REVIEW: The Inside Track by Tamsen Parker
Dear Tamsen Parker,
When I first ‘met’ Nick Fischer he’s standing naked in a fountain playing an accordion he’s
stolen borrowed from a nearby restaurant. So I wasn’t really sure about him at first, I’ll admit. But very quickly, he won me over. He’s a lovable oversized puppydog of a man with a heart of gold and poor impulse control. There were times he overwhelmed me but his charms did outweigh my occasional reservations and I ended up being very much #TeamNick.
Nick is the rhythm guitarist in rock band License to Game; the last of the guys to find his HEA. He’s feeling a bit left out as the other guys are busy with their partners and very loved up. His buddies in the band help keep him out of trouble (they’ve known each other since they were kids) but left to his own devices he ends up playing Lawrence Welk’s accordion in a fountain. Naked.
The upshot of the naked display of musicianship is some community service, which he does by addressing a gymnasium full of students at a high school for the performing arts, on the topic of financial responsibility. Really.
It was about at this point that Nick started to crack me up. His stream of consciousness narrative was hilarious.
Mrs. Billings covers her eyes, and I feel a pinprick of guilt but it’s gone sooner than the pain of a needle. When’s the last time I had a tetanus shot? I mean, what if I’d stepped on something sharp in that fountain? I’m sure people break bottles in that thing all the time. I could have gangrene right now. Or be dead. Wait, is gangrene the thing where your foot turns black and then it falls off or is it scurvy? They both sound like diseases pirates get. Scurvy’s the one you get if you don’t get enough citrus. Man, I could go for a lemonade right about now.
I keep my arms tight across my chest and let my heel drub on the floor which Mrs. Billings gives me a look for, but dude, she’s lucky I’m sitting down and still have most of my clothes on. Anyone can tell you that’s not a guarantee.
I think I was supposed to laugh but I there were times I felt bad about it.
After the first couple of chapters I tweeted that I was enjoying the book very much but that I’m not sure I could cope with Nick in real life. That’s when I felt bad. Because Nick felt so real to me I felt guilty for rejecting the fictional him from my actual space. And because Nick doesn’t exist just for my entertainment. (Except fictional Nick probably does. Sort of. But somewhere there’s probably a real Nick I suppose.)
Nick has ADHD which Google tells me is a behavior disorder or a learning difference (I wanted to get the terminology right so I hope Google didn’t steer me wrong). He gets easily distracted except when he’s playing music, or perhaps video games – he can do either for hours on end without noticing the time pass. He’s not great about thinking things through or being organised. He is fortunate to have boatloads of money and a really supportive family and group of friends, as well as reliable employees (his housekeeper, Magda, being one). He freely admits that his wealth and fame make life immeasurably easier for him; what would be completely unacceptable in a regular person is, for him, quirky and funny and the usual weirdness of a celebrity/rock star. And he can afford to have people picking up after him and organising things for him and reminding him to do things.
The Inside Track is told in the alternating first person POV of Nick and the heroine, Dempsey Lawrence. One of the common complaints I see about dual POV first person is that there can be not a lot of difference in the narrative characterisation; that is, it’s hard to tell just from the text whose brain the reader is in. That is not an issue here. Sure, by the end, Nick’s personality rubs off a little on Dempsey but she is a very different person to Nick and there’s no mistaking just who is telling the story at any given time.
The little packet in my hands is well-designed and glossy, and I try to read it instead of scratching my foot. Don’t think about your foot, Fischer. Except that’s like telling people not to think about the elephant in the room. It’s all anyone can think about. Where did that expression come from, anyway? Because I can’t imagine there are all that many rooms that’ve had elephants in them. Like circus tents, sure, but rooms? There can’t be many doors that are big enough to let an elephant through. Maybe a baby elephant. Aw, man, how cool would it be to have a baby elephant? But that’s probably against the zoning for my house. Which is too bad because that would so get me laid. Like, “Hey, girl, wanna come back to my place and see my baby elephant? That’s not a euphemism.”
That would be awesome.
I am extremely cautious about who I let into my home. Hell, about who I let know where my home is. Some people I can’t help—if I want food delivered, I need to tell them where to deliver it. But for the most part, I am perfectly happy being a presence on the internet and not in reality at all. It is somewhat extraordinary for me to let a stranger into my home, but Nick doesn’t feel so much like a stranger anymore.
Dempsey has her own challenges, albeit very different to Nick’s. Dempsey is a former child/teen star, having been in a TV show which I imagine to be a little like Dawson’s Creek. She was never comfortable with fame and developed crippling anxiety. Her parents, happy with the money she was earning, were unsympathetic and pushed her to continue, to her detriment. Her parents were really shitty people and failed to look after her in many ways.
There is brief and fairly vague mention of some sexual encounters Dempsey had during that time frame which she describes:
“…I don’t know if I’m allowed to call it rape? I definitely slept with guys I didn’t want to. I don’t remember saying no, but I also don’t remember saying yes. So it wasn’t violent, but it was…”
Eventually, Dempsey’s career tanked and she ended up in rehab and then she couldn’t get a job. Her anxiety increased to the point where she became agoraphobic. At the time the book commences, Dempsey hasn’t left her house in five years.
She Skypes into the financial responsibility seminar and Nick, smitten at first sight, calls her later, using the number on the handout she provided. Despite her better judgement, she allows herself to strike up a friendship with Nick and then more.
She thinks that as soon as he finds out about her agoraphobia he will run, not walk, out the door. Besides, how could she, with her circumscribed world keep Nick happy? But oh, he is a bright spark in her life. He is joy and laughter and freshness and she’s attracted even while she’s thinking she’s a moth and he’s the flame.
I’ll be honest, when I realised the dynamic, I wondered how you were going to pull of the HEA. He’s bigger than life and she doesn’t leave the house? And in other books where this kind of dynamic has been in place it’s true that what often happens is that there are significant changes in the characters. I wasn’t sure you could do it in the time left in the book. But you did something else. And it surprised me even more. You changed me. Because I really didn’t think it could work. But I spent time with Nick and his way of seeing things – often unique – opened my eyes to a different kind of HEA. One that works perfectly for them (and totally fits all the genre requirements – there’s most definitely at HEA.) This next comment might be a spoiler so I’ll put it under a tag just in case.
Nick isn’t at all intimidated by Dempsey’s agoraphobia. He’s very accepting.
“Look, I don’t know a whole lot about this stuff, but isn’t part of mental illness being impaired or dissatisfied? I feel like you’re neither of those things. If you want help and there is literally any way I can help you, I will. But if you’re cool, I’m cool.”
“I mean, I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but I have some pretty serious issues with impulse control and my brain acts like the New York City subway system during rush hour. And some other shit. Some people aren’t okay with those things. They get sick of me pretty fast, and I get it. My buddies, though? They make sure I’m safe and that I don’t fuck up super-bad, but overall they seem to think I’m okay how I am. That’s what friends do.”
He finds ways to bring the outside in to Dempsey’s house, to share his out-in-the-world life with her in ways that work for her. And sometimes, in ways that don’t. And therein lies the conflict in the book.
There were some things I’d have liked to have seen on page. For example, when Dempsey met Nick’s family (he is one of NINE children), and a little more of her interacting with the other members of License to Game. But for the most part, I just really loved this book. I liked both Dempsey and Nick. It’s true I’ve spent the lion’s share of this review talking up Nick but Dempsey is pretty special too.
I loved her body confidence and her sexual confidence. I liked how she had deliberately shaped her world to enable her to live as fully as she could comfortably do. There’s a bit where she talks about how she could use the same amount of energy just leaving the house, but she chooses instead to build her business helping celebrities (and kids in particular) be financially secure and protected from people who will try and rip them off. She’s not unhappy when she meets Nick. She’s also not resigned to things always being the same. It felt like she had good boundaries for herself rather than limiting herself, if that makes sense.
Dempsey is described once in the text by Nick, as “plump” and that’s about it for description of her size/shape. Nick loves her body just like it is. He’s turned on by her from the start and thinks she’s sexy AF. Dempsey is obviously content with her body. Her narrative is one of confidence in her size and shape and I loved that about her. She’s not a timid woman. She’s agoraphobic and has anxiety but she is well able to advocate for herself and she’s not shy. Nick, for his part, recognises those things in Dempsey and adores them about her. He never sees her as less than. And because he didn’t, it made it easier for me to see her that way as well. Perhaps I would not have without him.
Sometimes Nick’s impulsive behaviors made me cringe, particularly when I considered how Dempsey might react to them. But I liked how they worked things out eventually. I liked very much that they defined their HEA on their terms, in ways that worked for them.
If that wasn’t enough, Nick has an 50lb English bulldog with a giant head called Princess Fiona and he dresses her up. There’s one scene where she’s in a Wonder Woman outfit complete with gauntlets! She was completely adorable and Nick was completely adorable with her. You can tell a lot about a guy by the way he treats animals and Nick’s devotion to Fiona was delightful. And Fiona adopted Dempsey pretty quickly too so they were obviously meant to be a family.
I suspect that some readers may struggle a little with Nick’s unique mannerisms and over-the-top personality. He reminded me a little of Mal from Play (by Kylie Scott) but on steroids and I know that Mal was too much for some readers. So he won’t be for everyone (and that’s fine of course). But I adored him. And for all that he made me laugh and was endlessly entertaining, I think what I liked most about him was his complete acceptance of Dempsey.