REVIEW: Beginner’s Luck by Kate Clayborn
Dear Ms. Clayborn,
Your Chance of a Lifetime series, about three women who split lottery winnings from a single ticket, came to my attention recently. I purchased your debut, Beginner’s Luck, after a reader in my Goodreads timeline raved about its sequel.
Beginner’s Luck is the story of Ekaterina “Kit” Averin, a scientific researcher at a university who loves her job almost more than anything, and Ben Tucker, the corporate recruiter who does almost all he can to convince her to leave that job and come work for his company, Beaumont Materials.
The story proper begins six months after a prologue about Kit and her best friends, Zoe and Greer, and how they won the lottery, with Ben’s first attempt to recruit Kit. At this point he knows her only as E.R. Averin, a Materials Science researcher whose name has appeared, though never first, and always alongside others, on several scientific articles.
Ben flubs his first pitch to Kit after expecting her to be male. She turns him down flat, not because of that, but because she has no interest in corporate science and she’s committed to staying in Barden, Virginia, where she has made a home for herself.
Shortly after his flub, Ben learns from his partner, Jasper, that Kit is so coveted by Beaumont’s owner that if they succeed and recruiting her, Ben and Jasper will be released from the non-compete clause currently preventing them from starting their own recruiting business.
So, Ben renews his commitment to persuade Kit, even though he is in town on leave to take care of his dad. Henry, Ben’s dad, has recently been discharged from the hospital following an injury and needs Ben’s help, both personally and with his business, a salvage yard.
Ben doesn’t think recruiting Kit will be that hard, because she’s underpaid and, he believes, underappreciated at the university where she has chosen to work as a lab tech and not as a professor, despite having a PhD.
What he doesn’t realize is that Kit has her lottery winnings, and that not only does she love her job, her friends, her house, and the town of Barden, but that prior to going to college, she never had to the chance to live in any one place for very long, and so her deepest desires are stability and roots.
In fact, Kit has recently purchased an old fixer-upper of a house, and what brings her back into Ben’s orbit isn’t his desire to recruit her, but the draw of Henry’s salvage yard. While Kit is there, Ben helps her browse some antique cabinet handles and hinges, until they are interrupted by Henry’s yells.
A teenaged boy, River, has vandalized Henry’s truck, and Ben catches him, but gently. Ben, who was once a teenage vandal himself, knows how easily things could have gone wrong for him, and could still go wrong for River. So, although the last thing Ben wants is to supervise the boy, he ultimately accepts his dad’s decision to allow River to work off the damage to the vehicle.
All of this impresses Kit, and as her work on the house progresses, she finds herself drawing closer to Ben, Henry, and their salvage yard. She even shows Ben her beloved huge microscope and allows him to pitch to her again. But it isn’t the job she wants, it’s Ben himself, and his desire for her to move to Texas can only stand in the way of their growing connection.
There was much I loved about the first half of this book, beginning with the research that had gone into the characters’ careers, the way they took their careers seriously, and the way those careers were a vital part of the story.
Nor did the novel shy away from what their jobs entailed—in that microscope-showing scene, Kit actually talks about the disadvantages one research method versus another, and Ben loves how into the subject she is. I know a little bit about scientists and while I can’t guarantee that there were no errors in the book, none jumped out at me, a big thing in itself.
There were also some nice descriptive details that helped me visualize the characters and their surroundings. For example, in one scene Kit and her friends sit at a restaurant “on mismatched wooden chairs around a small table that Zoe’s stabilized with a stack of sugar packets.”
I also loved Ben and Kit’s refreshing normalcy. Each had small flaws—in Kit’s case, she felt threatened by the suggestion of any major change, and in Ben’s, he started out with a blind spot about how to prioritize his feelings for Kit vs. his job. But neither of them was any more messed up or angst-ridden than the average person on the street, nor were they too perfect.
Additionally, there was great chemistry between them, and I loved that they were simply allowed to be attracted to each other without immediately jumping each other’s bones. I could see that Ben was drawn not just to Kit’s sweetness, but also to her intelligence, and Kit not just to Ben’s hotness, but even more to his basic decency.
In fact, I liked the first third of this book so much that I was initially reminded of one of my favorite authors of contemporary romance from years past, Kathleen Gilles Seidel. As I have loved some of her books, that is no small compliment.
Despite a few issues with Beginner’s Luck early on, it wasn’t until the second half that enough problems cropped up that my enthusiasm dimmed. I’m afraid the list of issues that I ended up having is rather long, and these drawbacks were a letdown, given all the potential the book displayed in the beginning.
Some things didn’t entirely add up, even early on. For example, it was hard to reconcile Ben’s past as an angry “juvenile delinquent” (his words) with his present because his anger issues in the present were very minor.
Similarly, Kit’s closeness to Zoe and Greer wasn’t entirely convincing because the dots were never connected from the story of how they met to the present day. The most important part of their story—that of how their first encounter, a literal run-in on the street, developed into such a close and powerful friendship—was never provided.
Then, too, the fact that none of the three remembered whose idea it had been to buy the winning lottery ticket seemed absurd to me. How could anyone forget something so life-changing? Besides, wouldn’t one of them have had the ticket in her purse? I could only conclude that it was a contrived device to keep the relationships between the three women from being affected so that they could remain each other’s perfect found family.
Because of these issues with Kit’s friendships, I was much more interested in Ben’s relationships with his dad, his dad’s neighbor, Sharon, his nice but somewhat superficial mom, his slick stepdad, Richard, and with the teenaged River.
Ben’s parents and River were all drawn in an interesting, believable way, so much so that it led me to expect a subplot to be built either around Ben’s relationship with his mom or with River. But the challenges Ben initially faced with them didn’t get developed much in the novel’s second half. Instead, the resolutions to these challenges were rushed, in favor of a closer focus on the romantic relationship.
To be fair, perhaps there was too much going on here for the novel to have room for an additional subplot, because we also got minor conflicts between Kit and her brother, Alex, who had to raise her when they were children, and between Kit and her problematic dad. Neither of these was as meaty as I’d hoped; I wanted more complexity than I got from any of the relationships.
Another problem for me was the dissipation of some of the tension from the story around the middle. Once Ben’s conflict of interest was resolved, the romance became less engaging, making the sexytimes tempting to skim.
My biggest issue, though, was that the black moment in Ben and Kit’s relationship unfolded in a contrived, unlikely way. While I understood Kit and Ben’s reactions, I felt that too many separate things had to go wrong at the exact same time to create the final roadblock to their happiness.
After this point in the story, the novel became cluttered with detailed descriptions of every emotion and related physical sensation that the characters, Ben especially, felt. For a character like Ben, who had been portrayed as a man who sometimes avoided difficult conversations and wasn’t all that self-aware, to narrate his every emotional reaction in such minute, blow-by-blow detail, simply did not fit.
I even had issues with the epilogue:
Spoiler (spoiler): Show
In sum, I felt that too much of what had grounded the novel’s first half—the details about the characters’ jobs and Kit’s home improvement projects, the interesting secondary characters in Ben’s life, the texture of real life—was sacrificed for less credible portrayals in the second half in order to get the reader in the feels. And instead of succeeding in that goal, this strategy backfired.
Still, on the strength of how much I enjoyed the novel’s first half, I am giving Beginner’s Luck a C+/B-.