So, I’ve been on a Sarina Bowen reading kick lately and it has been great (I blame you, Jane!). Bowen has an irresistible voice, and her NA works display great pacing, an excellent ear for dialogue, and a good balance of romance and coming of age elements.
The Year We Fell Down
I bought this when it was on sale for 99 cents and Jane offered a money back guarantee on it. I liked it and the following books enough to be very glad I did, though I have some issues.
At its base, this is an unrequited love / friends to lovers story, and that’s a trope I adore. I was reminded a tiny bit of Kinsale’s The Shadow and the Star because the heroine, Corey, is such a good friend to Hartley, but he thinks he’s not good enough for another woman, one who is all wrong for him.
This aspect of the book was beautifully written, and I loved the way the romance arc played out, with Corey eventually realizing the situation wasn’t fair to her.
Bowen has a real gift for dialogue. Hartley, Corey and their friends sounded real and right for their age almost at all times. The fictional Ivy League college, Harkness, was well portrayed as well. It felt like a real campus.
The characters were lovely too. The hockey playing Hartley wasn’t just a jerk; it turned out there was a real reason for his behavior – and it wasn’t something I’d seen in a romance novel before. His unselfconsciousness about sex was wonderful, too—maybe a little too much so for his age but it worked.
Corey was more than her disability—she was also a competitive athlete and a genuine, open and caring person trying to figure out where to go from where she was in her life.
It’s hard for me to judge how Corey should feel about her disability eight months out from the injury and diagnosis– is it too late for her less-than-total acceptance of it and her sense of self-consciousness about it? I really don’t know. What I liked was that for the most part she didn’t moan and groan like so many fictional disabled characters do. I loved her frustration with her parents for babying her and I appreciated her annoyance at people for staring or flashing false grins at her when she used her wheelchair.
What I didn’t like as well was that her handling of her disability was part of why Hartley fell in love with her. He valorized her for not whining and felt she provided a kind of role model for him with that — all that made me uncomfortable. A disability is a fact of a person’s life, and accepting it is not a heroic act.
I had some other issues with the book, too—I thought Corey was a bit too mature for a college freshman and the ending was too perfect, with Hartley’s family issues getting resolved in a way that seems unlikely. Even his narcissistic ex-girlfriend came around to being nice to Corey.
Taking everything into account, this one rates a B.
The Year We Hid Away
Bridger was a manslut in The Year We Fell Down, but in The Year We Hid Away we find him taking responsibility for his eight year old sister, Lucy. Bridger and Lucy’s mom has now become a meth addict and to safeguard his sister, Bridger has sneaked her into his dorm room and she is living there with him.
Bridger is also working on top of school and parenting, and has almost no free time. But he meets Scarlet in Statistics class (it turns out they both also take Music Theory) and they end up lunching together and helping each other with studies.
Like Bridger, Scarlet has a secret, but hers is uglier—her father is the famous hockey coach now at the center of a sexual abuse scandal. Scarlet is the new name Scarlet has given herself. She believes her father is probably guilty and she wants to distance herself from him and find some acceptance and friendship.
The premise of this one was far-fetched; I didn’t see how Bridger could get away with hiding an eight year old in his dorm room, but since it was the premise of the book, I suspended disbelief and went with it.
I liked the protagonists – both Scarlet and Bridger are independent sorts who don’t want to lean on others, sometimes to their detriment. Like Corey, Scarlet was very mature for her age, but in her case I was able to accept it more easily, because she was more flawed. She made up lies to protect her identity and kept a lot of things to herself.
Bridger was a great older brother to Lucy and I liked him a lot but he had been such a complete and total tomcat in the earlier book that I kept thinking Scarlet should insist he get a check up before sleeping with him. Both his tomcatting and the change in his behavior made sense in the context of his taking on Lucy’s guardianship.
Scarlet and Bridger had nice chemistry but not quite as delicious or romantic as the one between Corey and Hartley in The Year We Fell Down. Because they were facing such difficult problems, it was hard to feel swept away by their romantic feelings.
Scarlet’s situation wasn’t a common trope and I appreciated that. I was glad that the ending wasn’t as tidy as in the earlier book.
The pacing was very effective, with short chapters that had me staying up late to read more.
The book felt a bit manipulative because of the danger that Lucy would be taken away from Bridger. It may not have been the typical child-in-jeopardy plot but it still had an element of that. I also didn’t understand why Bridger’s mom had turned to meth and abandoned her children. It seemed like at one point she cared, so I wanted to know what ended that.
I’m not sure if it’s because I read the book right after another one by the same author, something I don’t usually do, but with this one I felt like I was starting to see some of the author’s writing ticks. So it wasn’t as magical a reading experience as The Year We Fell Down, but I still liked it. B-.
I had picked up Blonde Date at no cost (it is still available free as of this writing), and since it featured Scarlet’s roommate Katie and Bridger’s dorm neighbor Andy, it brought me back to this series after a short break. This was a very sweet novella but I didn’t find it all that believable.
Andy has a crush on Katie, who is in his art history class, and now he’s got a “blind” date with her (blind because she doesn’t know who he is). They are going to help the sorority she’s pledging wrap gifts and decorate for Christmas, and he is nervous because it’s his one chance to try to strike up a relationship with the girl of his dreams.
What Andy doesn’t know is that the popular Katie, once a free spirit, has recently been through a sexual experience that left her feeling violated and vulnerable.
Andy calls his sister Delia for advice on how to dress for the date, and here was my first issue with the novella: Delia addresses her brother as “Jew boy.” This term seems racist / antisemitic and while I could easily believe an insensitive person would talk to Andy that way, that it would come from his own sister struck a jarring note. My brain kept going “No, just no” throughout that scene.
Andy is a tall and once-gangly basketball player, but he’s also somewhat awkward and geeky. He makes odd gestures and isn’t sure what to wear. It’s endearing to see this type of hero portrayed in a romance—the opposite of confident, suave and dominant archetype that is so common.
Katie, on the other hand, always dresses well and up until recently she had plenty of self-confidence. She also has more sexual experience than the virginal Andy, and she likes sex a lot.
I was glad to see her in the role of heroine, but I had mixed feelings about the way the narrative uses Katie’s trauma to gain sympathy for Katie because it reminded me of the way some books use rape to “redeem” a “bad girl” – although this novella wasn’t like that. Katie questioned her past lifestyle more than I wanted her to, but I didn’t feel the author was condemning it.
Katie’s ex, Dash, is at the gift wrapping party and after Andy asks Katie what’s wrong, she tells him what happened to her. Andy is immediately supportive and also very astute about how to distract Katie from the painful situation at the party as well as help her to reframe it. The date turns into something more than just a date, and the two get a happy ending.
I didn’t believe that when Katie was feeling so vulnerable she’d confide to Andy about the way Dash had treated her. She had only just met Andy. She confides in one other person whom she doesn’t know well, too, and I felt it all happened very fast.
Further, I wasn’t sure that an awkward boy like Andy, even as great as he was (and he was lovely), would appeal to a popular girl like Katie on a long term basis. I enjoyed the charm of this story, though—Bowen writes romantic emotions so well — and how good for each other Katie and Andy clearly were. C+
The Understatement of the Year
Like The Year We Fell Down, The Understatement of the Year is a kind of unrequited love / friends to lovers story, but with a twist. Graham and Rikker have known each other since age thirteen, when both boys attended a Christian private school in Michigan.
As kids, they became fast friends, playing video games in the basement at Graham’s house. At age fifteen, the friendship took a romantic turn and the boys began making out when the house was empty. About a year later, they were necking in a car and soon after were attacked in an alley. As they ran away, Rikker stumbled and fell. Graham got away, but the experience haunted him and led to a painful breakup between the boys.
Flash forward five years. Rikker has just transferred to Harkness College, Graham’s school—and to Graham’s hockey team. Rikker, whose fundamentalist parents sent him to live with his grandmother, was outed at his last school and kicked off the team, but he had been out to a few trusted people long before that. Graham, on the other hand, is deeply closeted, so much so that he pretends that they don’t know each other.
Graham drinks to cover up his pain, but he is always in fear of discovery. He sleeps with the team’s student manager, Bella, and makes a lot of other choices that are aimed at hiding his sexual orientation. At first he fears that Rikker will out him, something Rikker wouldn’t do to his worst enemy, but eventually a truce develops. It later leads to more, although neither guy knows if their relationship will bring him joy or heartache.
I have very few negative things to say about this book because there was much I loved about it. My first nitpick would be that at one point the Harkness team plays in Vermont and gets a welcome there that seemed unbelievable.
Also, at another point Graham decides to visit Rikker in Vermont over break, and I wasn’t sure I bought the explanation that was given for that. It involved an aspect of his character that hadn’t been mentioned before, so it wasn’t totally convincing.
Other than that… well, Rikker is more likable and appealing than Graham, but that’s because Graham doesn’t like himself very much, so I saw that as part of the point the book made.
On the surface, Rikker seems braver and in some ways he is, but he also didn’t choose to be outed, so it’s more accurate to say that even with all the pain and hassles that it brought, being outed turned led to some happiness for him, and as a result he’s more comfortable in his own skin. The fearful, closeted Graham, on the other hand, doesn’t even know that he deserves happiness.
The story felt fresh and unexpected in multiple ways. Bella was a wonderful character and wasn’t in any way villainized, nor was she slut shamed for having slept with over half the team. And when it would have been more conventional for Graham to have the intolerant parents, it was actually Rikker’s parents who were like that.
Rikker is a wonderful character, strong, brave and true to himself. I loved the circle of friends and supporters he had, including his wonderful grandmother and his ex-boyfriend, Skippy. Skippy fits a certain stereotype but he’s also fleshed out enough that he’s more than that.
Graham also had a circle—the team, not all of whom are accepting of Rikker in their midst—the amazing Bella, whose feelings for him he is blind to, and his mom. These characters also rang true. Hartley plays a significant role in the story, and Corey and Bridger make small but satisfying appearances.
The Understatement of the Year is emotional and romantic—there are some really touching turning points in Rikker and Graham’s relationship that I don’t want to spoil.
It is also the first of the Ivy Years books to follow the hockey team’s season closely throughout the book. Not being a hockey fan, I can’t speak to how accurately the game is portrayed, but in some ways the book reminded me a bit of one of my favorite books, One on One by Tabitha King, which also features a secret affair between two school athletes during a season when they are trying to win the championship.
Rikker’s struggle with his feelings for Graham, and Graham’s struggle with concealing versus acknowledging his sexuality and his love for Rikker are moving and the characters’ journey to happiness and love is more than rewarding. B+.