REVIEW: The Devil You Know by Elizabeth O’Roark
Dear Elizabeth O’Roark,
Last week I reviewed the first two books in your series of contemporary romances, The Devils, in one of my “What Janine is Reading” posts. Book three is my favorite, however, so I wanted to write a full-length review for it. Here is that review.
Gemma and Ben work in the same law firm and are competing to be made partner–shades of Julie James’s book Practice Makes Perfect, except this one is better. Gemma has an antagonism to Ben because she believes he stole one of her clients almost as soon as he joined the firm, but then they are assigned to work on a work discrimination case together and her attraction to him becomes difficult to resist. Eventually they start having sex but Gemma won’t allow it to become anything more serious.
Gemma was burned once dating another lawyer at a firm where she worked, and her dad, also a lawyer, was a terrible husband and father. Her work life is stressful and the (male) partners who run the firm aren’t sensitive to a woman’s position in such an environment, to say the least.
But Gemma is determined to change the system from the inside and make the firm and the cases it takes on more equitable to women. She devotes almost her whole life to work. Her apartment is barren and she has only one indulgence, a collection of expensive shoes. She dreams of a relationship with someone nurturing, a vet or the owner of a Christmas tree farm, and a life straight out of one of the romantic, sentimental Hallmark movies she and her mother watched together when she was young.
Ben is an unknown quantity because the book is narrated in first person present tense almost entirely in Gemma’s POV, but it’s easy to see that he’s into Gemma and that he wants to be part of her life. I could tell he was ambitious and self-confident and sexy, and he puts all his self-confidence and quips into his pursuit of Gemma. He sees things about Gemma that she won’t admit to herself; he knows she would be bored in a small town and that a Christmas tree farmer isn’t her type even if she herself doesn’t want to see it.
Ben doesn’t invite Gemma home or introduce her to his family. Given her past, that makes it difficult for Gemma to (even if she can let go of her Hallmark movie dreams) trust Ben and invite him into her life in a more meaningful way. I wondered what his reasons could be; they’re not revealed until late in the book.
One of the things I loved was that Ben and Gemma are shown doing actual work and they are extremely competent at it which is something I often find sexy in characters. I also loved that Gemma was in no way lesser than Ben in either rank or competency; she was his equal professionally as well as personally.
Each of them admired the other’s brains and skills, which is another thing I find incredibly appealing. They were attuned to things that others around them didn’t notice but they both did. I love it when two people are on the same wavelength to such a degree; it made the chemistry between them sing. The repartee and the chemistry in this book was the best I’ve come across in all the 2022-published books I’ve read so far.
The Devil You Know also touches on workplace discrimination in multiple ways. The client Ben and Gemma represent together brought a complaint of sexual harassment to her company’s HR department and lost her job because of it. Even before that she was discriminated against; it was a sexist workplace. In a great echo of this theme, the law firm where Gemma and Ben work is also discriminatory and icky, so we see these experiences through Gemma’s eyes both ways. It’s the viewpoint of a harassment victim and of a defender/avenger at once, and Ben is angry that she’s being treated that way when he finds out.
Gemma’s views of the world and of Ben are colored by her parents’ divorce when she was young. She was drawn to law because her lawyer father got himself great representation in his divorce case and made sure her mother got nothing, not even custody of her. Now Gemma’s mother works two minimum-wage jobs and refuses to take any financial assistance or big gifts from Gemma.
Gemma’s reluctance to trust Ben is palpable and almost drained me, but in a riveting way. I felt sympathy for how energy-consuming fear, distrust and vulnerability can be, especially when motivated by a painful past. Given everything that Gemma had been through her feelings were understandable and I didn’t get impatient with her. I really did love her, she was so ambitious, smart and capable. She didn’t need the law firm to make it and she didn’t need a vet of Christmas Tree farm to be happy, but she did need to understand that the way Ben did.
I loved the motif about the sentimental Hallmark movies; Gemma and her mom watched them together and bonded over them. And at first Gemma wasn’t able to exchange that ideal for a relationship with more friction. The author does such creative and great things with this daydream motif, but I don’t want to spoil the surprises.
Gemma’s love for luxury-item shoes was another clever motif. It’s a great contrast to her mother’s poverty and to the barren starkness of Gemma’s apartment. It’s as if Gemma won’t give herself almost anything because her mother won’t take anything, but she does allow herself this one indulgence. In a way, the shoes stand for the part of Gemma that hasn’t given up on happiness, the part that knows that she deserves good things. And Ben is so turned on by those shoes and in addition to the hotness of that, it also parallels the ways he understand her needs.
There are some flaws in the book. The last paragraph of every chapter ends with a riff on Gemma’s fear of getting her heart broken, and that technique gets a little repetitive after a while.
A couple of the reveals about Ben as well as one or two big gestures late in the book were over the top. Every one of the things Gemma saw as red flags about him turned out to have good explanations but some of those explanations were a little contrived. This was easy to forgive, though, because the book had many other strengths.
The Hallmark movie motif, great as it was, was also a little hard to buy at first—would a big city lawyer in her upper twenties really imagine that kind of life existed anywhere? But I suspended disbelief because I liked what how surprising and funny the things that resulted from it were.
In general, I felt this book gave me more emotional highs and lows than the other two books in the series. I like this kind of exhilarating roller coaster ride, so for me that was a big plus.
I was going to give it a B+ but I’ve talked myself into a B+/A- as I’ve written down my thoughts. Excluding The View was Exhausting, which I only read very recently, I haven’t read such a great m/f contemporary in years. It’s definitely going on my Best of 2022 list.
PS to readers: Each of the first three books in the series stands on its own pretty well. I was advised to start with book two or three and I’m happy I did (I might not have continued if I had started with the first), so I’m passing that advice to you.
PPS: Book four is out now and I plan to review it soon.