by Lisa Kleypas, paranormal (2013, reissue)
St Martin's Press, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-312-60593-3
Crystal Cove may be part of Lisa Kleypas's Friday Harbor series, but it veers into magic territory. Still, it conforms easily into the "heroine, a rich hero, a nice place by the beach or on an island" tableau that women's fiction and romance both cannot do without.
Justine Hoffman is all-around awesome, like every single romance heroine the author has written lately, except for the few token flaws designed to create some pouting and sexual healing. In this case, she is the daughter of a witch, but she prefers to live the life of a normal gal, running an inn and doing housework like every paragon of femininity should be, and this makes her mother (the usual control freak bitch character, the better to blame all the heroine's issues on) not happy at all.
At any rate, Justine's woe is that she can't seem to find a nice guy to settle down with. Sure, there are guys to get down with, but settling down is a different story. She discovers strong indications that there is a geas on her that prevents her from finding love, so she decides to break it with the help of the family spell book, although there would most likely be consequences.
Meanwhile, the hero Jason Black shows up in town. He's a game designer, maybe one from Mars since he lives like a billionaire with his own entourage while working without liaising with an army of artists, animators, venture capitalists, writers, marketers, and various stakeholders like people working for a real life game studio tend to do. All that matters is that he is loaded, and he is very creepy. For example, he has Justine's background checked up just because he's going to stay at her boutique hotel, right down to how many affairs she's had in the past. Why? This is what masterful arrogant romance heroes do, I guess, and Lisa Kleypas can always be counted on to dance to the tune of tropes that work.
And then Jason wonders when Justine is yakking away, whether she realizes that he "could have crushed her" if he chose to while she is talking away, so it's lucky that he likes to see her mouth move. Seriously, what kind of guy thinks like this? I know there are many stories about the anti-social behavior of guys associated with video games in general, but this one is more like psycho penis waiting to kill everybody.
Then again, Justine is just as bizarre in her behavior. Before Jason has even warmed the sheets of his bed properly, she is inviting him to a game of truth or dare. I don't know why, maybe she does this to all the creepy guys that pay for a room at her place? Some kind of weird "going beyond the call of duty" school of hospitality management, I guess? And then she threatens to sue him if he touches her. She invites a guy to play truth or dare with her, and... what does she expect? For him to respectfully recite a few humble stanzas about the beauty of her breasts?
Fortunately, the story gets better after the awkward, awkward first third or so of the book, although I think the author may want to skip the whole shibari thing the next time. While I have nothing against fun stuff in the bedroom involving props and creative positioning of one's body, the whole thing feels like the author is just trying a bit too hard to be hardcore and edgy like those revolutionary sexual guerrillas EL James and Sylvia Day, and the end result is like watching the housewife next door suddenly writhing naked on the patio in her backyard while licking a hammer and screaming for the milk delivery guy to come in like a wrecking ball. It's total "put that away, girlfriend, nobody wants to see that" material.
The good stuff comes in the almost Practical Magic-like portrayal of love and loss in the larger than life magical manner reminiscent of that book written by Alice Hoffman when she was in a rare optimistic and romantic mood. There are some beautiful, haunting speech and monologues that I can't help being affected by, and I find myself pausing to reread those scenes a few times, just to savor the lyrical grace of these moments, before moving on with the story.
It's too bad that these moments are wrapped up in unimaginative clichéd elements. Justine is a boring character, her issues are standard romance heroine with bitch mother baggage, and the hero never deviates from following pointlessly the handbook of predictable arrogant romance hero behavior right down to his action in the climatic moment. I do like the fact that he has no soul and how this leads to some anguished declarations of forever and what not, but outside of those pretty moments, he is just another mule without a context. The heroine's closest witch companions mention that Jason still has emotions despite having no soul, so this absence of a soul isn't a good explanation of his weird and random psychotic bouts of alpha male moments.
I mean, thinking of "crushing" the manager of the hotel he is staying at - what kind of behavior is this? I can understand the bouts of sexual harassment if Jason is a stereotypical "I have never touched a living woman... until I made enough money to buy her services by the hour!" male that is constantly associated with the gaming industry, but he is depicted as another standard dark and brooding billionaire stereotype. So what's his damage? What's his problem? Jason's alpha mule without a cause act is one of the biggest issues keeping me from fully getting into this story.
At the end of the day, Crystal Cove is a story with pretty moments, haunting ones, but they are few in number compared to the more predictable plot elements that end up working against the beauty of the story. One of the magnificent reasons why Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic works for me is the fact that the author danced to her own beat, never afraid of showing both the ugly and beautiful aspects of love. Lisa Kleypas, however, never strays even a foot from the well-trodden path, and the end result is a story that wants to fly, but can't even begin to flap its wings.
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