REVIEW: The Love Coupon by Ainslie Paton
Disclaimer: I’m friendly with the author online, we talk often on Twitter, and I’ve met her a few times. She’s the kind of author who wouldn’t stop speaking to me if I didn’t like her books and I’m comfortable giving my honest opinion (else I wouldn’t review her work) but, it’s something DA readers might throw into the mix when considering the review below.
Dear Ainslie Paton,
I read and enjoyed book one of your Stubborn Hearts series, The Love Experiment last year, so I didn’t hesitate when I had the chance to review the second book, The Love Coupon. Also set in Chicago, this story focuses less on reporters and more on PR professionals and lobbyists (in this case, Tom O’Connell and Felicity (“Flick”) Dalgetty respectively). Derelie and Jack make a cameo appearance at the beginning but apart from a few mentions they don’t feature. The Love Coupon can easily be read as a stand alone.
Tom works at a large multinational marketing/PR company, Rendel Public Affairs. He’s in line for a big promotion – the one he’s been waiting for for years. It’s just about within his grasp. But until the promotion comes through, he’s a bit tight for money after his former roommate (and colleague) left for China to work in Rendel’s office there. He could use a temporary boarder but he’s fairly rigid and set in his ways. He doesn’t want just anyone sharing his space. (I feel you Tom. I feel you.)
Flick Dalgetty has just won her dream job as a lobbyist for not-for-profit in Washington DC. She has to work out her three months’ notice at her current job and can’t renew her lease (which is due) short term. So she’s looking for somewhere temporary to stay.
Flick is about as opposite from Tom as one can get. He’s tall and broad and big, buttoned-up and tightly controlled. Flick is petite and messy and spontaneous. Tom is terrified of her. She will mess up his beloved order. So it is with some surprised dismay that he finds himself agreeing to Flick moving in – under strict conditions which involve her never leaving her stuff lying around and as little interaction as possible. Certainly there should be no glitter on the designer sectional. Or dancing on the coffee table.
Flick has a tattoo on her ribs. It says “I make it happen.” And she does. Tom is just along for the ride. She’s the roller coaster he never knew he needed, never knew he enjoyed. But it takes a while for him to unbend enough to admit it, to himself, to her.
The coupons of the title don’t actually come into play until about halfway through the book. First there is some push-pull as Flick and Tom navigate their way as new roommates. Then there is the push-pull as the undeniable chemistry between them burns hot. Tom knows it’s a bad idea but Flick doesn’t seem to care about that. Their first kiss had just a touch of coercion about it. Flick was pushing and pushing (she does that) and Tom was saying no. She cajoles, she teases, she dares, she tempts. As it happens, Tom desperately wants to kiss Flick. He just doesn’t want to give himself permission to do it. It’s obvious in the story that’s what’s happening but at the same time, I still noted that Flick didn’t stop at Tom’s initial no. If the gender roles were reversed here I think the concept of Tom knowing better than Flick did what she wanted would be a little problematic. There’s really no difference when it’s Flick doing the knowing. Perhaps the difference is that Tom could easily have put a stop to it. He’s bigger and stronger than Flick. He’s no shy wallflower. He has more power in the situation because he’s the landlord and she’s the tenant. And, to Flick’s credit, the coercion (if that’s what it was) stopped there. She can be pushy but beyond that first kiss between them, she was well away from crossing any lines about consent and this was made explicit in the book.
I laughed out loud at their early conversation about their (fictional) Tinder bios.
“…I figure you have a Tinder profile. No shirtless pic. No image-softening animals. You’re wearing shades. No, I know, it’s an action shot. You’re riding a mechanical bull and your tagline says, ‘I’m Thomas, and I cuddle at the level that should require a subscription.’ No, wait, no, it’s ‘treat you like a Disney princess on the streets and a porn princess between the sheets.’ Or, or, ‘whenever I meet a pretty girl, the first thing I look for is intelligence, because if she doesn’t have that, she’s mine.’”
Not even a snicker. He took a cake server from the drawer and cut into the pie, plated two huge slices then spooned ice cream on them. “It’s ‘pizza is my second favorite thing to eat in bed.’”
Flick is provocative and provoking. And Tom is so rigidly stuck in his well-developed ruts he doesn’t quite know what to do with her. One of the issues with Tom is that he’s a big guy and he’s worried about accidentally using his size (or appearing to use his size) against a woman in a sexual situation. Flick is no shrinking violet though and encourages him to let go. It’s not an easy thing for Tom. The first time they have sex the plan is for it to be a one-time thing. But that’s kind of like me saying I’m only going to have one slice of cake. Never gonna happen. Still, they stutter and start again a few times because Tom has trouble colouring outside the lines. He needs a plan and structure. Flick doesn’t so much ignore the lines as draw her own. Hence the coupons. Thirty days of coupons, some of which are sexual, some of which are entirely innocuous, some could go either way, where Tom can be spontaneous and fun but there’s fine print to follow. Rules. An end date. The day after the 30 days is up, Flick is leaving for Washington.
During the course of those 30 days they become more than roommates with benefits. They find where their physical chemistry fits in, whether they like each other as people and not just as sex partners.
Flick bowled like she lived. She learned the rules, she got expert at interpreting them. She knew when she could break them and get away with it and she never held back. She took professional and personal risks without being reckless.
Tom had bowled like it meant something to lose and so he’d been cautious, restrained. It was uncomfortable to acknowledge he’d been living like that too. He’d gotten complacent with his success and conservative in his choices, more concerned about not losing his status than pushing himself.
They each learn some things about themselves as well. And, they fall in love.
It’s complicated because Tom’s career path means he will stay in Chicago. And Flick is going to Washington. Both work long hours and a long-distance relationship is destined to fizzle. Neither wants to disrespect their connection like that.
The story has an overtly feminist tone as well. Tom is a fairly woke kind of guy but even he learns more about gender disparity from Flick.
He had no right to question her choices, but the anger he felt wasn’t only for Flick, it was for all women who had to play by different rules to be in the same game, and for how little he’d recognized that.
“…Women do the same work and often get paid less, need to be twice as good as the nearest average male to be promoted and rarely ever get a shot at a job we’re not already qualified for.”
“I thought I was. Women get promoted on actual merits and proven capability. Nothing wrong with that, but men get promoted on potential. We have to fit a job, fill out all its corners, have solid experience in all its highs and lows. Men get to grow into it.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you.”
“You’ve gone all granite boulder.”
“I’ve been the beneficiary of the way the system works, Josh too, and Wren has been the victim and yeah, it makes me tense. I can’t single-handedly change it from where I am, but if I was MD, then I could’ve made sure Rendel’s Michigan office was a level playing field.”
One of the coupons is “dress me for work” and in doing so Tom is overwhelmed by all the things Flick has to think about and decide upon before she leaves the house in order to be perceived the way that will work for her. And how easy it is for him. Also, he demonstrates how well he pays attention.
“The pearls on the silver chain. The earrings like silver buttons. You have a pearl thing you sometimes put in your hair. You should put your hair up that way you do with it all neat in front and messy at the back. I like the perfume that smells of oranges and when you do whatever it is that makes your eyelashes look a thousand feet long and your eyes hold all the answers.”
“You think I have all the answers when my eyes are made up?”
“I think you have most of them when they’re not.”
*swoon* I ask you, who wouldn’t find a man who paid that much attention attractive?
There are a lot of other things in the book which could be unpacked at length. I cried over Flick’s grief when she finds out a person she loves is very ill. I liked the nuance of Flick’s backstory. What it appeared to have been from an outsider’s perspective and what it actually was. I felt for her over the continued tension between her and her hanger-on family. Flick came from the working poor. Her parents and her siblings are still there. She got out and they resent her for it. But it doesn’t stop them tapping her like a cash machine and making unreasonable demands. Flick feels her own guilt and sense of responsibility. There are no easy answers in that kind of situation and I expect there are echoes of that kind of thing in many families in one way or another. In terms of complaints about the book, this brings me to the main one: Flick seemed to resolve this remarkably quickly and easily. Perhaps it was that you sold too well how challenging her family situation was. Perhaps it was that the conversation with her mother happened off page. Yes, the text says that Flick is sure there will be more to be done but she seemed so sanguine about it and that was the part I didn’t quite buy. I didn’t see her get from where she was to that space.
I have also discovered that I personally prefer “tit” or “tits” to be used sparingly in relation to breasts. In Tom’s POV sections, he tends to think only in those terms and it didn’t always work for me. I noted it particularly because the rest of the intimacies they shared did. They were hot and sexy at times, tender and caring at others, sometimes funny and affectionate, sometimes messy and earthy, with carefully chosen words which painted a picture of deep connection.
I won’t spoil the story and say why, but I loved the way it ended. It was exactly right. I could not have been satisfied any other way. You laid all the groundwork and it all made sense but I wasn’t sure right up until the end that the right choice would be made. Thank you.
I liked The Love Experiment. I think The Love Coupon is better. The cover perhaps suggests it’s a book of sparkly rainbows; a light and fluffy romcom. It isn’t. It certainly has moments of humour and it’s by no means an uber-angsty read. But it is substantive and the relationship between Flick and Tom is complicated and deeper than the cover suggests. The coupons don’t come into the story until the halfway mark because it’s not really a book about coupons. It’s not a “I have seven sexy things I’d like to try, will you please help me” kind of book (no that there is anything at all wrong with that kind of book – I have enjoyed many of them and expect I will again). But The Love Coupon has a different tone and readers may want to know that going in so they can calibrate their expectations. The novel also has a somewhat edgier vibe to it than I’m used to from your books. Perhaps that’s the relative youth of the protagonists, or their industry or both, or something else altogether. Whatever the reason, I loved. it.