REVIEW: Stepbrother Dearest by Penelope Ward
Dear Ms. Ward:
This book has sat on the top of the Kindle bestseller list for weeks and was a top five NYTimes bestselling book for two weeks. I finally broke down and bought it. I had read My Skylar (which I thought I had reviewed but our archives say no) and liked it. There weren’t any triggers or slut shaming in the previous book that I could remember. (I sometimes get Penelope Ward and Penelope Douglas mixed up. The latter has a lot of slut shaming whereas the one book I read of Ward’s did not).
Stepbrother Dearest features what I’d term as a negging hero. Negging is a pick up artist tactic where a male constantly undermines the confidence of the female target so that she attempts to overcompensate for her insecurity by trying to impress the male. Elec doesn’t just neg Greta, but he negs the reader as well. This hero archetype that is so common in romance seems to stem from the Byronic ideal–that he is mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Because he is sexy and everyone wants him, his behavior is excused particularly when that behavior springs from a bad childhood. If a character is mistreated as a child–either abused, neglected, or harmed–then the fruit from the poisonous tree is deemed acceptable.
Elec comes to live with Greta when they are seniors. His father has married Greta’s mother. Randy, Elec’s father, is terrible to Elec, telling him that he should never have been born and that Randy’s only enjoyment with his son is making sure everything Randy says to Elec is hurtful. At one point, Greta says she is going to talk to her mother about Randy’s behavior but nothing comes of it.
Knowing this, Greta excuses every bad act that Elec does and he does plenty of them including sabotaging her dates, kissing her friends while knowing Greta likes him, and insulting her. The tension between the two is well done. Could Elec and Greta have had this dynamic without Elec using the entire senior class as his way to distract himself from Greta? Yes, I think so.
And while I knew that Greta loved Elec, I didn’t really understand the why. He was mean to her. She did have other options. I guess I was supposed to buy into the helplessness of their love. The story had the most impact when the two of them were fighting the lost cause of their attraction.
The middle part of the story begins when Randy dies and Elec and Greta see each other for the first time after they are separated when Elec returns to live with his mother his senior year. Elec’s internal torment isn’t explained until well into the last third because most of the story is told from Greta’s point of view.
When Elec and Greta meet again, their reunion is complicated by the fact that Elec has a girlfriend, a very serious one. What I really liked in this section is that Elec’s girlfriend is kind, pretty, and seemingly of a generous heart. It’s painful to read this section (in a good way) because we like everyone. We want Greta to be happy but Elec’s girlfriend isn’t a harridan so we don’t want to see her hurt either. Having the girlfriend be nice was such a welcome relief.
The last third is where the story collapsed. Elec dabbled in writing as a teen and he has been working on an autobiography. He gives the autobiography to Greta to read and we are treated to a redux of the first two thirds of the book with repeated dialogue and repeated scenes from Elec’s point of view. The only addition in that section is Elec’s internal monologue, most of which the reader knows from his words and actions. It’s one thing to re-read dialogue and events months later and still another to read them only hours later.
It’s an easy read, although toward the end I ended up skimming because I didn’t want to re-read the entire book again. The strongest portion was the middle one but I struggled to understand what Greta saw in Elec other than he had a nice body, wore glasses, and could sometimes be nice to her after days of running her down.