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REVIEW: Harvard Hottie by Annabelle Costa

Harvard HottieDear Ms. Costa:

I am monumentally relieved that you came up with a second (better) cover for this contemporary romance, if not a second (better) title. It’s not that the original cover was bad . . . it’s that it was so mind-numbingly bad that nothing could have induced me to read it were it not for the fact that the ebook is free from most vendors and I read a handful of thoughtful, positive reviews. I feel compelled to point this out right off the bat because going off the cover (and title) alone, I was second guessing my decision before I even began. Then after I began, I felt certain I would get a few pages in and call the whole thing off. But then I kept reading. And . . . I didn’t want to put it down. Not at all. And so I didn’t. I read it through in one lovely gulp. And then I found myself in the awkward position of standing around, wringing my hands, mumbling about the packaging. So I’m glad the cover at least got a revision, because I do think this story deserves whatever will help it find its way into the hands of other readers who will love it, too.

Ellie Jenson still isn’t sure how she got into Harvard in the first place. She worked her butt off in high school, set her sights sky high, and made it to the big time. But deep down she still wonders if it wasn’t all a mistake. Because of the two kinds of students who go to Harvard, she falls fair and square in the Smart and Poor category. And Luke Thayer is Rich and Dumb through and through. Actually, Luke isn’t dumb at all. But he’s filthy rich, entitled as all get out, and bound and determined to disagree with every assertion Ellie makes in their freshman expository writing class. Which is the only thing they have in common. And Ellie would like to keep it that way. Which is why, when a tipsy Luke makes a pass at her one night, she tamps down every ounce of attraction she feels for him and . . . passes. And with that Luke Thayer walks out of her life. Fast forward fifteen years. Ellie took her Harvard degree in computer programming and is now supervising her own little department of programmers. She hasn’t thought of Luke in years. Which is why she’s fairly gutted to find out her old nemesis is the new CEO. Determined to show her new boss just how far she’s come, she strides into his office to find out that Luke is in a wheelchair. And has been for several years now. Caught completely off guard, Ellie struggles to reconcile the insufferable Luke she knew with the man before her whose life is clearly anything but charmed.

I wasn’t prepared to like them so much. I wasn’t. The whole thing started off like every other New Adult cookie cutter I’ve read over the last year. But then . . . they grew up. And their lives just hadn’t gone the way they’d imagined. Luke’s more so than Ellie’s obviously, but they were both so endearingly adrift. And I when I say endearing, I mean I they were going on anyway, knowing their lives lacked something and every day experiencing the pain of not knowing what it was or how to find it. Watching them carefully negotiate the new and unwieldy boundaries of their relationship was . . . adorable, to be honest. It was sweet and giddy and it filled me with anxiety for both of them. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book with a physically disabled protagonist, and I have to say the way Luke’s disability was handled felt incredibly real and unvarnished. Nothing about his condition is glossed over or simply melts away in the face of their growing attraction. And the book is infinitely better for this steady hand. There are cringeworthy moments, ones where Luke, Ellie, and the reader wishes like anything they could just sink into the floor and disappear. Ellie doesn’t always say the right thing and Luke is alternately unutterably charming and absolutely mortified. But they stay.

Luke and Ellie both have some of the same hang-ups they had in college. Luke has even more money than he did back then and Ellie’s simpler, more frayed lifestyle befuddles him. For her part, Ellie is uncomfortable and a bit stunned by Luke’s wealth. To say nothing of the glitzy company he keeps. I wasn’t sure from chapter to chapter if it could last or whether or not it should, particularly as the numerous limitations presented by Luke’s condition and the consequences of his ruthless business acumen begin to press on the back of Ellie’s consciousness. But, my, I wanted it to. Here’s one of my favorite scenes which highlights the particular blend of humor and honesty that is Ellie and Luke’s story. A policeman has just spotted them getting a little up close and personal in Luke’s car:

“All right, get out of the car,” the cop says.

Luke obligingly opens the door to the car. He grabs his wheelchair out of the back seat and the officer watches in shock as he pops the wheels into place. When he transfers into the seat, the cop is white as a sheet. I would have laughed if I wasn’t still shaking. Luke pushes his palms into his thighs to straighten out his posture and he looks at the officer questioningly.

“Oh, um . . . ” the cop says. His jaw is hanging open. He peeks into the car at me, probably wondering if I need a wheelchair, too. “Well, um, I guess . . . I can let you off with a warning.”

“I really appreciate that,” Luke says politely.

The officer still looks a little stunned as he goes back to his own car. Luke looks at me in the car and winks, “I never get tickets.”

“Jesus,” I say. I wipe my sweaty palms on my dress. “I think I better go.”

His face falls. “Oh.”

“It’s getting late,” I say, “and . . . well, like I said, I’ve got stairs.”

Luke nods. “All right,” he says. “Will you come to my office for lunch tomorrow?”

“Lunch, huh?” I smile.

“Totally innocent,” he assures me with a grin.

That would actually be a pretty big disappointment.

I loved the way Luke’s challenges were leavened a bit by the glib, at times downright roguish way in which he maneuvers his life. From tearing down the streets of Boston in his sleek car to ordering massive amounts of Chinese takeout to lure Ellie into his office, his antics nearly always brought a grin to my lips. It’s a simple story in the end, very simply told. There isn’t much in the way of grand flourishes or conflict here. In fact, history with Luke’s father aside, few of the secondary characters really come into focus outside of the two principals. And maybe it was a case of the right book at the right time, but Ellie and Luke felt like people I might pass in the hallway at work, leading ordinary lives, in search of warmth to come home to at the end of the day just like me. A sweet, disarming read. B+

Cheers,
Angie

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Angie is a bookish sort with a soft spot for urban fantasy, YA, historicals, and mysteries. Ever since she read The Witch of Blackbird Pond and made the acquaintance of one Nat Eaton, stories with no romantic subplot need not apply. Her favorite authors include Robin McKinley, Juliet Marillier, Sharon Shinn, Mary Stewart, Megan Whelan Turner, Kristin Cashore, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews, and Ellen Emerson White. You can find Angie at her blog www.angie-ville.com or on Twitter @angiebookgirl.

20 Comments

  1. jas
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 11:34:36

    It is free on amazon right now.

  2. mari
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 11:54:17

    I also have had this in my TBR pile forever….the title gives the impression the book is more along the lines of Legally Blond…glad to find out its not like that at all. Thank you for this review. The author really needs to think about re packaging and rebranding!

  3. Ridley
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 12:07:01

    I have to say the way Luke’s disability was handled felt incredibly real and unvarnished.

    Are you disabled yourself?

  4. Amanda
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 12:09:59

    While I wasn’t a hundred percent happy with the ending ( I felt it needed a few more pages) I did adore this book. Maybe its just that I didn’t want it to end. The story hooked me from the beginning and like you I am glad that it got a new cover.

  5. Nessa
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 13:11:30

    Full disclosure: I use a wheelchair and have a severe physical disability. I was happy with the depictions of Luke himself because he is shown to be more than just his disability. He was a reformed asshole, a savvy and uncompromising businessman, an impatient driver, a foodie, and a quadriplegic wheelchair-user. He made decisions based on his disability because where he could go and what he could do was limited by it, but he also made decisions – as we all do – based on what food he was craving or where he saw his career in a decade. So I liked that.

    Here’s my problem with this book. EVERYONE was terrible to Luke apart from Ellie. His ex, his father, his friends, his colleagues, random people at the place where he was guest-lecturing – nobody actually made an attempt to get to know Luke or spend time with him in any substantial way – and given that he was such a rich and powerful man that made absolutely no sense to me. I mean I’m only a graduate student with no influence, but when I inform people at schools/public venues that I use a wheelchair, they’re very nice about arranging for someone to show me the accessible entrance or getting the ramp ready or whatever. In my experience people aren’t such blanket dickheads to disabled folks; I found it hard to believe that his friends and professional acquaintances were all so rude to his face given how often their social and professional lives intersect.

    As a result, though, I never really believed in Luke and Ellie’s HEA. I maybe understood why she fell for him – although honestly their dates bored me and the sex seemed impersonal – but his love for her seemed to me to be an attachment to the only person who treated him well. In other romances where the main characters are on unequal footing due to age differences or financial circumstances, such a setup (one character in isolation) automatically creates a sense of dependence. Given that Luke was already physically dependent on other people for his personal care and his daily routine, this added dependence on Ellie, because she alone understood and loved him, had me erecting red flags all around their relationship. I hated it! I hated that Luke didn’t have a single friend. I hated that his mother wasn’t more supporting of him. I hated that Ellie, regular, girl-next-door Ellie, got elevated to become The Woman who Saved Luke, because only she interacted with him, when, really, she just rather boringly slipped into love with him. Like regular people do. On Luke’s side too, I’m not sure it was enduring love; it felt more like a desperately lonely man falling for the person who was happy to spend time with him.

    So, tl;dr version: I liked the depiction on Luke’s disability on a [his] personal level; I hated how it was dealt with on a social level.

  6. Ridley
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 14:09:30

    @Nessa: Ah. This is a recurring motif in romances with disabled characters. I despise it. It’s insulting.

  7. susan
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 14:14:49

    I read this book a few months ago, and liked it enough to look for other books by going to the author’s web site. That is when I got kind of skittish about her. Her web site includes links to other web sites (of hers, I think) that are devoted to the eroticizing of being with disabled men. To make this clear, I have no issue with disabilities and erotica, and everyone deserves to have good sex. But I was concerned that a line was being crossed into the “fetishizing” of disabilities, and losing focus on the person.

  8. Kate Sherwood
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 16:39:32

    @Nessa:
    I totally agree with this! Everyone else in the book was such a cartoonish, randomly evil force of Luke-oppression that Ellie really shone, but then when you think about it and realize that most people in the world AREN’T total dicks, the whole story kind of falls apart.

  9. Angie
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 16:48:06

    @mari: It really does, doesn’t it? The two do not have much in common, no.

    @Ridley: I’m not. To me, it felt like the author attempted to present a balanced portrayal of Luke’s life and I appreciated that as opposed to a more overt glossing over of some of that reality, which I have encountered before. I hope I didn’t offend, as I realize my reading is likely a simplistic one since I do not have close personal experience with disabilities. I felt a connection to the characters and cared about what happened to them, that is what I meant to convey.

    @Amanda: I agree, I probably could have done with a more extended ending.

    @Nessa: I’m encouraged to hear you felt Luke’s personal depiction was realistic. I agree it was narrow storytelling in that only the two of them received in-depth treatment. I think I was okay with it because I connected with them both early on. But I can see how his insipid circle of acquaintances could be maddening and I certainly would have welcomed more complex secondary characters and motivations, particularly from his mother. Although she reminded me strongly of a few friends’ mothers I’ve known and so that might have tempered my reaction to her.

    @susan: I haven’t looked into her other works, much, and I’m fairly certain this is my first romance with disabled characters, but that is not encouraging.

  10. Melissa
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 17:43:50

    @Nessa: I liked the book quite a bit more than you when I read it, but the big problem you point out is absolutely there, and now I’m re-thinking things. This author needed to watch Murderball– cause truly, no way should her hot, rich hero have had trouble getting some real friends or girlfriends (other than the heroine) because he’s in a wheelchair. I went with it like I go with all the friendless (unless they’re in clubs) NA billionaires or the many friendless, adult HP billionaires from dysfunctional families whose special snowflake selves are only seen by their true loves, but yeah, I can see that it’s different. Sigh.

  11. Susan
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 19:06:17

    I read this a couple of months ago and agree that the old cover was hilariously bad. Despite a few issues ( a certain broadness, the ending, etc), I enjoyed the book. Enjoyed it enough that I immediately read a second book by the author, which was more in the OK range. But, as @susan noted, I saw a disconcerting pattern that hadn’t been readily apparent to me with the first book alone. It didn’t totally negate my appreciation of HH, but it also didn’t make me want to continue with the author, either.

  12. Willaful
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 19:56:57

    Well. Gosh. I read another book by this author, also featuring a hero in a wheelchair. I thought it was really interesting and different (I don’t think the hero was isolated in that one — they meet through mutual friends) and planned to review it when it was no longer an Amazon exclusive. But this devotee info makes me very uncomfortable.

  13. Angie
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 20:31:32

    @Susan: Now I wonder why I didn’t go on to try out any of her other books. I did see that she wrote in that “genre,” if you will. And I just wasn’t interested in delving in, I guess. I enjoyed this single story and that was enough. Hearing all of this, I’m really glad I didn’t.

    @Willaful: I feel the same way. I still love this story and characters, but won’t be pursuing things with this author.

  14. KellyM
    Apr 11, 2014 @ 20:54:21

    I also read Harvard Hottie a month or so ago. I enjoyed it, despite all the definite issues everyone else touched on. So I decided to try out another book from the same publisher – Love In Touch by Lucy May Lennox (which also has unfortunate cover art). That one featured a deaf-blind hero, along with a lot of similar isolation issues as Harvard Hottie. But I felt like Lennox acknowledged the isolation issues in the story and at least tried to give reasons for it. Having never met a deaf-blind person, I’m not sure if the reasons for his isolation were valid or not, but I enjoyed that book a lot too. But I did notice that there was another book from Dev Love that was previewed at the end of Harvard Hottie that featured a teenage heroine who had a definite and overt fetish for men in wheelchairs, complete with a masturbation scene. Again, to each their own, but I thought it was time for me to move on to other genres at that point…

  15. Ridley
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 11:15:32

    @KellyM: Just FYI: the “dev” in “Dev Love” refers to “devotee”, which is someone with a fetish for people who are physically disabled. It’s the disability version of guys with “yellow fever” and just as objectionable.

  16. Willaful
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 11:29:46

    @Ridley: It struck me as insult to… well, insult I guess, that they try to hide what their name means on their website.

  17. Nessa
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 11:45:33

    @Ridley: I had no idea such a thing existed.

    I followed links from costa’s site to one for Ruth Madison and seemed to have found that excerpt for the book that fetishises disability. (1) Ew, and (2) I’m definitely insulted. And a little disappointed.

  18. oceanjasper
    Apr 12, 2014 @ 12:23:27

    My review of this book is on Amazon. I gave it 3 stars. There is quite a bit of humour and I enjoyed reading it on the whole, but more for Luke than for Ellie. I thought she was rather detached from Luke and sometimes lacking in empathy. I don’t know that I believed in her falling in love with him. Not because Luke isn’t funny, loving and attractive (because he is) but because Ellie seems lukewarm (no pun intended) towards him for most of the book.

    I also have to say that I really don’t care if Costa has an unhealthy obsession with disability. If she has written other books that don’t have the shortcomings of this one in terms of character and plausibility, then I may check them out. I’ve never been interested in any author’s personal opinions or prejudices. I just want to find books I like, and I judge them purely on their merits as works of fiction.

    I might add that one of my immediate family members has had a significant disability for most of his life. He learned to live with it, and he doesn’t let it stop him from doing anything important although some aspects of daily life are affected by his physical limitations. I don’t see disability as an issue that society should think about in a certain way; it’s just a practical aspect of many people’s lives. In terms of the real world it’s more likely that the hero would be an everyday guy with some form of disability rather than a billionaire or a bodyguard or a NAVY seal or most of the other common romance hero stereotypes.

  19. Over @ Dear Author: Harvard Hottie by Annabelle Costa | Xcuz Me
    Apr 13, 2014 @ 12:19:43

    […] read it twice in the last few months and I continue to have a soft spot for it. Stop by and read my review of Annabelle Costa’s Harvard Hottie over @ Dear Author […]

  20. Bonnie Dee
    Apr 14, 2014 @ 12:13:14

    Off topic of disabilities, and on topic of first person present tense. Is anyone else getting very tired of that penchant in NA? I’ve never like present tense and now it’s getting to be common practice. I’m not going to reject a book outright for that “flaw” alone, not if everyone says it’s a good story. But it will always give make me consider whether I want to make that purchse when I encounter present tense in an excerpt.

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