t fair. But Dolly… She seemed more of an ally than she ever had before lately. She’d always been the baby, the one who needed the most looking after, but recently she’d been more of a friend than an obligation. Someone who cared about Luce rather than just needing things from her. She could tell Dolly.

‘What’s going on?’ Dolly let her chair tip onto four legs again, leaning forward to rest her wrists on her knees. ‘Come on—tell me. It’s obviously something big. You’re actually blushing.’

Luce’s face grew immediately hotter in response. ‘Okay. But you can’t tell Mum. Or Tom. Or anybody just yet.’

Dolly’s eyes widened. ‘Now I’m really intrigued.’

Gripping the edge of the table, Luce summoned her courage and said it out loud for the first time. ‘I’m pregnant.’

For a long moment Dolly just stared at her in silence. Then she clapped her hand over her mouth, not quite muffling the squeak that came out.

Luce sank into a chair. ‘I know. I know. It’s absurd.’

‘It’s wonderful!’ Jumping up, Dolly wrapped her arms around her, and Luce relaxed into the hug. ‘I’m going to be an aunt!’

‘You are,’ Luce said firmly. She’d considered the other options—of course she had. But this was her baby—hers and Ben’s—and it might be her only chance. She was financially capable of looking after it, she had her family around her…

Not buying it. Not buying it at all. This is 2015. Career women are not stupid about contraception. I don’t care if it’s a fantasy category romance. That plot point jerked me right out of the fantasy.

I am so, so annoyed. Reading romance has been touch and go for me lately as it is. Categories are my comfort reads. I guess I should expect this kind of plot development in a Harlequin, but come ON. Don’t give me multiple chapters about how much Luce cares about her book and its strong female subject, to the extent that visiting a key historical site is part of the storyline, and then tell me she’s fine with something that has the potential to completely upend that life.

I don’t know why this time the baby plot made me angry, when I’ve read so many sweet romances and Medicals from Harlequin with unexpected pregnancies. I guess it hit too close to home, because I’ve been living with academic women and the complexities of integrating children and careers for my entire adult life. I just wanted it taken slightly more seriously than it was here. I wanted either foreshadowing, or a “Holy hell, now what?” moment. Instead I got “oh hey, I’m going to have a baby and it’s fine whether the father is around or not; career, what career?”

Maybe she works it all out, maybe it gives her a concrete deadline to finish her book (that’s certainly happened). But I just couldn’t reconcile the sudden change with what had gone before. I didn’t believe it. I don’t know any academic woman who didn’t at least think about the consequences of what such a major life change would have for her career.

I DNF’d. I tried to go back to the story after the initial shock and anger had subsided, but I couldn’t. I thought reviewing it at Dear Author in the usual way, but I’ve never posted a DNF there and this was so much about my hot button that I wasn’t sure I wanted to draw that kind of attention to the author. [Aside: This is another thing I find difficult about author-reader intersections in Romanceland. I had no prior knowledge of Pembroke, but I looked her up and read her blog and she’s a lovely person. So I feel bad about hating where the book went.]

My compromise was to write up a review at the site where I keep track of my year’s reading, but without giving the book a star rating.  And then I decided to rant some more here.

That’s the TBR Challenge for you. You never know what’s lurking in that stack.