REVIEW:  Hot Under Pressure by Louisa Edwards

REVIEW: Hot Under Pressure by Louisa Edwards

Dear Ms. Edwards,

I’ve read all three books in your Rising Star Chef series and, of all of the couples in the series, my favorite hands down is Claire Durand and Kane Slater. This, really, is a bummer because, in all three books, they are secondary characters though their love story, finally resolved in this book, Hot Under Pressure, is a fabulous one.  For me, the romance between chefs Henry Beck and Skye Gladwell, the main protagonists in Hot Under Pressure, is less compelling. The two are each interesting individuals but, as a couple, they lacked consistent, transfixing chemistry.

Hot Under Pressure by Louisa EdwardsI guess one could read this novel without reading the two that precede it but I don’t recommend it. One of the best things about the series is its host of characters. The couples from the first two books have  roles here as do the cooking crews from Beck’s and Skye’s restaurants. All these chefs are competing in the Rising Star Chef contest—a culinary tournament designed to determine the best cooking team in the country.  Three teams have made it to the finals, held in San Francisco: the East Coast team, Beck and the gang from the Manhattan’s steak house Lunden’s Tavern; the West Coast team, Skye and her crew from Queenie Pie Cafe, a homey hipster place in Berkeley; and the Midwest team whose lead chef is such a jerk he and his team are ousted a third of the way through the book.  The contest has three judges as well, two of whom, forty-two year old Frenchwoman Claire Duran, editor of the world’s most prestigious cooking magazine, and twenty-something Kane Slater, “smoking hot foodie rock star,” have a complicated romantic relationship they began in the first bookin the series, Too Hot to Touch.  There are all kinds of relational and culinary dynamics at play in this book that won’t make much sense to one unfamiliar with the series.

I liked this book despite not being wild about the preeminent relationship. For starters, I liked Beck and Skye. Beck has been the mystery man in the Lunden’s crew from day one. He’s a huge guy, taciturn, great with food, remote from people. In Hot Under Pressure, we learn Beck’s back-story and it’s pretty damn sad. He landed in the foster care system at age eight, bounced from house to house and, by eighteen, was utterly on his own. He met and married Skye, and then, due to a heartbreaking situation—to share it would be a spoiler of the highest order–, left her and joined the Navy. While in the Navy, he learned he loved to cook, and when he got out, he ended up at Lunden’s where, much to his astonishment, he found something very much like a family. The owners of Lunden’s, Gus and Nina Lunden, their sons, Danny and Max, Max’s girlfriend Julie (Lunden’s head chef) , and, my personal favorite, Winslow Jones, prep chef and uber-witty “Wise, Learned Sage,” have all tried to make Beck feel as though he belongs. Even after a year in their company, Beck still struggles to accept the care they constantly send his way.

Coming up through the foster care system, Beck had seen a lot of families interact with kids who didn’t truly belong to them, and until he’d met Jules and the Lunden clan, he would’ve sworn that kind of unconditional acceptance wasn’t possible. It definitely hadn’t been for him.

Unlike so many heroes in romance, Beck’s a working class guy with pretty low expectations for life. He wants to win the Rising Star Chef Competition because the resulting fame will help keep Lunden’s Tavern in business not because he wants fame or fortune for himself. Until he shows up on the first day of the competition finals and encounters, for the first time in ten years, Skye Gladwell, Beck hasn’t let himself dream about much of anything other than getting by. But when he sees Skye, and begins to remember how happy he was in the few years they had together, he starts to open himself up to life’s emotional possibilities.

Skye, unlike Beck, has grown up with a family, but her parents, Marin County radical bohemian artists, have never approved of Skye’s choices. They were horrified when she got married—so bourgeoisie–, think her cooking is little more than “puttering around a kitchen like some fifties housefrau,” and, in general, have “kept their daughter gently but firmly ground under their vegan shoes.” When Skye ran off with Beck, at age eighteen, her parents disowned her and, after Beck left her, she slowly rebuilt her life and found joy in cooking and, ultimately, in owning her own funky café. Skye is close to her best friend Fiona, the café’s pastry chef, and she has an itinerant boyfriend, Jeremiah, who travels the world for the Peace Corps and doesn’t believe in fidelity. Skye is successful—she owns a business she loves—but still feels she’s a constant disappointment to her parents and, though she cares for Jeremiah, she’s kept her own heart locked away since she and Beck horribly parted years ago.

When Beck and Skye meet again, Skye asks Beck for a divorce—the two never put their parting on paper. She is angry at him for the way he left her and she wants him out of her life. Beck, surprising Skye (and me—this really seemed out of character for him), says no.

Her jaw dropped. “No? No, what? No divorce? You don’t get to say no!”

“And yet, here I am, my mouth shaping the word and . . . huh, yeah, seems like my vocal cords are working okay, because no. Uh uh. Forget it.”

Shock tightened her throat until she was the one struggling for words. “But you . . . you left me! A decade ago.” A thought occurred to her, and she poked a triumphant finger into his wide, solid chest. “I don’t need your consent! I’ll claim abandonment.”

Looking down at her from his great height, Beck seemed to loom until he blocked out the sun, and the sky, and the crowds around them, until it was almost like they were alone, the only two people on the planet. “A no-contest divorce would be so much faster, so much simpler.”

Gritting her teeth until her jaw throbbed, she said, “But if you won’t give me one . . .”

“I tell you what,” Beck said, his dark eyes unreadable. “I’ll play you for it.”

Skye gaped again. “Excuse me?”

“I’m assuming our teams both get through to the final round—that dickhead Larousse is a one-trick pony who’s already played out his entire act. So it’ll be down to an East meets West matchup, in the end.” Beck crossed his arms over his massive chest. “If your team wins, I’ll give you your no-fault, no- strings, no-fuss divorce.”

Skye’s thoughts scattered like a bucket of chopsticks dumped on the floor. Groping for a rational response, she managed, “And what do you get if you win?”

He shrugged. “I’ll still give you the divorce, but I’ll want something in return.”

Narrowing her gaze on his impassive face, she said, “Like what?”

A spark ignited deep in his dark brown eyes, sending a too-familiar shiver straight down Skye’s spine. Beck leaned forward until his forehead almost rested against hers, his presence warm and overwhelming.

“One last night with you.”

Skye (also rather out of character) accepts his bet, in part because the only time she ever enjoyed sex was when she was with Beck and there is a piece of her that wants to find out if her memories hold up to reality. I felt the bet was an artificial construct, one designed to allow the novel to combine writing about gourmet cooking—you write beautifully about food and I think your culinary prose in this book is the best you’ve written yet—with Beck’s and Skye’s slow reconciliation. As the contest progresses, it comes down to just two chefs, Beck and Skye, and each dish they make is a metaphor for their relationship. I found this heavy-handed—I’d have liked the love story between Beck and Skye more had it not been tied so literally to the contest. I was especially disgruntled by the last phase of the cooking contest in which Beck and Skye are asked to tell their personal life stories in five courses. Not only did it I feel the request on the part of Eva Jansen, the contest’s creator and sponsor–she is my least favorite major character in the books—was rudely intrusive, but the presentation of those five courses is used to deliver melodramatic revelations that seem embarrassingly out of place in such a public venue.

As I said earlier, Beck and Skye are not my preferred lovers in this book. I have loved the relationship between Kane and Claire from the moment the two met and I was blue the two didn’t get more “screen time” in this book. Kane has pursued the reluctant Claire with sexy charm and palpable emotional honesty. He, like Winslow, takes over the story every time he appears upon the page. Claire has resisted him—although she’s found herself in his bed more than once—because she’s terrified.

When she was with Kane . . . it was all too much. She felt too much, hoped too much, cared too much, and she was smart enough to know that an ounce of fear for the future would save her infinity of regret when this affair inevitably ended.

As this book begins, Claire is angry at Kane because she overheard him arguing with Eva Jansen’s icky dad Theo about which man deserved to be with Claire. This scene where Kane tries to explain to Claire what he was really saying to Theo almost made me cry.

“You’d been pushing me away for days . . . hell, for weeks, since before we even got together. You let me have your body, but you never let me get closer than skin deep, and for a long time I let you get away with it. I played it your way, even though it sucked and it didn’t make either one of us happy, but it didn’t help. You still kept me at arm’s length.”

Claire wanted to protest, to deny it, but that would mean admitting that he’d gotten under her skin from the very start. Raw fear stopped up her throat like a cork in a bottle, and all she could do was stare at him.

Clearly taking her silence for agreement, Kane smiled grimly and went on. “So when Theo pushed me, I snapped. I said to him what I should’ve said to you—that I’m ready to fight to keep you.”

Heart battering at her ribs, Claire could scarcely hear over the rush of her blood in her ears.

Kane fell quiet, gaze locked with hers. Everything Claire wanted to say collided in her throat, clogging her vocal cords with emotion. Silence stretched between them, thick with expectation and unspoken promises.

There was so much she wanted to tell him, but the very idea of exposing herself that way made her soul shrivel like a grape left out in the sun. She stared at him, mute with misery, wishing there were a way to communicate her feelings telepathically, straight into his brain, so she wouldn’t have to lay herself open.

And as she stood there, struggling to overcome decades of clean, simple, balanced, emotionless living, the light died out of Kane’s eyes, and he turned away.

“But it’s no good if you won’t fight for us, too,” he said quietly, jamming his hands into the front pockets of his tight jeans. The muscles in his wiry, tanned forearms stood out, stark and tense. “So I guess that’s it. Theo’s leaving, I’m backing off . . . you’re safe now.”

With that, he turned and walked out.

And Claire let him go.

Claire and Kane work out their love affair naturally, unhampered by the artificial strictures placed on Beck’s and Skye’s. Claire and Kane are a mesmerizing couple. I’ve truly enjoyed their story and, although I’m happy find love, I’m sorry I won’t get to read about them anymore. More so than any characters in this series, I will miss reading about Claire and Kane.

Hot Under Pressure was a solid B read for me. Out of all of your books—and I’ve read them all—this one has the greatest emotional scope. With the exception of the five courses scene, you deal deftly with death, loss, grief, and blame in this novel. Hot Under Pressure is a fun read too—it’s got just enough hot sex, mouth watering food descriptions, and hilarious insight from Winslow to keep the book from veering into too heavy territory.

One last thing: I didn’t like the epilogue. You must have guess I wouldn’t be the only one given you wrote in the acknowledgements:

If you’re not a big fan of epilogues, you can blame Kate Pearce and Bria Quinlan for the monster at the end of this book. My fearless beta readers felt the end needed a little something more . . . and I couldn’t resist the chance to check back in with some of my favorite characters.

It wasn’t needed, it was overly syrupy, and it tied all your stories up into too neat a knot. Next time, I’m hoping you’ll overrule Kate and Bria.