Dear Sarina Bowen,
It’s no secret that I’ve been a squeeing fangirl since I first devoured your earlier Ivy Years books last year. You were my “author find” of 2014. So, of course, I begged shamelessly (heh, see what I did there?) on Twitter for an early copy of your newest book in the series.
Bella is a character I loved as soon as I met her in The Understatement of the Year. She is the student manager of the Harkness hockey team. She doesn’t take crap from anyone and she’s not fazed by naked hockey players in the locker room (I, on the other hand, would be extremely fazed). She also unashamedly enjoys sex. She’s not big on relationships and prefers more casual hook ups. In The Understatement of the Year, her heart was unexpectedly damaged by Graham (one of the heroes) when she walked in on him and his now-boyfriend Rikker and realised that the reason they hadn’t worked out was that Graham was gay. Graham and she had been close friends who occasionally hooked up (always when Graham was drunk, but in college, that happens a lot so she hadn’t attached much significance to it before). Even though they hadn’t had sex in a long time, she had been holding a bit of a torch for him. While she’s glad to see Graham and Rikker get their HEA, she’s even more determined to keep away from relationships. After all, she and Graham didn’t even have one* and her heart still got bruised. (*not a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship anyway)
Bella is fierce and strong and loud and sarcastic. She is loyal to her friends and super organised. The hockey players (well, most of them) adore her for her wit, sass and her ferocious organisation skills. She doesn’t have many female friends. I suppose some are intimidated by her outspokenness and quite a few of the hockey girlfriends are just plain jealous.
There is a gendered bias to the way society sees a sexually forward woman as opposed to a sexually forward man. He is a “player” with a ‘nudge nudge wink wink’ and a sly grin. She is a slut. Which is ridiculous. But even as I say that I found myself, when I first encountered Bella, coming up against a few of those ridiculous ideas in my own head. It was only for a minute or so but I was a bit surprised to find it was there at all. Go figure.
Bella likes sex and she’s not hurting anyone. She doesn’t hook up with guys who are attached and she doesn’t make promises she doesn’t intend to keep. She’s up front and honest about what she wants. I admit to being both admiring and intimidated – pretty much for the same reasons. It’s not true to say that Bella doesn’t care what people think of her. She does care but she doesn’t (usually) let it guide her life. And, in general, she’s pretty happy in her skin. Bella doesn’t like to let it show, but she hurts just like everyone else does. In some ways, Bella stole The Understatement of the Year for me. She was so vibrant and gutsy and I just plain liked her.
I knew all this about Bella before I started The Shameless Hour. At the beginning of the story, she is still somewhat reeling from what happened with Graham.
It’s hard to admit you’re just in someone’s periphery when you imagined you were closer to the center of their world.
I’ve had that feeling myself (albeit in a different context) and it’s not easy to deal with.
Bella needed a Very Special Hero to live up to my expectatations for her.
As is the case with your other Ivy Series books, The Shameless Hour is told in alternating first person point of view (past tense). The reader first meets Rafael Santiago. He is a 20 year old sophomore at Harkness. He plays soccer and studies hard to keep his grades in the B-C range. He was raised by a single mother with a large Dominican family and spent many of his formative years in the family restaurant, Tipico, in New York’s Washington Heights. It’s his birthday, something he shares with his girlfriend, Alison, and tonight is the big night when they will both lose their virginity. They’ve been dating for six months and he’s been battling with the feeling that Alison might not want to have sex with him. Now that she has suggested they go for it, he is all “Thunderbirds are GO!” Rafe is a good boy. He listens to his mother and respects women. (He even likes – and quotes – chick flicks.) Given that he was the result of an accident when his then 17 year old mother was seduced by a dirtbag, he is very aware of the potential consequences of sex. (Plus, his mother never lets him forget.) He does not want to be trapped in an unwanted relationship by an unplanned pregnancy and he also does not want to be the cause of a girl having to make a difficult decision. He’s not precisely a choir boy though. He wants to have sex. He just hasn’t had the opportunity yet and he’s too polite and too understanding of the girls in his circle, many of whom grew up in strict Catholic families, to push.
One could be forgiven for thinking Rafe is a bit weak. Initially, I couldn’t quite get a bead on him. He’s sensitive and quiet and good. But over the course of the book (and it doesn’t take very long for these things to begin to be revealed) the reader also sees he is very strong and stalwart. He can be pushy and there were times he steamrollered Bella but given that she needed steamrollering at the time, I gave him a pass. But he’s not a doormat.
Bella is in her senior year of college. She’s been coasting along, enjoying college, enjoying hockey and enjoying a great many of the hockey players but she realises that pretty soon she will have to decide what she’s going to do next. The problem is she has no clue. It’s something she’s pushing out of her mind but she knows she can’t do that forever. She is a rich girl from the Upper East Side of Manhattan but is mostly estranged from her family for reasons which are explained midway through the story. I say mostly estranged because even though Bella doesn’t seek their help, she knows she could if she really wanted to. And, of course, they are paying for her very expensive education. It’s the beginning of a new school year and the old hockey coach has retired. The new coach is a grumpy guy who doesn’t quite know what to do with Bella. She makes him uncomfortable.
Rafe and Bella (and, as it happens, Alison) all live in Beaumont House, one of the 12 houses at Harkness. Rafe’s plan’s are screwed when he finds Alison has a surprise visitor with some even more surprising news about what she’s been up to while she was away volunteering in Ecuador over the summer. Broken hearted, he contemplates his bottle of champagne and figures he will drown his sorrows. Bella takes pity on him and invites him to her room to share the bottle with him.
Rafe has always found Bella astoundingly attractive but he never thought he would catch her eye. She is two years his senior and they don’t hang in the same circles. One thing I noticed about Rafe: he never, ever, judged Bella and found her wanting. Bella has a reputation on campus. She has had sex with a large number of guys and she’s not shy about it. But Rafe never thinks of her as a slut. He just thinks she’s amazing. In fact, one thing I noticed throughout the book was the the story doesn’t focus on her physical attributes at all. They are mentioned but it’s not a fixation. Rafe is attracted to Bella yes, but he doesn’t think of her in terms of body parts and neither does the narrative.
Bella, for her part, has definitely noticed the hottie from a couple of floors down and she is not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. They have awesome drunken sex (experienced Bella can’t tell that Rafe was a virgin! Rafe is just that good right out of the gate. I gave it a pass) and fall asleep in a post-sex-and-alcohol coma.
While Rafe doesn’t judge Bella for her enjoyment of casual sex, he knows that it’s not for him. He’s disappointed in himself the next morning and struggles to express his feelings coherently to Bella, who just thinks he’s a “shamer”. She’s disappointed and a little hurt that Rafe regrets their night together and this, indirectly, leads her to a hook up with Whittaker, a frat boy from Beta Rho.
Her hookup with Whittaker was nothing to write home about. Worse, a couple of weeks later, she experiences abdominal pain and burning when she pees; she heads to the health center where she is diagnosed with an STI. She is mortified. This, more than any unkind word said about her, shames her. But she ovaries up and does the right thing and lets Whittaker know. Given the incubation period, it is clear from whence her infection came and he needs to be treated so he doesn’t pass it on to others. He doesn’t take it well.
The Beta Rho frat has a poor reputation. They don’t treat women well. They have a “skank of the week” award – the trophy for which is a pig – which is awarded to the brother who hooks up with the ugliest girl. So, yeah. They’re real charmers </sarcasm>.
Something happens to Bella. I want to say that it’s not something which needs a trigger warning (that’s a hint) but frankly, it might be triggering to some readers. As the event was foreshadowed, I literally held my breath and my heartbeat sped up. I was just that engrossed in the story. While what happens to Bella isn’t as bad as it could have been, it’s pretty bad. It’s humiliating and shaming and all kinds of wrong. I’m conflicted about what to say about it in the review because it is a major plot point. I hadn’t read the blurb for the book (I usually don’t with autobuy authors) so it totally came out of left field for me. I was kind of reeling from it. I was outraged and hurt on Bella’s behalf and I wanted to burn down the Beta Rho house and I wanted Whittaker to meet with a bizarre dick-falling-off accident.
Bella is strong and proud and unashamed. But all of a sudden she is weak and meek and humiliated.
Rafe sees Bella at her most vulnerable. Because he is who he is, he helps her. He has been fumbling the ball in his attempts to fix things between them. (He wants a do-over where he takes her out and they date before they have sex. He likes and admires her so much. He doesn’t hold out much hope but he wants a relationship with her. He’s a guy who can’t separate sex and emotion. For him, the feelings are part and parcel of the experience and he knows himself well enough to know he can’t do hook ups.) He is outraged and devastated on her behalf and he encourages her to report the event to the dean. He urges her to seek medical help if she needs it. He helps her in practical ways, even when she tries to push him away. That’s not to say he’s uncaring of her needs – he offers to go on the condition that she call someone to be with her instead. I saw it as him putting her wellbeing above her distraught utterances; it’s the kind of thing any good friend (of any gender) would have done so I didn’t take it as him being a bossy man who was overpowering her and compounding her distress. He was genuinely worried for her and wanted to make sure she was okay. I imagine some readers might see it differently.
When she hides away (Bella? Hiding? *cries*), Rafe draws her out. When cajoling doesn’t work, straight up threats are used: “Show me you’re okay or I’m going to the dean” type threats. In the context of the book, I couldn’t really fault him.
It is during this time that Bella and Rafe become friends. Bella leans on Rafe (even though she doesn’t admit this to herself for a long time) and they get to know one another. Their sexual attraction is on the backburner.
Another, somewhat unexpected, friendship develops during this time as well. Bella and Lianne share the top floor of Beaumont House in singles which share a bathroom. Lianne is a famous movie actress and is very shy and, Bella thinks, judgemental. It turns out that Lianne is mostly just shy. She’s also a genius with technology and together, she and Bella hatch a cunning plan to reveal to the world just how pathetic the Beta Rho frat boys are.
Gradually, Rafe continues to draw Bella out of her protective shell and out of her room. He encourages her and challenges her and stands with her, proud and unashamed.
There are, of course, undercurrents of attraction between them. They have amazing chemistry and genuine liking for one another.
He was the whole package. Sexy. Fun. Sexy. Kind. Loving. Sexy.
Did I mention sexy?
But Rafe doesn’t do casual and, after a couple of bad experiences, casual is all Bella does.
“Let’s call it what it is,” I suggested. “I could have you naked about sixty seconds from now. At which point we would have hot, sweaty sex.” How could he not think that was a good idea? I was feeling hot just saying the words.
“Fine,” he said. “Hot, mind-bending sex. I have a very active imagination, Bella. It would take us a week just to get through my most recent ideas.” He glanced up at me then with heat in his eyes, and my fun zone gave a shimmy. “But next week, if I pass you on the stairs with one of your hockey player friends, that will kill me.”
“You’d be jealous?”
His dark eyes bored into mine. “Ridiculously jealous.”
“That’s so… possessive.”
He threw his hands in the air. “Call it whatever you want, I guess. But I care about you. A lot. If we have sex, it’s not just… exercise. If that’s what possessive means, I guess I’m it.” He stood.
I think the book did a good job of putting the proposition that it is not wrong to enjoy hook ups and it is not wrong with wanting sex only in the ambit of a romantic relationship. Both are valid and entirely okay. Rafe doesn’t judge Bella; as he puts it:-
“I think you’re amazing, and I’ve said so every chance I get. Don’t put words in my mouth. I never said your way was wrong. It’s just wrong for me.
Rafe is, as I said before, stalwart. He is not boring or wimpy or weak. He is deep and sexy and strong but he’s not loud about it. He’s kind of Clark Kent – Superman is hiding underneath his clothes but he doesn’t need to advertise the big S on his tshirt. (I know the analogy only goes so far; work with me here.)
I was so swept up in Bella and Rafe and his devotion to her that when I was reading a few things slipped by me. It was only when I was thinking about the book after that I realised there were some things missing.
The most glaring absence were Bella’s friends. Where were Graham and Rikker? They were there sometimes but nowhere near as often as Bella would have been had the situations been reversed. Similarly, the other players on the hockey team were largely absent. In part this was alleviated by the narrative mentioning that she’d been dodging calls and texts from her friends, but it wasn’t quite enough I think. I do know that when someone is going through a hard time there are some who can’t deal and back away but I expected better from Graham and Rikker. On the other hand, it was their absence which meant that there was space in Bella’s life for Rafe apart from just when they were working together on a joint project for Urban Studies. The bones of the romance are in the fact that Bella relies on Rafe because there is no-one else. I’m just not sure it fitted well with what I knew about the guys from the previous book.
The other thing which bothered me was that Whittaker’s comeuppance was incomplete. I gather this will be addressed in the next book (where Lianne will be the heroine) but I’d have preferred to know in this book. We talk a bit here about how the HEA often includes an element of emotional justice. I’m not sure Bella got her full measure here and she deserved to do so.
There was no issue between them regarding their age difference. While it is small, at that age the gap can appear larger and I was kind of surprised but also pleased it didn’t seem to be a thing between them.
Rafe is a working class Latino boy on a scholarship at a fancy Connecticut college. Class differences are a live issue and he expresses some concern in the beginning of the book with Alison maybe not thinking he was good enough for her. Bella’s family is very wealthy and there are subtle suggestions that they may look down a little on Rafe’s background and ancestry. While I never thought it was actually an issue between Bella and Rafe, I’d have liked to have seen these class disparities more overtly addressed.
That said, I was too caught up in the story to notice those things while I was reading. (And, to be fair to myself, the Whittaker thing was only obvious once the book had finished anyway).
I am a sucker for a rescue trope. In this book, the “rescue” Rafe effects is mostly by being there for Bella and encouraging her to return to being her awesome self. He is the kind of boyfriend one would actually be proud to bring home and not a single restraining order would be required. He’s a genuinely nice guy hero and I liked him very much. I think this was Bella’s book though. She was the focus of the story and I was glad she had an entire book in the spotlight.