SuperWendy’s TBR Challenge for August: Juggling Briefcase and Baby by Jessica Hart

by Sunita

This month’s challenge prompt was “anything goes” and I decided to pick a book that was recommended by both Wendy and Miss Bates. I have a number of Jessica Hart’s Harlequins in the TBR and she’s recommended by people with similar tastes to mine, so I’m not sure why I haven’t read her before. Probably the usual “too many books, too many choices” problem. Anyway, this one sounded good to me: opposites attract and a focus on emotions rather than contrived setups. For that I’ll put up with the baby being front and center, especially when it’s a baby that could definitely exist outside the pages of a romance.

Jessica Hart cover

Romy and Lex had a passionate fling in Paris 12 years ago, when they were much younger and starry-eyed. They had known each other growing up and then suddenly and unexpectedly fell for each other. Lex was smitten enough to want to marry Romy but she turned him down and went off to explore the world. Now, at 30, she’s back in London with a baby in tow, working at a temporary job in Lex’s company. They (re-)meet cute in the opening chapter when Romy subs for her boss on a business trip to negotiate a major deal. She joins Lex on his jet to Scotland with baby Freya in tow. Lex is aloof, driven, and completely uninterested in babies and all the real and metaphorical baggage they bring with them. He also had no idea Romy was back, let alone a mother.

The three of them journey to Scotland and stay with the businessman they’re hoping to do the deal with. He’s a widower and fond of children and happy couples, so Lex and Romy rashly decide to be one. This keeps them together and bonded both at work and outside it while the deal is finalized, which leads them to confront feelings they thought were long gone and buried.

The main conflict in the relationship is internal: Romy is afraid of commitment and Lex is allergic to disorder and unpredictability. Romy hasn’t even told Freya’s father about her existence (Hart manages to do this as well as she could and I get it for the setup, but I’m so not a fan of this trope). The personality and history obstacles to Lex and Romy are more believable in the past than the present, but overall they are well depicted. And I really appreciated that there are no bad guys or women in this story, just two people who haven’t learned how to build lives with other adults. Actually, that was a somewhat striking aspect to this story. I’m used to romances where the main characters are socially isolated, but these two don’t seem to have any friends (except for one convenient one near the end, who functions entirely as a plot device and never appears on page). And it’s not addressed at all, which I found equally odd. The backstory traumas are all discussed in terms of how they affected Romy and Lex’s relationship.

Except for the secret baby angle, which does get resolved in a non-dramatic way, both characters are decent and likable people. Lex comes across as cold but not selfish or cruel and he thaws over the course of the novel. Romy is a more complex creation, and I didn’t entirely buy the reasons for her issues. I’m totally sympathetic to commitment phobia, but this seemed excessive for what happened to her, and no one took steps to lessen the long-term effects (including Romy). And then she just kind of wises up and decides to try being a fully rounded person with strong ties to other adults. It wasn’t entirely unbelievable, but I couldn’t quite see the journey she made. In a less thoughtful and grounded Harlequin I’d buy the transformation more easily, I think, because I’ve already had to suspend disbelief. But here my skepticism was greater because other aspects of the story were so realistic. Like Freya. The dry humor with which living with a baby is described was tremendous fun to read.

I’ll definitely read more of Hart’s backlist, because I like the overall approach and I’m a big fan of the line in which her books appear. I’m still mulling over my response to this one. It’s mostly positive, but I wanted more self-aware characters.

Juggling Briefcase and Baby is #374 on the Harlequin TBR.