REVIEW: Arm Candy by Jo Leigh
Dear Ms. Leigh:
Arm Candy was one of the first Harlequin Blaze novels I ever read; in fact, it was a book I read early on in my Romance reading (what can I say: I started late). Right away, though, I knew there was something especially fun about the book, from the amusing zingers about men and women that begin each chapter, to the pairing of the protagonists, a focused, logic-driven marketing genius and an eclectic, romantic, creative free spirit. Because in Arm Candy it’s the heroine who is the career-minded control freak and the hero who follows his heart from research quest to research quest. And that modest reversal makes for a canny, entertaining, and engaging romance between two interesting, independent people.
Jessica Howell graduated at the top of her class from Harvard, and she now works in marketing at a cosmetics company. It’s not clear whether she has any innate passion for cosmetics, but she definitely has a passion for spreadsheets, logic, and being taken seriously as an unqualified success. And at the moment, there seems to be only one thing standing in her way to the top of the corporate ladder: her horny, married boss, Owen, who is using an upcoming week-long corporate event to maneuver Jessica rights where he wants her, namely into bed. He doesn’t seem to care – or even believe – that Jessica doesn’t feel the same attraction, and Jessica would rather simply maneuver around Owen than blow the whistle on his shenanigans. She envisions her success in planning and overseeing a successful event will speed her departure from her current job. If only she can get through a week at a hotel, in one of two adjoining suites, without being harassed or attacked by Owen.
Dan Crawford is trying to make up his mind between consulting in Botswana and preparing for the Baja 1000 car race when Jessica’s college friend Glen shows up unannounced at his apartment building. What Glen proposes to his sometime racquetball opponent distracts him long enough from his other options to pique his ever-wandering interest: spend the week as a paid (romantic in appearance, platonic in fact) companion to Jessica to keep her inappropriately amorous boss at bay. Glen has to be out of town, but he told Jessica he had an idea, and Dan is it. A handsome, wealthy, somewhat eccentric guy, Dan would make an interesting match for the beautiful, no-nonsense Jessica, and Glen’s intuition is spot on. When Jessica and Dan meet for the first time, they both feel the pull. Jessica is even willing – warily so — to go along with Dan’s one condition for the week; in lieu of money, he wants Jessica to serve as a research subject on that age-old mystery of what women really want, both in bed and out.
That the reader knows immediately how untenable this situation is going to be as a platonic partnership only adds to the fun of what follows. Jessica is so focused on her career success that she is convinced that any involvement with Dan will derail her, while Dan understands that giving in to his attraction to Jessica will spoil any hope of intellectual objectivity in his research. And despite the peripatetic nature of Dan’s work-life, he approaches each endeavor with total absorption, much like Jessica approaches her own work, despite their markedly different personalities. So he respects Jessica’s ambition, and wants sincerely to assist her in reaching her goals. Likewise, Jessica likes Dan and appreciates his worldliness, his attentiveness, and his competence in playing his role, which is does with surprising conviction.
So where’s the fun? It’s in watching the dance between them, entertaining the question of who will give in first to the attraction, and the tension around how any personal involvement will affect their individual goals. Adding to these pleasures are the witticisms posted at the beginning of each chapter, jokes related to the misunderstandings between men and women culled from the Internet (with accompanying web addresses that I did not try to confirm as real). For example, at the beginning of a chapter in which Jessica and Dan struggle to cope with something significant that happens between them, we find an anecdote entitled POINT OF VIEW:
An English professor wrote the words "A woman without her man is nothing" on the blackboard and directed the students to punctuate it correctly.
The men wrote: "A woman, without her man, is nothing."
The women wrote: "A woman: without her, man is nothing
Source: Meissner, Dirk "Punctuation and Phenomenal Women" http://www.dirkmeissner.com/chauvi0001.htm
Further, it’s not just that Jessica and Dan struggle to understand one another; they also struggle to understand themselves, especially in the way the strength of their draw to each other challenges long-held beliefs about who they are and what they want in life. Jessica has long believed that career success and personal happiness were synonymous. That Dan begins to occupy a disproportionate amount of her thinking time disturbs her and makes her want to shut down and pull away. Dan seems more open to the growing attraction (he wants a happy marriage like his parents had) but worries that his romantic nature makes him a "lousy" judge of a woman’s compatibility with him. As his NYU professor mother reminds him, “Oh, honey. Lousy is being kind. But that’s mostly because you let your little head do your thinking for you." Yes, she’s an unconventional mother -a recently widowed half of a very happy marriage between two independent people who let their child chart his own educational course from a very early age. But that unexpectedness in "role" is part of what makes Arm Candy so delicious. Like how Dan exemplifies what we often see more in heroines (unabashed romanticism), while Jessica embodies what we so often see in heroes (single-minded ambition and strong intellectual focus). That Dan is not a stereotypical hippie-type, and Jessica is no clueless nerd makes them even more interesting and appealing.
Jessica’s dilemma hinges in part on the different way men and women view sex:
She wasn’t sure why, but sex always seemed to be more than sex for women. Men usually had the right idea, but women wanted more. Romance, security, love, commitment, a future. Why? Why wasn’t it okay to want sex for its own sake?
It would be enough for her, but only if there were no expectations of anything else. No hoping, no plotting, no daydreaming. All her thoughts needed to be on work, and her creativity, too. She wanted to rise to the top of a very competitive market, and to do that she needed to focus, focus, focus.
In other words, her emotional involvement in Dan begins to complicate the sexual attraction, and that presents a serious dilemma for Jessica.
But Dan has his own problem, which may appear less serious, but given Jessica’s monocular focus on her own career, has some real weight for him:
He liked so much about Jessica, but was it love? Was his mother right about him? He’d always been a romantic and it had gotten him into trouble time and time again. Maybe this was just the same old, same old. Maybe he wasn’t really seeing Jessica for who she was, but as some amalgam of who he wanted her to be.
The reality is that Jessica could hurt Dan, because even in the short time they know each other, she can be warm or somewhat distant depending on her sense of vulnerability. And her intentions for the relationship are more tentative than his – understandably so, given her own goals. Because if Jessica simply throws away her own long-held ambitions for a relationship with Dan, she will be compromising herself and losing a crucial part of herself.
How it all works out depends in part on how much the obstacles are internal v. external, and on how Dan and Jessica each work toward their own resolution. And while I felt that the outcome was a bit rushed, I found it satisfactory. One element I do wish had been given a bit more time to develop was the question around why there are all these expectations for women when they do not seem to exist for so many men, even in the genre. It is never really questioned that men can have successful careers and a fulfilling relationship (although I give Leigh credit, because she has written at least one book I recall where the hero gave up his high profile career for love), but for a woman this creates an incredible dilemma. Why is that? In part this goes back to the question of how much gender-specific behavior is socialized and how much is natural, but it also relates, I think, to how the Romance genre can privilege love without compromising other aspects of its protagonists lives and identities.
There is also a moment where Jessica has the obligatory "now that I know love I realize how alone I’ve made myself,’ and it slightly undermined the authentic passion for her work she was clearly intended to reflect in contradiction to so many gender stereotypes. But on the other hand there is a lovely secondary Romance in the novel that reinforces the overall theme that appearances are often deceiving, and stereotypes can be extremely limiting. So in the end, I found my re-read of Arm Candy just as entertaining and satisfying as my initial read more than five years ago. A-
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