Dear Sarina Bowen,
I’m an unabashed fan of your work and of the Ivy Years series in particular. Your writing style really works for me and I love how you write banter between the main characters and the wider circle of friends. However, I have very complicated feelings about this book. Depending on which aspect I’m thinking of, they are wildly positive or wildly negative.
Daniel “DJ” Trevi is the younger brother of Leo Trevi (aka “Trevi”) the captain of the Harkness hockey team. Daniel plays hockey himself and could have played for a third division school – but he wanted the education of a first division school so he chose Harkness. He is shorter than the average hockey player (although I can’t see where exactly how tall he is was stated – I imagined him about 5’8″ ish as Lianne is ony 5’1″) and I gather that had something to do with him not playing for Harkness. He DJ’s at the hockey games. Part of his job is to help the crowd release tension with music so as to give them a safe way to blow off steam during the game. My impression was, while he loved to play hockey, he wasn’t crushed he wasn’t playing in college.
Lianne Challice is an actress who became famous for playing a sorceress in a series of movies. (I imagined her like a blonde Emma Watson.) Readers met her in The Shameless Hour when she becomes good friends with Bella and Rafe. DJ and Lianne had a “moment” by the jukebox at Capri’s in the earlier book and Lianne is deeply smitten. DJ is too but he knows he should stay away.
Because DJ is on a kind of probation during the investigation of an alleged sexual assault. The college can decide to expel him at any time, basically without there being anything more than this allegation against him. If he is expelled, he will be persona non grata at other colleges (and it will likely effect his employment prospects too) because his record will show he was expelled for “disciplinary reasons”. His family have hired a lawyer who is trying to get DJ a hearing to tell his side of the story. (I have a lot of things to say about this part of the book later on in the review.)
There has been no criminal allegation made and the college has kept things very quiet. Only a very few people know what is going on. DJ cannot go into any of the dorms (or “houses”) and he cannot be within 50 yards of his accuser. He agreed to these terms in order to stay at school. He is now renting a room off campus with some of the Harkness hockey players.
The one bright spot in his life is Lianne. She is funny and smart and they are both music nerds. She helps him in the booth at the rink and gets totally hooked on it. (Lianne does a mean Axl Rose impression by the way). When DJ successfully denies himself and tells Lianne they can just be friends, she pushes back and he is unable to resist again. There is a bit of push/pull but I didn’t tire of it and it made sense in the context of the story. After they are intimate for the first time (this takes place relatively late in the book – certainly past the halfway point) he tells her what is really going on with him. (Prior to then he had said there was something big going on but asked her not to press him on it.)
The story didn’t go quite the way I was expecting and because I was expecting things to get really messy, I was glad to be wrong. Lianne’s arc was very small however. The book was mostly about DJ. There were some developments with Lianne’s (shitty) manager and she started to be better at advocating for herself but thinking back, there was not a lot of focus on Lianne at all really.
I liked DJ and I liked Lianne. I liked them together and I liked the way they fit. I enjoyed the banter between the hockey players and I loved Bella’s and Lianne’s friendship.
“Well?” Bella demands. “Look, I know you’re a private person, but the suspense is killing me. Did you do the deed? Wait—I know you’re shy. So you don’t even have to say it out loud. Blink once for yes or twice for no.”
That makes me giggle, because I love Bella to death. And nobody at Harkness has been more generous to me than she has.
“We did it.” My smile fades, though, and she notices.
“Omigod.” Bella claps her hands to her cheeks. “Why aren’t you happier? Was it awful? No—it couldn’t have been awful. They’re a very talented family…” She’s pacing my tiny rug, then stops, a look of horror on her face. “Oh, hell. Does he have a fun-sized dick?”
The writing style hooked me from the beginning and compelled me to keep reading. On that level, the book was a total success for me.
But. I had a real problem with the book being based on a false accusation of rape. While I think you did a great job of showing how awful it is to be accused of a crime you didn’t commit, I think it is, in a way, low-hanging fruit. I think it is easy for people to imagine themselves in a false accusation situation and understand how terrible that would be. And, there are certainly some men who have had their lives ruined by such false accusations. BUT. False accusations of rape make up approximately 8-10% of all rape claims (a reminder: trigger warning for the article) and that does not take into account the significant amount of rapes which go unreported. And, one of the reasons, perhaps the main reason, rapes go unreported, is because women fear they will not be believed. Because they will be regarded as liars, making a false accusation of rape. Essentially that is what we have here. A girl makes an accusation of rape against DJ and she is lying. We know she is lying because he’s the hero and the hero cannot be a rapist. Therefore she is lying. It worries me that this could feed the prevalent rape culture.
I think the social issue you were trying to highlight was the poor way (many?) colleges deal with reports of sexual assault but I query the method. (This Slate article deals with these issues for readers who would like to have more information on the context – note it is firmly from the male POV and may well be triggering to some readers.) While you, as author, have a perfect right to write any book you want and you are under no obligation to write what I want you to write, I have to wonder if this was the best way to highlight the issue. I would have done much better with a story where (for example) the accusation was not false but investigation by the college led to the accusation of the wrong guy. (It’s true I’m having trouble coming up with what that might look like but I will play the “I’m not an author” card here.) I believe everyone is entitled to procedural fairness and natural justice (- at base, that is a right to know the allegations against them, to have their side of the story fairly heard and any mitigating circumstances or new information taken into account in the decision). The Slate article states that in their efforts to protect victims of sexual assault, many colleges are abrogating the rights of men. While I don’t support that at all, I’m wary of media which shifts the focus from the genuine problem of sexual violence against women which exists and which, it seems to me, can so easily be derailed by the idea that a small percentage of men are falsely accused. In pure numbers, it is women who are the major losers in claims of sexual violence. Perhaps it is just that I see m/f romance as a more female-advocative space. Even as a hero-centric reader I found it jarring to be on this side (ie the book’s side) of the debate.
I stress, in the book, I felt very sorry for DJ. Perhaps because he is a hero, he doesn’t demonise his accuser. The narrative ends up in sympathy with her (although the reasons for that could be a whole other post). DJ feels that it would be so unlikely a girl would falsely report a rape, he even doubts himself. I think you made some attempts to show that DJ’s experience isn’t common.
He shakes his head. “Real rapes are underreported all the time. Because girls are scared or embarrassed.” He has to stop and take a breath. DJ looks almost as stressed as I feel.
I don’t know what to think about the bomb DJ just dropped on me. I asked him to, of course. And before that, he’d tried to warn me away. Now I understood why he’d been holding that story in. To hear it required you to choose a side, and I kind of hated myself for thinking about it like that.
My brother shakes his head. “Not everyone.”
“Don’t say that,” I hiss. “You seriously want to sit here and tell me that you never wondered whether I was guilty?”
“Danny, I never have.”
His head snaps back as if I’ve punched him. “Look, jackass. I get why you’re angry. But save it for the people who are screwing you over. I never doubted you. Not for a second.”
Bullshit. How could anyone never doubt? I know better than anyone what happened that night. And all I do is sit around wondering what the hell happened. And what I missed.
“…It took me a while to get over the fact that sometimes shitty things just happen.”
“But…” It’s hard to put into words how much this bothers me. “This shitty thing must have an explanation. Doesn’t it kill you to not know why?”
“It did,” he admits. “But then I realized that it was killing me to be so angry about it. If I never get to know why, I still have to keep going, you know?”
(That last applies in many situations and DJ is right. At some point you have to move on from searching for reasons for things which cannot always be explained. This section spoke to me quite apart from the rest of the story actually.)
Even with all that, with all that good, it wasn’t enough for me. Just having the story being about a guy falsely accused of rape was a problem and no matter what happened after, it was too much for me to get past.
There was another issue I had with the story and it feeds in to my bigger complaint. (spoiler alert) In The Shameless Hour, Bella is assaulted by a group of frat boys who drug her and write sexual insults (eg slut, whore, etc) on her body in permanent marker. She eventually reports the assault to the Dean of the college and the college begins an investigation. Some action is commenced and Bella (with Lianne’s help) plans and executes a prank to gain some ‘justice’ for herself and other women badly treated by the frat. I said in my review:
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 nothing in The Fifteenth Minute about Whittaker or the assault on Bella at all. Nothing. So was the message then that it was important to get full emotional justice for DJ but it was not for Bella? It feels kind of insulting. Didn’t Bella deserve her report to be treated seriously and fully investigated too? If it happened, why was it not important enough to say – in either her book or this one. In context, the girl is getting screwed over again and the guy wins. And in a female-centric genre, I struggled with that. In fact, the more I think about it, the more this contrast bothers me.
If I read books completely on their own, without any social context or political context, I could have happily enjoyed The Fifteenth Minute and recommended it to everyone as I usually do with your books. But I don’t read that way. And, frankly, I think your books deliberately highlight social issues so I think I’m not actually intended to read that way. I can see that the issue you highlighted is real (although I query the prevalence relative to genuine claims) and who am I to say that it “should not” be in a romance book? (Answer: no-one.) But I was really uncomfortable for the focus here to be shifted away from female empowerment, particularly after what happened to Bella and the lack of closure there.
I was hoping that by the time I finished writing my review I’d have a handle on my grade. But I really don’t know how to grade this one. The thing which bothered me pervaded the entire book. It’s difficult to set that aside in a meaningful way. And I’m a little concerned that to assign a grade/grade reduction would be somehow trivialising. (It is very possble I’m overthinking things at this point.) However, I gobbled up the book quickly (albeit with some discomfort) and the writing and much of the characterisations hit my good book buttons. If my review was a Facebook realtionship status it would say: It’s Complicated.