REVIEW: The Bride by Abigail Barnette
After reading the review of the first two books in the series and seeing that The Boss was still listed for free on Amazon (it still is as I write this), I picked it up in spite of some hesitations. The following may be part-review, part-self-therapy session, as I try to figure out what I like and dislike about this series, and why.
I wouldn’t suggest diving into the series with The Bride, which is book three, though the author does a good job of integrating the backstory fairly seamlessly. Sophie Scaife and Neil Elwood are celebrating Christmas with her family in Michigan. It’s the first time Neil has met Sophie’s mother and her loud and boisterous lower-middle class family, and on the drive from the airport Sophie (who has avoidance issues) has to come clean to Neil on a few things: she hasn’t told her mother that her boyfriend is 49 years old (Sophie is 25), and thus several years older than the mother herself. Nor has she mentioned that he is a billionaire media mogul.
Her mother does know that they’ve spent the last year in England, where Neil has been battling leukemia. She doesn’t know that Neil and Sophie have an intense D/s relationship, but then she doesn’t need to know that. The age and power differential between Neil and Sophie are sure to be enough to make Sophie’s mother hate him on sight.
The meeting is understandably rocky, but by the end of the visit they’ve achieved a fragile peace. After a New Year’s spent in Iceland (meeting Neil’s family) the couple returns to New York and their “real” lives, the lives that were interrupted by Neil’s illness (an illness that has been cured by a successful stem cell transplant, but six months earlier there was a very real possibility that Neil wouldn’t survive). Neil’s return to health is a relief, but Sophie is a bit at loose ends. She’s written a book, a memoir of Neil’s illness that’s about to be published. She’s given an opportunity to audition for a recurring role as a beauty expert on a national morning talk show, a job possibility she’s excited about. But she’s still trying to transition out of the crisis mode she’s been in for the better part of a year, and as Neil settles in back to work with a vengeance, she’s uncertain about the future.
What I like about this book, and this series, so far: I really like the more modern, realistic take on what it means to be a 20-something woman living in the city in the present day. Sophie had the habit, before Neil, of casual affairs and short-term relationships. She smokes pot. She doesn’t want children. She swears a lot. She’s neurotic, she’s not always nice and sweet and concerned about the comfort of others over her own. I don’t read contemporary romances much (I never have) and I know there have been changes in the past several years – a bit more leeway in what’s acceptable in a heroine (and of course, this series is not exactly straightforward romance, anyway). And I also know that not all 20-something women smoke pot and have one-night stands and all that. But it’s nice to have a take on the modern young woman that feels less sanitized and idealized.
In general there are touches, large and small, in the story that add to the feeling of realism. For instance, Sophie comes to realize that one of her issues is how others perceive the age difference between Neil and her, and that she also has hang-ups about his wealth. In other words, she’s defensive about being seen as a gold-digger. Which totally made sense and made her feel real and relatable to me. Another smaller instance of realistic detail – both Neil and Sophie are nervous fliers, Neil especially. It helped humanize him when he was in danger of being almost too perfect in some ways.
Neil’s wealth itself is something that’s niggled at me throughout the series – maybe because the books have a certain grounding in realism, it seems weird that Neil is not just rich, but one of the richest men in the world, a bazillionaire (I think that’s the technical term). It feels over-the-top, and I feel like Neil and Sophie could realistically have had issues related to his wealth without him being quite that ridiculously rich. I particularly didn’t like it when Prince Harry showed up at Neil’s birthday party – stuff like that feels so cheesy to me and I hate it.
(I did like that Neil came from money, because if he was going to be incredibly rich, I thought it was at least more realistic that he started out pretty damn rich. I mean, I never got the sense that he wasn’t a hard worker, smart and good at running companies, but he also wasn’t one of those completely self-made men who are rare in real life and thick on the ground in romance.)
The aftermath of cancer is dealt with in a way that felt realistic. Neil’s physically much better, of course; he’s no longer dying. But there are lingering, maybe permanent consequences of both the cancer and the treatment he underwent to get rid of it. Some of these are superficial, even if they bother Neil: hair gone gray, a slight pot belly. But there’s also a casual mention that he needs to take some sort of Viagra-like pill to get and maintain an erection, which I thought was daring, both considering the fact that he’s already much older than Sophie and the fact that sex is pretty integral to their relationship. Even late in the book, there’s a reference to Neil dealing with PTSD, which I thought made sense and appreciated (clearly the illness wasn’t just a plot point added to create drama).
The biggest negative in this book, and the series, one that keeps me wondering why I continue to read each book: I am not a fan of BDSM, at all. I would go so far as to say that my reaction to the many detailed D/s sex scenes hovered somewhere between boredom and distaste. It’s the latter reaction that is a cause for self-reflection on my part. I have no moral judgments about BDSM; I’m pretty much of the school that says you should do what you want, as long as it’s consensual and you don’t do it in the street and scare the horses (per Alice Roosevelt, I believe).
But while I think a lot of people have that same attitude, I also think most of us have a line somewhere beyond which someone’s sexual behavior is just incomprehensible, and sometimes, icky. I mean, there are plenty of people who find reading about BDSM hot (whether they are interested in participating in it in real life or not), but they wouldn’t want to read about, say, coprophilia. Someone else may feel the same way about anal sex. For me, it’s BDSM. (And coprophilia, definitely. And probably a few other things.)
Paradoxically, perhaps, it doesn’t help that both Sophie and Neil talk openly about what they get out of the interactions; I just couldn’t relate and some of what they say (or that Sophie thinks) felt contradictory to me. For instance, Neil seems to mostly focus on the aspect of being master where he is responsible for all of Sophie’s pleasure. That makes his interest in the role seem more caring and selfless, but the fact is that he doesn’t need to tie Sophie up and physically hurt her in order to see to her pleasure (though I realize that being tied up and hurt is something that gives her pleasure). There’s also a point where Sophie perceives that Neil himself gets genuine pleasure from causing her pain. Sophie doesn’t mind that, but I did. No matter how non-judgmental I think I am, I minded that. I can’t get around the fact that the mindsets of both sadists and masochists are utterly alien to me, and that I don’t really like reading about what they do.
I think the fact that the D/s relationship is part of a relationship that is already unequal in significant ways made it harder to take. I used to be incredibly blase about age differences; probably when I was in my 20s I even found them appealing and titillating in some ways. It may be no surprise that as I got older, I wasn’t as drawn to stories with large age differences between the hero and the heroine. But I’m still pretty okay with them, and in fact it was a detail that intrigued me in the review of the first two books.
But it almost feels to me as if the author goes out of her way to pile on things that will make a reader (well, this reader) a little uncomfortable: the age difference, the D/s relationship, the vast difference in wealth and social standing, the fact that he’s her boss (albeit briefly), and the fact that he has a daughter exactly her age. It was the last detail that was almost too much for me, though I find the relationship between Sophie and Emma to be an interesting one: Emma is resentful and cold at first, but they started to bond over Neil’s illness and almost become like girlfriends. (I guess this is another detail that could make the whole thing squicky, but I like Emma as a character and think she’s a good friend for Sophie.)
I don’t like that Neil is portrayed as being rather over-protective of Emma and that he hates her boyfriend/fiance/husband (they get married in The Bride) Michael. Michael is entirely blameless; he’s a great guy who is great for Emma and loves her, but Neil calls him “Horrible Michael” and freezes him out at every turn. I felt like this was supposed to be cute, but it just came off as hypocritical, given Neil’s own circumstances, and also played for broad comic effect (maybe? that’s my guess because I honestly don’t understand why he’s such an asshole about Michael).
Neil strikes me as entirely too sophisticated, worldly and emotionally mature a character to be such a petty jerk. There’s a development late in The Bride that kind of drops out of nowhere and gives a bit of depth and context to Neil’s concerns about Emma’s marriage (while also throwing a wrench in his relationship with Sophie), but it felt tacked on for drama’s sake.
It’s both a strength and a weakness of the plot of this book (and the previous books, to a lesser degree), that many little issues pop up almost like they would in real life. Again, it gives the books a realistic feeling, but it also can, especially in this book, make the plot feel a little episodic and meandering.
First there’s the meeting-the-families business and the Sophie-television-job business, then the story moves onto Sophie having a big fight with her best friend Holli and them not speaking, and Sophie and Neil buying a huge (and I mean HUGE – 35,000 square feet) home in the Hamptons. Woven throughout, of course, are Emma’s wedding plans, Neil and Sophie getting over the trauma of Neil’s cancer, and lots and lots of sex.
I was interested in the Holli subplot, since I’ve liked Holli in these books, but the way Sophie alternately obsessed over the fight and then forgot about it made it hard for me to care. Also, it seemed a redux of a subplot in book one, involving accusations of corporate espionage, and I ended up feeling that Sophie handled it badly in both cases, though her actions were diametrically opposite in each instance.
I didn’t care for the house-buying subplot, first of all because all my latent red-diaper baby tendencies come out at the idea of TWO people living in a house into which about 15-20 normal-sized houses could fit, and which cost $76 million dollars. It goes back to my dislike of how ridiculously rich Neil is, and I also find myself getting all judgy. Surely you can find SOMETHING better to do with that kind of money than buy a house that allots 17,500 square feet PER PERSON. It passes “ostentatious” and ends up at “gross” for me. Also, part of the subplot is that Neil wants to retire, which again emphasizes the age difference and makes me kind of squeamish. It reminds me that Sophie is going to probably be a very young widow someday, which is kind of depressing and not something I really like to think about when reading romantic books (though Sophie addresses this herself, in a conversation with Neil’s mother late in the book, and I could see her reasoning there – Neil is who she wants to be with, for however long she has with him).
So this is one of those books where my grade is going to end up as an average of the things I liked and the things I didn’t like (as well as the things I both liked and didn’t like at the same time, e.g. the aforementioned realism). I really do like Sophie as a character, and she’s an appealing first-person narrator, even when she’s screwing up.
I think it probably averages out to a B, almost a B+. Honestly, it probably would be a higher grade if their sex life were more conventional, so anybody interested in BDSM and not bothered by the other potential negatives would probably like these books a lot.
P.S. I’ll probably read the fourth book in the series eventually, though the blurb I read doesn’t do much for me. But I’m invested enough in these characters to want to see them to the end.