SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for July: Below Deck by Dorien Kelly

by Sunita

This month’s prompt is “contemporary,” which offered me a vast range of choices. I went for this one because I still fondly remember a book Kelly wrote for the old Harlequin Flipside series called Do-Over. It was fun and funny and had an endearing romance. The book I just read is very different, though, and it didn’t work nearly as well for me. Rats.

Below Deck is part of the Harlequin series Mediterranean Nights, in which all the stories are set aboard a cruise ship called Alexandra’s Dream. I’m not a cruise ship person; the idea of being cooped up in a floating hotel with higher-than-average chances of catching communicable diseases has never appealed. (As an aside: I sailed on a couple of famous ocean liners as a child, but those were a whole different thing in a different era.) Nevertheless, it’s a great setting for a romance, since the protagonists are thrown together in a confined space, and they also get to get off the boat in beautiful locales.

Our two MCs are Mei Lin Wang, the ship’s massage therapist, and Gideon Dayan, head of security. Lin has taken the job to get away from the Chinese government, who want to question her about her late husband’s activist colleagues, and to protect her baby from personal and political threats. And of course the baby has to be kept a secret (although multiple other ship employees know about him and help her take care of him). And did I mention that Lin is still nursing baby Wei and has no breast pump, so she is constantly worrying about leaking milk and making sure he’s fed in a consistent way? Realistic and in some ways refreshing, but not really adding to the romantic aura of the story.

Gideon is a Mossad agent who has taken this position while on “indefinite leave” after his personal and professional partner, Rachel, was killed while they were monitoring a protest (killed by a Muslim suicide bomber, of course). I have no idea how Mossad agents wind up on side gigs, but it’s Harlequin so I went with it. More suspension of disbelief is required, however, given that both of our characters have been unexpectedly widowed in the last year-plus, and both were deeply in love with their partners. And yet, it’s a romance, so they’re feeling lustful toward each other in no time. I appreciated that they actually talked and got to know each other before jumping into bed, but honestly, if someone gave me an expensive piece of jewelry that quickly, I’d be running far, far away. Overall, though, the romance part of the novel (which is the main part here) is OK. But there is just too much going on. I mean, come on, it’s not enough that they’re both mourning lost loves, Lin is hiding a baby. And Gideon can’t just be a security person, he has to have a Mossad backstory. The reader is expected to believe that Lin can keep several steps ahead of a Chinese government that wants to question her AND hide a baby on a cruise ship. A nursing baby.

And did I mention the secondary plot line? Oh, I didn’t? Well, there is one, involving the abduction of the ship’s librarian, Arianna, by a man who appears to be an educated and intriguing mobster, Dante. Arianna (and presumably Dante) will get their own installment in this series, which makes me confused as to why they need chapters and chapters breaking up Lin and Gideon’s story. It also turns the book into a weird multicultural romance meets romantic suspense (but with different MCs) mashup. I don’t blame Kelly for this, I assume she had to write it for series reasons, but it makes for a very choppy read.

The multicultural romance part was pretty well handled, although I rolled my eyes at some of the shorthand descriptions of Chinese life and culture. Still, Kelly clearly did some homework to invest Lin and her friend Zhang with individuality and authenticity. I was less forgiving of the way activists were portrayed; Lin’s and Gideon’s opposing views on activism provided some low-level conflict, but I’m not on board (heh) with treating all young activists as party-going, deluded fools. Thanks but no thanks.

So, overall, this was not a successful read. There was too much crammed into too little space, some of which were probably beyond the author’s control (continuity, foreshadowing, extra characters for the series), but others of which were not. And for those who are keeping score, this read is #467 of the Harlequin TBR.