REVIEW: Pipe Dreams by Sarina Bowen
Dear Sarina Bowen:
When I finished the second book in the Brooklyn Bruisers series, I’ll admit that I was hoping the excerpt at the end would indicate that book three would be about Becca and Nate. Instead, it featured Lauren Williams, Nate’s frosty assistant, and Mike Beacon, the Bruiser’s goalie. Lauren had been an intriguing ice-princess character in the first two books, making brief appearances to declaim on her disdain for hockey. Mike had not made much of an impression on me though; I did a search of book two and did see he was mentioned, mostly during the hockey-playing scenes. So I went into Pipe Dreams with no particularly strong expectations (the way I would/will when we get Nate and Becca’s book!).
Lauren Williams is in hell. An injury to one of her boss’ key assistants on the Bruisers has her temporarily moved from his Manhattan office to Brooklyn, to support the team while they are in the playoffs. Once upon a time Lauren had worked for the Bruisers and loved hockey. She grew up with the game – her father was the team’s general manager at one point, before Nate fired him. But after her romance with team goalie Mike Beacon imploded, Lauren swore off everything hockey related and has focused on finishing her bachelor’s degree and working her way up the ladder at Kattenberger Technologies in Manhattan.
Lauren and Mike have a history that goes back over a decade – when they first met, she had just started working in the team’s office, then in Long Island, and he was the new goalie for the Bruisers. Mike was married with a young daughter; he had gotten his high school girlfriend pregnant and “done the right thing.” Mike and Lauren were “friends” for eight years when he caught his wife cheating and moved out. He waited a very brief time after that before he went to see Lauren and they fell into bed; from then on they were a couple.
I say “friends” because, clearly, Lauren and Mike were attracted to each other, possibly in love, and possibly having an emotional affair before he broke up with his wife. I found this slightly disturbing; both a little unsavory and troubling for reasons I’ll get to in a bit.
Anyway, Mike and Lauren are together for two blissful years, and talking about moving in together, when Mike finds out that his soon-to-be-ex-wife (I guess the divorce process took a while? I’m not sure why since they don’t appear to have been hugely contentious, but whatever) is terminally ill. He again “does the right thing”, drops Lauren, and moves back in to support his wife and daughter.
For some reason I found the timeline of this book confusing. I don’t know why I needed to know the exact amount of time that Lauren and Mike had known each other, but it was bugging me and I kept having to add it up. I think it goes: 12 years (which seems like such a long time!) from first meeting to present day. The first eight years, they’re friends and he’s married. Then they are together two years. I think it takes about a year from the break up until Mike’s wife dies. Then another year of him being a widower, during which time he doesn’t really see Lauren since she left the team and transferred to Manhattan. Throw in my confusion about when Nate bought the team (sometime in the middle of their romance? towards the end of it? I’m not sure) and moved the team from Long Island to Brooklyn. None of this is hugely central to the story but, again, for some reason I kept running it through in my head. I feel better getting it down here. :-)
Anyway, Lauren is back with the team, temporarily and reluctantly. She’s very wary of Mike but seeing her makes him decide that he wants her back. His attitude bugged me; he realizes that he devastated Lauren but it doesn’t seem to bother him overmuch. There’s a lot about their relationship and communication that I just didn’t understand, or that didn’t make sense to me.
This gets to my earlier point about being bothered (on a couple of fronts) about their eight-year flirtation while he was married and really the whole relationship from start to finish. I get it; Mike was married. He wasn’t going to leave his wife for Lauren and he apparently wasn’t going to work on his marriage, so he just sat around until his wife conveniently gave him an out. Then he and Lauren are happy, but his wife’s illness interferes with that and Mike handles it inexplicably badly, as detailed in this discussion with his teammate:
“So, uh, nobody knew how sick Shelly was when I left Lauren.”
“Except for Lauren, right?” O’Doul asked.
He shook his head slowly.
O’Doul’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t tell her Shelly was terminal? That’s insane.”
“Is it? I had to take a wrecking ball to all our plans either way. I didn’t want to make her feel sorry for me.”
“You wanted her to….hate you instead?”
Yes. “Not exactly. But I had a choice – I could either be a martyr or an asshole. I thought it would be easier to get over the asshole than the martyr. And I wanted what was best for her.”
Look. I understand that some allowances need to be made for romance-novel conflict. Maybe it’s that I’ve gotten less patient with those allowances in recent years. But the reason that Mike breaks up with Lauren makes little sense to me. It’s not like his ex was in love with him anymore. He could have worked it out, if everyone was honest and straightforward and mature about their needs and their feelings. It might’ve been tough, it might even have resulted in a break-up eventually, but at least it wouldn’t have been so…dumb. I mean, his stated reason is that he didn’t want the love of his life to feel sorry for him. That’s just dumb.
Then, Mike apparently doesn’t think much about Lauren until he comes back into contact with her during the playoffs. It almost feels like a case of out of sight, out of mind. There may have been some lip service to the idea that he realizes from Lauren’s reaction to him that she hasn’t moved on, and that spurs him to try to get her back. I really don’t remember, honestly. But either way, these are two deeply passive people. They wait for Shelly to cheat so they can get together. Then they wait until they are thrown together again by chance to start speaking to each other. Mike is largely responsible for this, but Lauren has a part too – she didn’t seem to do much during their eight year friendship to refocus her energies on other relationships, rather than a crush on an unattainable (or so it appeared at the time) man. She didn’t do much to deal with her disappointment and bitterness after Mike dumps her – she has a few flings (small appreciation to the rare lovers-united romance where the heroine has sex with other people during their time apart but the hero doesn’t), but that’s it.
I know a lot of readers love lovers-reunited stories but they can be tricky for me. Mike and Lauren have wasted a lot of time. Maybe the first eight years were unavoidable – Mike didn’t have it in him to dump his wife, essentially for another woman, or to fix his marriage, if it was fixable. But the last two…sigh. I mean, the conflict was just so unnecessary and felt shallow, which feels weird to say when it involved a young woman dying tragically. But it felt contrived, and that was highlighted by Mike’s at times annoyingly flip and cocky attitude towards getting back together with Lauren. He pays lip service to understanding how much he hurt her, but it never felt real to me. Lauren, is, understandably, a bit slower to warm up to the idea of getting back together, but even she doesn’t put up much of a fight.
The entire series so far has been marked by a lack of h/h conflict. In the first book, the h/h had been together as teenagers and broke up after the heroine was raped. In that case, I didn’t mind their six-year separation so much (they were so young that it felt like some time apart wasn’t the worst thing). I did mind that instead of making the conflict really about the heroine’s rape and the pain and confusion that grew out of it, the breakup felt more like the result of a misunderstanding; one honest conversation would have cleared things up. In the second book, the hero has Big Issues that disappear partway through the story for no real reason that I could understand. In this book, the hero making a bit more of an effort to hold onto the supposed love of his life would have meant no separation. I appreciate low-conflict romances at times but I don’t like it when the story is set up for a conflict that fizzles.
There were things to like about Pipe Dreams – Mike’s relationship with his tween daughter Elsa and his friendship with Elsa’s music teacher/manny Hans were both well done. I liked that Lauren was honest with Mike about the flak she got for their relationship and its fallout (Mike hadn’t apparently been aware that there was even gossip). Both characters are likable and (mostly) sympathetic. In terms of readability, this is a B-, maybe even a B. But my annoyance with the contrived separation and the fact that there’s no deeper understanding on the hero’s part of why he made the choices he did and what impact it really had on the heroine slips Pipe Dreams down to a C+.
P.S. STILL looking forward to Nate and Becca’s book!
Umm, wtf? I get “supporting his [ex]-wife and daughter” during his terminal illness, but why on earth does such “support” mean he has to break up with his current girlfriend?
I mean, I can see how a (nasty and selfish) gf might object to him spending time with his ex, even under these circumstances, but Lauren wasn’t even told? What, did this “support” mean that he had to have sex with the ex (while she was dying? Ick!) ? Couldn’t he just, I dunno, provide financial aid and time and emotional presence? Maybe let the girlfriend — the “love of his life” — spend some time with the child who was likely to become her step-daughter?
Sheesh, the more I think about it, the stupider and more contrived this set-up gets.
Yeah, the set up was dumb and Mike never gets, not really, that what he did was awful and childish. He just sees Lauren again, decides they should be together, and shoves himself into her life plan. Considering how much she was an ice queen in the other book, which I loved, she gives in over and over. There was so much natural angst left untapped in this story, especially with Mike’s daughter. Overall though, I found the story dull and skipped through a lot of it.
Thought provoking review. I was talking about the 2nd chance at love trope somewhere else recently and yeah, it’s not usually a trope I enjoy (although like everything, if it’s done well, I’ll read it and love it). And one of my problems is that unless the h/h broke up in high school / college and went on to have full lives before reconnecting as adults it’s really hard for me to get over the damage that they did to each other previously. And the fact that this damage could have been avoided by IDK, acting like a decent human being – blergh.
@hapax: Did he have sex with the ex after leaving Lauren? I didn’t think so, but I might be wrong. It was just so poorly handled by Mike; I found that hard to get over (it was harder for me than for Lauren!).
@Issa: Yeah, I really liked his daughter and his relationship with her but I felt that there could have been more; again, that’s kind of been my issue with the series. Light is fine; I enjoy the occasional light romance! But light treatment of heavy themes makes me grind my teeth.
@cleo: Yeah, I still remember a Rachel Gibson book I read years ago where the lovers reunite after 15 years and the hero finds out that the daughter the heroine had with his best friend (I think?) – her dead husband – is actually his daughter. I just find it so incredibly heavy to have not just people who should be together (going by romanceland standards) waste 15 YEARS apart, but then throw in a man not seeing his child grow up…ugh. I’m not saying you can’t write a successful romance with that storyline, but IMO it’d be a very heavy, serious, angsty romance, with a lot of conflict and perhaps an overall bittersweet tone.
@Jennie: I haven’t read the book, and certainly won’t after this fine review. I was just speculating on what he could have POSSIBLY had in mind to make it necessary to dump Lauren as part of helping his ex?
Great review. I haven’t read Pipe Dreams but have some thoughts anyway. In addition to agreeing with you on Mike’s actions when he learned that his soon-to-be ex-wife was ill, I’m also baffled by Mike’s behavior in the eight years leading up to his wife’s infidelity. If he was having an emotional affair with Lauren that whole time, why did he drag it out like that? IMO he should have either left his wife or else quit flirting with Lauren and gotten some marriage counseling. To keep an emotional affair going for eight years isn’t really fair to either of the women. At some point you need to shit or get off the pot. Did Lauren date anyone else during this time?
I think if the emotional affair had lasted only a year or two, I would be much more on board with that part of the setup.
@hapax: It really wasn’t clear. That was part of the problem. Mike seemed to think that he *needed* to do this but he didn’t clearly articulate why. It made little sense.
@Janine: Maybe that was why I was so obsessed with the (overly long, IMO) timeline. If for some reason the author felt like she needed to have had Mike and Lauren know each other that long, I think it would’ve been better if she maybe was also in a long-term relationship and they really were just friends with maybe a hint that there was an attraction (really just a hint because anything more feels vaguely adulterous). But really it was clear from the few scenes before they got together and the characters’ thoughts that they were pretty much already in love while he was married to his wife. I thought it was distasteful and the attempt to mitigate it by having the wife cheat was sort of obvious. (Also, I don’t remember Lauren dating during that period; again, there’s a reference to her having some flings in the time between their first relationship and their getting back together).
Thanks for a fine review! OMG! I would have hated that book!
@Jennie: Based on your description, I can’t really blame Mike’s wife for cheating, Her husband was having an emotional affair for EIGHT YEARS; it would be natural to feel unloved and vulnerable to another man’s advances in such a situation.
On another topic, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bowen is saving Nate and Becca for last, since it was implied in the first book that Nate had some kind of ulterior matchmaking motive for the way he built the team’s organization.
@Janine: It’s presented more like Mike’s wife was unhappy as a hockey wife, though the story didn’t really go into why (maybe the travel was mentioned? I could see that being an issue).
I think the underlying issue was that they had married too young, and only married because she was pregnant. I would’ve liked it better if the various mistakes had been more explicitly regretted: getting married, staying in an unhappy marriage, leaving Lauren to care for the sick wife (when it wasn’t really necessary to leave her at all). Instead these were sort of presented as virtues; examples of Mike being a stand-up guy.
What I’m wondering now is – why did the ex not object to Mike dumping Lauren? I mean, I guess she was dying and had other concerns but I’d still think she would perhaps be the voice of reason. It’s just another reason that the conflict didn’t really make sense to me in the first place.
I don’t know how many more books are planned; I would expect Nate and Becca to be last but some of their romance is clearly concurrent with the events in this book, as they’re observed together and I think maybe there’s a scene where it’s clear they shared the same hotel room. I really am interested in them as characters and hope their book works better for me.
That sounds like something I would find frustrating because it is important to me for the characters, or at least the text, to acknowledge their mistakes. But I wonder if the consideration was that presenting Mike as a virtuous, stand-up guy for doing these things was better than presenting him as mistake-prone / bumbling or inconsiderate of both his wife and Lauren?
No matter what angle you look at it from, this decision doesn’t make much sense. I don’t understand why his wife would want Mike back after his eight year emotional affair, her infidelity, and his leaving her to be with Lauren. Was there a reason given?
Mike’s decision to do this is also confusing to someone who hasn’t read the book. Maybe he wanted to move back in with his wife and daughter so he could be there for his child, or be there if his wife needed some kind of care? But as a hockey player, wouldn’t he have been traveling a lot anyway? And he could afford to hire other people to be there and to call him the minute anything happened whether or not he got back with his wife.
My impression was that Mike moved back in with his wife because of his daughter. She needed stability, the ex-wife needed support (hard to single-parent when you have terminal cancer) and her parents were pretty awful, and so Mike moving back in seemed like a good solution. And no, they didn’t sleep together after he came back.
I do think they could have come up with a more creative solution that worked for everyone if they had thought about it for longer and included others in their decisions, but I can actually see why this seemed liked the obvious plan. And with everyone feeling traumatised and upset, I could absolutely see why people were not making ideal decisions.
(Though having said that, I thought Mike and Lauren had been together for a shorter time. Two years makes it weirder.)
I didn’t love this book, but I actually could see why Mike made the decisions he did.
@Catherine Heloise: Yeah, his daughter was obviously a big consideration. The fact remains (at least in my mind) that it simply wasn’t necessary and was a bad way to go about things.
Maybe I could accept the idea that the whole situation was so traumatic that Mike wasn’t thinking clearly, but I would have liked it, then, if this was made more explicitly clear. I feel like the book took sort of a wishy-washy attitude towards Mike’s actions – in the section I quoted above, it seems clear that a person outside the situation disapproved of Mike’s actions. But I didn’t feel like Mike himself repented them that much – he just sort of focused on getting Lauren back and didn’t dwell on the past or deal with their previous break-up. And while I thought Lauren gave some thought to whether she could trust Mike again, her thoughts didn’t seem to focus specifically on whether he’d changed and whether he understood the mistakes he’d made.