Dueling Review, Rant

Dueling Review: Hot Under His Collar by Andie J. Christopher (2021)

The Nolans, Book #3

Review of The Nolans, Book #1

No one would ‘fess up to actually requesting the ARC of this book, so we decided to read it together! (Also, the last time we read a priest book together it went really well!!!!)

Welcome to Dueling Reviews: More Priests for Everyone Edition!

Let’s start by all giving our overall rating for the book:

Holly

Heat Factor: The scene where she masturbates in the bar was pretty hot, but otherwise it’s nothing to write home about.

Character Chemistry: They really want to bone, but they can’t.

Plot: Sasha has the hots for a priest. Patrick is a priest, but has the hots for Sasha. Angst ensues. 

Overall: Honestly, the priest bit was the least infuriating part of this book (and the priest bit was pretty darn annoying).

Erin

Heat Factor: The cloud of shame over the sex really cast a pall on everything that went on.

Character Chemistry: Mostly based on them separately processing their naughty feelings.

Plot: Catholic guilt + disillusionment with Catholic doctrine

Overall: This book probably succeeds on the “processing Catholic identity as a progressive” front, but that didn’t necessarily make for a super satisfying romance.

Ingrid

Heat Factor: It’s got some hot bits, especially if you like things really forbidden.

Character Chemistry: They’ve already been swooning after each other before the story starts.

Plot: Everyone wants what they oughtn’t have.

Overall: It’s pretty classic and it certainly had an engaging plot, but I did feel like the end could have been more satisfying.


Let’s begin with the cover, because it got a lot of chatter when it came out. How do you read the cover, and how well do you think it reflects the content of the book?

Ingrid: Lecherous eyebrow and that skeeves me out. I thought he was supposed to be not a skeevy priest.

Holly: Also, why is she so tiny and sitting on his shoulder? Is she supposed to be the evil demon tempting him away from righteousness? Is she supported by him? Is she lesser than he is? I have so many questions, and I guess I have many questions about this book, but they are not the same ones. So I’m going to go with: no, it does not reflect the contents of the book. 

Erin: It starts out that they’ve already met and are already really attracted to each other, so it just jumps right into angsty, and the cover is designed to be pretty playful, with his quirked eyebrow (that totally is actually a weird smirk that isn’t cute—I can agree with lecherous as an adjective), and with her perched as the little devil on his shoulder (I did not think about this as intently as Holly, apparently), but this book is not playful, like, at all.

Can we talk about Sasha? What did you think of her as a character?

Ingrid: I don’t think that this book has the gold standard of moral character anywhere. 

Erin: Both Sasha and Patrick in different ways reflected the Catholic experience—but the experience where there’s a struggle with aspects of the faith. Sasha is a recovering Catholic with a toxic family. She is super whiney and never takes ownership of anything in her life. And she’s in an undeniably scary and emotionally upsetting position: fall in line or lose her family. The characterization made sense, but I didn’t find her likeable. 

Holly: I am usually all about unlikeable heroines, but I found Sasha’s particular path mish-mosh of self-pity and self-delusion really off-putting. 

Did you buy Patrick’s path to ordination, and his path away from the priesthood?

Ingrid: I was worried about reading another book about a priest, but I thought his path was handled well. I felt better about it because he was already moving away from priesthood before he started falling for Sasha. He is struggling with his job: he likes showing up for the parishioners, but not the rites and the bureaucracy. 

Erin: Patrick as a character is better than Sasha as a character. The characterization as it exists makes sense. His extremely devout mother died, and her dying wish was that one of her sons join the priesthood. And he found solace in the ritual when he was deep in grieving. It makes sense for a 20 year old who’s grieving and very religious to slot himself into the priesthood. 

But his struggle is that he has a progressive belief system that is hard to reconcile with the teachings of the Catholic church, so where’s his place?

Holly: My struggle with his journey is that he never grappled with his identity as a Catholic (rather than as a priest). What was his relationship with God at the end? Would he still attend mass? Or had he given up on the whole thing? 

Was this a believable love story?

Ingrid: What I struggled with right off the bat is that they were basically openly admitting that they were compatible as friends because they had corresponding wounds. This girl has been in therapy for five years and she and her therapist haven’t had a discussion about prodding her long-standing wounds to see if they still hurt. So she starts spending time with this guy, and it’s basically just prodding those boo-boos. He’s very self-aware but he knows full well he’s got some stuff going on stemming from his mother’s death and the betrayal of his first real love. The things that they have in common just don’t sound very healthy and I had hoped for this to evolve more. 

Erin: My hangup about the love story is there is a lot of internal processing: “I want this but I can’t have it.”

Ingrid: They chew on things alone, like an emotional cow’s stomach, just regurgitating and regurgitating.

Erin: They don’t do a whole lot of talking, and then – BAM – there’s the grand gesture. The grand gesture pissed me off, too. Not just because I actively dislike grand gestures, but because I didn’t think he should have been the one to make the gesture, and I don’t think what he said reflected his real reasons for leaving the church.

Ingrid: And it becomes a real problem because she’s always saying that she always wants what she can’t have but they never have that conversation. So the big moment doesn’t stick because it clearly shows they aren’t on the same page.

Erin: IS this book significantly different from other romances where the characters don’t talk to each other and then make big life decisions? Maybe no. But because of the forbidden priest aspect, a lot of what they wanted was taboo so they couldn’t talk about it openly. … They can have sex in a bar, but they can’t actually talk about what’s going on between them. 

What are the politics of this book? Is it feminist?

Erin: I want to talk about how sex-shamey this book is. I do not think that there was a single sexually charged interaction that was not covered in a fog of shame. Even when he’s laicized and they’re having sex, her parents walk in on them and she’s shamed by her parents. 

Holly: But I feel like, given the archetype and the situation, it makes sense that sex would be shrouded in shame. 

Ingrid: It was like they were naughty kids sneaking around. From a character perspective, that kind of sexual attitude makes sense for Patrick. If we’re talking about dating and emotional development, Patrick basically skipped his 20s, so he went from teens/new adult to ten years later, in his 30s having sex again. He hadn’t had the opportunity to work through his shame feelings. Take the scene where his watch gets tangled in her hair, and she cuts it off, and then he puts a lot of meaning onto that and feels extremely guilty. Any words could have been exchanged in the moment, but they weren’t. I would be traumatized too, by her abruptly cutting her hair. And the way she’s approaching the relationship is kind of short sighted and involves very few (if any) mature conversations about what they want from each other and if it’s even a good idea to try to get that outcome.

Holly: The sex-shaming is certainly one aspect of the politics of this book, but I wanted to talk bigger picture. Because the text is explicitly positing itself as progressive and feminist, but I felt like it…wasn’t.

Ingrid: That’s because it wasn’t. 

Erin: Patrick is basically using his position to (arguably) effect what change he can from within, while Sasha has left the church, but they’re both operating as they are because they don’t agree with (all of) the church’s teachings. So the fact that they don’t ignore all the deeply conservative and exclusive and patriarchal and controlling components of Catholicism is progressive. This ties back to Holly’s comment above that Patrick doesn’t really come to terms with how he feels about Catholicism—there are many ways that Patrick could have a life of service that are not tied to the Catholic Church at all, so if he really wants to be progressive, why is he there?

Holly: Even beyond the Catholicism, which is arguably at least meaty and complicated. I’m talking about: Patrick has white savior stuff going on with the pre-K program. (But also, that pre-K program that they spent the whole book having bake sales for is absolutely toast as soon as Patrick leaves, so I guess he doesn’t care all that much about those poor brown kids.) Sasha talks about how she’s so feminist, but the biggest insult she can think of is to call another woman basic.

Ingrid: Patrick puts out there that he’s feminist and woke, but neither Patrick nor Sasha are walking the walk. I felt like they kept saying how they felt about these current issues as if they were progressive, but when pushed they fold pretty quickly. Like, Patrick is baptizing the children of same-sex couples but admits he’s going to do it as long as he can get away with it. But then what does he think he’s going to do? And Sasha’s sister brings up their privilege and alludes that they’ve discussed this before…

Holly: And instead of actually engaging, Sasha calls her sister a Karen. She’s Twitter woke.

Ingrid: Exactly, and she just ignores it. It’s very superficial. They understand that some things are just and right, but their actual choices aren’t reflecting that. There’s not that commitment to actually being better people. And to me, it was really blatant because it was used as a way of posturing herself as being different from her family. 

I (Holly) posit that Sasha, who lies to herself all the time, is an unreliable narrator. First, do you buy that analysis of her character? And second, and more importantly, do you think that unreliable narration is a literary technique that works with delivering a satisfying romance? 

Holly: Ok, some background. I was completely and utterly irritated by this book, and in particular, by Sasha’s complete lack of consistency. Now look, I am ok with characters being messy, or with them changing their minds about things, but this was next level. 

There’s a scene where her sister tells her off, and then Sasha tells her therapist about it—inaccurately. So we know that she’s not reliable in relating her own circumstances to someone else. And we also know that she is in therapy because she lies to herself (and others) to smooth the path. Should we therefore take nothing she says to herself, when we’re in her POV at face value? I argue that we should. 

However, this happened at least ⅔ into the book, and I was not about to reread all the infuriating nonsense to confirm whether this had been going on, and, more importantly, whether this reading makes for a richer experience. 

Instead, I decided to ask you guys. And…GO!

Ingrid: The therapist thing is interesting. There are bits in here that indicate that she’s really bought into this narrative about who she is, and these things slip out when she’s in therapy or discussing her time in therapy. She has a story that she relates about who she is, but it’s not accurate. The issues that you have are not who you are. You say “I want what I can’t have.” You’re saying this is who I am, not, this is who I was, but I’m working on being better and trying to be happier. 

Erin: Patrick has more angst but he does process things more thoughtfully and intentionally. He’s gonna blow up his entire life. He’ll be a laicized priest forever, and that’s scandalous. Ultimately he’s really having to embrace the choice that he’s making in a responsible way and acknowledging that he’s choosing to be authentic. 

Ingrid: Patrick—”I jumped into this because I was looking for signs that these were the right decisions.” He has removed himself from the story and is self-reflecting here. But Sasha is still in the narrative and isn’t examining it. But Sasha says, “I want what I can’t have.” She uses the present tense, rather than saying “I’ve always wanted what I can’t have and I’m trying to see where that has led me.” I thought it was deliberate because it’s such a close-cut parallel. 

Holly: Ok, but can we trust what Sasha is telling us, the readers? And does this make for a good or better romance experience? Because I don’t think I’ve ever read a romance where I can’t trust what one of the protagonists is saying about how they feel. Even with emotionally constipated alpha heroes, where the hero clearly has feelings but can only articulate it as jealousy or irritation or whatever, their perspective on what is actually happening isn’t really called into question the way I thought it was here. 

Ingrid: The reason this is a problem in the romance novel is that if one of the characters believes something about the relationship that isn’t actually true, and they’re looking at everything through this false lens, well—you know that eventually, they can take the lens off. And all of sudden, it’s not true love, because the people in the relationship weren’t being their authentic selves. The HEA is gone because it’s not real. 

Erin: She was inconsistent all the way through. She has all these feelings about using Nathan as a dating crutch, and then she gets really upset when he makes his confession, like she was invested in the relationship. 

Ingrid: But Patrick is married to God!

Erin: The whole thing with Patrick essentially boiled down to “We’re not really cheating if we just…” Nathan in no way gets that treatment.

Ingrid: They met at a wedding, everyone there would know if Nathan wasn’t separated. He was a groomsman! As the planner, Sasha would definitely know if he had a plus one. Unreliable. 

Erin: She also yells at Patrick for stringing her along, but it takes two to tango. They are both in a space where they are doing that “there’s chemistry here, but we really shouldn’t, but it’s also inevitable” dance, and if either one of them truly walked away, that would disappear.

Ingrid: After the bar masturbation scene, she calls him multiple times. And he’s ignoring her calls. (And then she says he strung her along.) 

Erin: Those aspects of unreliability were indeed annoying. 

I voluntarily read and reviewed a complimentary copy of this book. All thoughts and opinions are my own. We disclose this in accordance with 16 CFR §255.


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