REVIEW: Under the Surface by Anne Calhoun
Dear Anne Calhoun,
While I had difficulties with the editing of The SEAL’s Rebel Librarian, I did love the excerpt of Under the Surface which appeared in the backmatter and I made grabby hands when the review copy showed up in my inbox.
Set in Lancaster, a fictional city (so far as I can tell) somewhere in the USA, Under the Surface tells the story of Eve Webber, owner/operator of Eye Candy, a bar catering to mainly women, and Detective Matt Dorchester, an undercover cop with the Lancaster PD.
Eve is a PK (preacher’s kid) and Eye Candy is a source of constant disappointment to Eve’s parents. They want her to have a “nice, respectable” job, such as in an insurance company, and to settle down and have babies. Eve’s personal goals are a little more independent. However, having grown up in her parent’s home, she does have a strong sense of civic responsibility. She wants to do her part to clean up Lancaster’s East Side – an area near the docks which is run down and home to little investment other than the drug trade. Self interest plays a part. Eye Candy is on the edge of the East Side and there’s a proposal for a new business park. If it goes ahead, the success of Eye Candy will be assured, along with various other businesses in the area.
When Eve is approached by a Lyle Murphy, man with whom she went to high school, to launder drug money at Eye Candy, she goes straight to the police. She is cautioned not to tell anyone she is working as an informant, trying to take down the Stryker’s drug cartel and Lyle Murphy.
Matt Dorchester is tasked with going undercover as a bartender at Eye Candy. He is “Chad Henderson” and Eve doesn’t know who he really is – Matt’s boss is keeping his cards close to his vest when it comes to Eve – he isn’t 100% sure she is trustworthy.
There is an instant sexual chemistry between “Chad” and Eve. Eve is keen to bang Chad as a method of stress relief. Matt, uncomfortable with lying to Eve given the feelings she arouses in him, tries to put her off and says he wants to “take things slow”. It’s a bit of a gender flip I suppose. Eve actually becomes quite aggressive in her pursuit of Chad/Matt, eventually giving him an ultimatum – have sex with her or she will immediately go out and find someone else who will. On the one hand, it’s nice to see a woman comfortable with her sexual needs and desires and unafraid to go after what she wants. On the other, if the genders were reversed, we’d all be crying foul about the coercion. It made me a little uncomfortable – I couldn’t help but think if Chad/Matt said such a thing, he’d quickly be labelled a douchebag.
The action of the story takes place, mainly, over a period of about three weeks. Therefore, there isn’t a lot of time for Eve and Chad/Matt to fall in love. I was pleased that the revelation of Matt’s actual identity came sooner than I’d feared. This causes its own problems in the budding relationship of course – not surprisingly, Eve doesn’t like being lied to.
Lyle Murphy is a very not nice guy. His actions didn’t always make complete sense to me. I didn’t quite understand why he became so threatening/violent toward Eve who was (as far as he knew) helping him launder drug money. However, I am a sucker for a rescue and Matt does have a couple of opportunities to come to Eve’s aid. Not that Eve is a damsel in distress. She is smart and quick-thinking but she is also not a police officer. I thought it was entirely reasonable she would have a different skill set.
Matt has spent the last however many years bottling up his feelings. He was deployed overseas when the news came that his parents had been killed in a car crash involving a drunk driver. His younger brother, Luke, then 14, was left paraplegic by the same accident. Matt left the military to take care of/raise his brother and soon after coming home to Lancaster, joined the police force. Luke is now 22 and currently under-employed. He recently graduated college with a biology degree but has had trouble finding full time work in his chosen field. Matt has been paying off the medical bills for the last eight years (my impression was there was no end within sight) and he refuses to let Luke help. Matt has basically walled off his feelings. Partly this was his upbringing by a strict and unemotional father and partly it is his reaction to the various stressors and traumas in his life. Being undercover is becoming increasingly difficult for him to cope with. Meeting Eve brings all this to a head.
Eve is as forward emotionally as she is sexually and makes it clear that she is his for the taking if only Matt will open up to her.
I think perhaps I was not in the right reading mood for Under the Surface. I found it easy to put the book down and go and do something else (coughTwittercough) and because of that, my reading experience was a bit disjointed. It’s difficult to say how much of that was the book and how much was just me. At least some of it was just me.
I did have a few disconnects within the story – the ones involving Lyle Murphy as mentioned above and also, getting a handle on Matt. I have said many times that I don’t do subtle well. There were things about Matt which were a bit too subtle for me and it wasn’t until later in the book, when things were spelled out more explicitly, that I really understood him. It may well be that a more continuous reading experience and/or a better sensitivity to subtext/code would have helped me here.
I did like the connection Matt and Eve had and, notwithstanding my discomfort with her initial pursuit of Chad/Matt, I did like Eve too. She is fierce and determined and I have to admire her dedication to her business and to the East Side. I also enjoyed the secondary characters – Eve’s brother, Caleb, Eve’s bar manager and BFF, Nat, and Matt’s police partner, Jo Sorenson. I liked Luke too but I found him a little underdeveloped. I’d have liked more of him. In some ways at least, Luke seemed to me to be there to create another responsibility and tension for Matt rather than being a character in his own right. I think more of Luke would have gone a long way to alleviate that.
I also had a bit of a sad/cringe-laugh at Eve’s mother’s attempted to serve “vegetarian” food to Eve’s dad (who had had a heart attack the year before and whose cholesterol was too high.) It’s fair to say that none of the Webber clan embraced the vegetarian food Mrs. Webber served. It’s also fair to say that most vegetarians wouldn’t have been very impressed either, if you get my drift.
I liked Under the Surface but I did not love it. My first thought for the grade was a B- but I’m conscious that at least part of my response to the book was a discordant reading mood. It happens sometimes but that’s on me. On another week, I’m confident the story would have worked for me a lot better. So I’m going to say a B.