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!