Heat Factor: It’s hot and a bit gritty.
Character Chemistry: It’s very much like the sleeve of cookies in my cupboard at 9:30pm–we know better, we know it’s not going to feel good tonight, and we know we’ll regret it tomorrow, but do we eat the cookies anyway? We do.
Plot: Jane and Gabriel meet at a museum and are instantly and deeply aflame–even though Jane stubbornly leads Gabriel on a teasing chase. Gabriel insists they are lovers who have connected and failed to secure their future together over and over throughout the years, and it’s hard to tell if they’ll manage to end up together this time around.
Overall: This was a DNF for complicated reasons that I will happily elaborate on below.
So, I’d ALMOST call this smut-adjacent. Make no mistake, this book is romantic and the plot revolves around a love story–but in Romancelandia, there are some unspoken rules about what constitutes a romance, and I think this one lives in a very grey area (which brings up a lot of really interesting discussion points!).
In this book, Jane is a college drop-out working at a bookstore when she and her best friend meet Gabriel, a Renaissance-type artist who lives in a mansion with other Renaissance-type artists in a sort of wealthy group adhering to a core code of beliefs. Gabriel is adamant that he and Jane have met in many lifetimes, over and over again, failing to find their happiness together and each time ending in great tragedy. In the meantime, Jane becomes close with the mansion’s owner, Will, who is Gabriel’s polar opposite. So. There’s the tone.
First, as a broken record, I must state my theory that a romance novel’s plot MUST in some way feature people struggling together and separately to become better versions of themselves in order to achieve a future together. This leads into the very firm Romance rule that our books end in a HEA/HFN. In this book, I’m not sure the conflict in the plot supports that theory.
To start, the conflict in this book is two-fold. On the one hand, Jane and Gabriel have the challenge of trying to figure out if they’re going to break the reincarnation chain of depressing outcomes. It’s kind of suggested that in these lifetimes, Jane seems to be choosing the “safe option”, and Gabriel is NOT the safe option. So, I am under the impression that perhaps given Jane’s background and that plot point, choosing Gabriel is the leap of faith needed to achieve that alternate ending. However, Jane seems happier with Will, and she doesn’t seem to be fully sold on the reincarnation deal. Gabriel seems to be pushing that idea very hard, and I’m not seeing them united on that front. And on the other hand, Jane and Gabriel have a very tumultuous relationship compared to her budding relationship with Will. Frankly, Will is kinder, steadier, more thoughtful, more accepting. He’s patient with her and gentle. He appreciates her zest for life and doesn’t mind her near-constant boundary pushing. So frankly, the HEA/HFN I want is with Jane and Will.
And here’s another very interesting debate I had with myself during this book: do the characters have to be inherently likeable in a romance novel? The conclusion I came to is no, absolutely not. Examples of this being done successfully can be seen in tropes like “morality chain”, “grumpy/sunshine”, or even “dark romance”. I’ve seen characters do unsavory things, say terribly cruel things, push boundaries, etc and have still deeply enjoyed reading the story. But I think the key here is that the unlikeable characters must have some thread of hope or light–they can’t be unrepentantly cruel or unapologetically amoral, and if the character does bump along that line the readers have to see some contextual clues that the character will change or soften as a result of the blossoming romance. The overall impression we get is that the characters are better people together than they are apart–that they bring out the best in one another.
That’s simply not the case in this book. Jane is impulsive and loud and lives her life very much on a knife’s edge–she likes seeing what she can get away with and how far she can push people. But she’s also very patient and caring, so she’s more likeable at her core than Gabriel. Gabriel…let’s just say I would not be happy dating him or seeing anyone I cared about dating him. He’s manipulative, self-absorbed, impulsive, and he’s just flat out not very…polite. I don’t know how else to put it. From their first meeting, he’s pushing Jane and her friend into things they’re not comfortable with. He is not truthful. My opinion of his character slipped beyond saving when at a party, he drunkenly sleeps with Jane’s best friend–who is stumbling drunk, naive and inexperienced because of traumatic life events, dabbling with being in love with him, a virgin, and when pressed on whether she wants to continue, says “yes” but as a question. It honestly felt more than a little squicky. If this were the only horrible thing he does, I’d look at it as a very messy base point (which often leads to a very satisfying conclusion!). But alas, right before I stopped reading Jane and Gabriel go to a wedding I think is supposed to be very humorous–but Jane gets terribly drunk and both of them behave absolutely abysmally. Granted, the bride is painted as being a bit of a bridezilla, but–Gabriel neighs like a horse whenever they see Jane’s ex’s new girlfriend. He loudly insults the food and orders pizza. Jane and Gabriel make a bet surrounded by a group of people and the prize is a blow job. The best man’s toast is also pretty inappropriate, and it’s set up as if Jane and Gabriel have unleashed chaos and it’s spreading. It’s at best off-color, but at the wedding of someone she’s supposed to care about? It shows that actually, Jane and Gabriel bring out the WORST in each other. They forget to think about how their actions impact other people. They prioritize whatever current lark is the most fun over their long-term relationships with others.
I ended up reading more to see if I was being unfairly harsh about my opinion of the main characters, only to see that Jane and Gabriel fly to London to support sweet Will at the funeral of his beloved grandfather, where after Jane has said over and over that Gabriel is NOT to flaunt their relationship, (Ok, Jane, you’re cheating on Will with Gabriel. Let’s just call a spade a spade.) Gabriel tries to share Jane’s room at Will’s house and BREAKS INTO THE ROOM WHILE JANE IS ON A SLEEPING PILL AND TRIES TO SLEEP WITH HER AFTER SHE CLEARLY SHUTS HIM DOWN MULTIPLE TIMES.
And as they say, that’s all folks. I was done.
Look, relationships are all different, and there’s no rule that says that a couple has to become boring and staid when they “settle down”. But there are basic hallmarks of a healthy relationship, and one of them is respect. It’s exhausting in real life to watch someone you care about flounder around in a relationship with someone who just constantly pushes boundaries like it’s a sport that can be won or lost, and it’s exhausting to read about. Jane with Will was thoughtful, considerate, calm…peaceful. Jane with Gabriel was snide, uncaring, impulsive, damaging…chaos. I didn’t WANT them to end up together. I could absolutely see why being together destroyed Jane over and over, reincarnation after reincarnation, throughout history.
And that’s really why I think this could be considered smut-adjacent. I didn’t finish it, because when I closed the book at 70% I realized that even if something crazy happened with the plot and the author delivered Jane and Gabriel and it worked–I had spent so long feeling grumbly about their relationship that I wouldn’t be able to really trust that the change was real. I was never going to be Team Gabriel. In addition, even if it flipped and Jane ended up with Will–by that point she’d been so dishonest and unreliable, I wasn’t sure I wanted HER with Will.
HOWEVER. The writing is good. The scenes at the mansion were vivid and gripping. It was fun to have a playlist included with each chapter. I was curious about the other residents of the mansion. Not all books have to end in a HEA/HFN. Not all main characters have to bring out the best in each other–the book can have really edgy, messy main characters who stir up chaos and cause a lot of trouble and somehow need to be together for a moment yet shouldn’t end up together, but…then it isn’t a romance novel. It’s a novel. A gritty, boundary-pushing, existential novel. Thus, while I do hope to see more from this author in the future–I would be more intrigued if I saw her titles in the general fiction section.
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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