REVIEW: Playing Hurt by Kelly Jamieson
Dear Ms. Jamieson,
Last year I read one of your previous hockey-related books, Slap Shot. I gave it a C+ and noted in my book log that it was readable but lacking in excitement and had “too much emphasis on sex.” The book had a very unusual hero-only narration until the epilogue, but his “voice” wasn’t always convincing as a guy’s.
Anyway, in spite of my less-than-stellar opinion on Slap Shot, I picked up Playing Hurt. I was musing to myself about why I keep reading hockey romances when hockey is actually the Big Four sport I follow the least. I think I may have answered my own question – I feel like I know a little too much about baseball, football and basketball to be drawn to romances set in those sports worlds. Either there would be things that would stick out for me as unrealistic, or I would just have vicarious embarrassment at situations that would feel cheesy or artificial. I tend to stay away from romances that feature celebrities of any kind because they often *do* feel cheesy to me, in a way I can’t quite articulate. It’s like the artificiality of the world the author creates is heightened when the characters aren’t just regular people. It makes it harder for me to get into the story.
That said, Playing Hurt *does* feature a celebrity heroine – Jordyn Banks. Jordyn is a pop star by way of an adolescent run on a Disney-type show. Think Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and/or Selena Gomez without all the public relationship drama and tawdry blind items. Jordyn is wholesome and actually very normal in spite of her profession. She is a big hockey fan; growing up in Chicago, she followed the Chicago Aces, but since she’s been in Los Angeles for years, she’s a fan of their team, the Condors, now. That doesn’t stop her from striking up a Twitter flirtation with Chase Hartman, who plays for the Aces.
Chase is going through a rough patch on the ice. He previously played for a New York team, where he had a bit of a reputation for partying. When he started with the Aces, he cleaned up his act and initially played really well, but he’s been having a hard time lately and doesn’t want to admit that a hand injury may be the reason why. Chase is stressed about his lack of production; he grew up with parents who loved him but gave or withheld their affection and approval based on how he well he performed at hockey. His online interactions with Jordyn are a bright spot for him; he’s long had a crush on her (and he likes her music, too!).
Eventually the two go on a date in Chicago (the result of a Twitter bet that Jordyn loses). They have a great time bowling and doing relatively normal stuff, but at the end of the night, in spite of their strong chemistry, Jordyn makes it pretty clear that this is a one-off.
Nevertheless, when Chase witnesses Jordyn lose her voice in the middle of an awards-show performance on TV, and later hears that her vocal cords have been damaged, he reaches out to her via text several times. Jordyn, stressed and worried about her musical future, ignores him. But when she’s recuperating in Chicago, Jordyn impulsively contacts Chase. That’s when the real romance begins.
There’s a lot to like in Playing Hurt – both Jordyn and Chase were very normal people, in spite of their celebrity. They were almost normal to a fault, actually, in that neither had a great deal of personality, and their issues were pretty minimal, though one in particular does lead to a short estrangement. I liked that Chase wasn’t portrayed as some superman hockey star – he’s a good player and obviously better at hockey than 99.999% of the world, but for the NHL, he’s not a superstar and he’s honestly playing pretty lousy during the period the story takes place in.
I appreciated the subplot regarding Chase’s parents and wouldn’t have minded seeing more about them and Chase’s relationship with them. I like stories with “not terrible, but not great either” parents, because IRL plenty of parents fall in to that category, but in romance usually they are portrayed as either extreme – totally loving and supportive or monsters. Chase’s history really informs the way he approaches his problems in the present, and so I thought that was well done.
I thought the use of Twitter was pretty well done too – it’s another one of those things where if done wrong it feels really cheesy to me, but in Playing Hurt Chase and Jordyn’s start on Twitter felt natural and realistic, as did the public interest in their budding romance (I wasn’t sure why they didn’t take it to DMs sooner, but whatever). The particular pitfalls for celebrities are address when Chase muses:
Social media could be fun and educational, but it could also be dangerous. We were all one bad decision away from being social media pariahs, having our reputations trashed and abuse heaped on us.
Finally, I thought that even though she was young-ish (24?), Jordyn’s sexuality was portrayed as normal, mature and healthy; there wasn’t a lot about past lovers but at least there wasn’t anything suggesting she’d never enjoyed sex before Chase. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to newer romance readers, but to me, who remembers the days of, “then he touched her some weird place she’d never been touched before” it’s still rare enough to be celebrated. I shouldn’t be surprised, because Slap Shot featured a sex-toy designing heroine. I don’t know, maybe I thought that because of Jordyn’s industry there would be extra care taken to not portray her as promiscuous (and she’s not, at all, just to be clear).
(That said, I could’ve done without the seemingly obligatory-for-hockey-romances swipe at “puck bunn[ies].”)
The biggest negative of the book was simply that neither Chase nor Jordyn – or their romance or their problems – interested me that much. I happened to use the same word in my book log blurb to describe Playing Hurt as I’d used to describe Slap Shot. That word is “dull.”
On the one hand, I do appreciate the normalcy and low level conflict – even someone who is into sturm und drang like me does occasionally like a breather. And the two are given enough nuance (especially Chase, with his parental issues) that I feel bad calling them bland. But the characters and the story just lacked that oomph that I need to really enjoy a romance. It’s a bit weird because in another book I would probably say they characters never really came alive or felt real, but that wasn’t really the problem here. I could see Jordyn and Chase as real-life people. Kind of vanilla, likeable but basic, real life people.
My grade for Playing Hurt is a B-.