Review of On the Brink of Passion

On the Brink of Passion by Tamsen Parker. Swerve. 2018.

3.75 stars

on the brink of passionThe first book in this series is my favorite, and this one came close to matching it for me, and would have beat it out were it not for the ending.

The sports aspect of this story is one of the strongest pieces about it, and is one of the best things about this series in general. I’ve gotten into sports romance only recently, and this series has been working quite well for me on that level. This book was the most satisfying to me in this regard, which is partly because it centers MCs who are doing the same sport and as a team. Yes, they still have competitive drive, but they are working together, and managing the ups and downs of their relationship in the process. Plus it’s a sport I know better than the others in the series (or in most sports romances I’ve read), which made it easier for me to picture what was going on, and get revved up about the moments when they were competing.

I appreciate the range of pairings in this series, something I wish was part of more romance series. This series includes m/f, m/m, and f/f romances, and while they are loosely connected, they also work as stand alone stories.

It started out looking like it was going to be a tropetastic romance playing with forced proximity, dare-based competitive sex, and melting ice queen tropes, in a rather lighthearted way, but it cracks open to reveal a story that’s actually full of angst, with an intense central grief arc. I liked that bait and switch aspect of it, though I was caught off guard, but I also like both kinds of stories, and enjoy that kind of twisty turny thing. Parker is very good at hooking me as a reader, and getting me to care about the characters, and this book delivers that way. I cared about both the MCs so much, my heart bled for them.

The sex in the book is unusual, in that much of it is, well, bad. It’s got several scenes centering sex that include clear verbal consent but no enthusiasm, participation, or pleasure. I found these scenes uncomfortable and rather incomprehensible from the hero’s POV, and was relieved when he drew boundaries around this eventually. These scenes made more sense from the heroine’s POV, but they felt mostly like self harm. It was difficult to read about, and I’m still wondering if it needed to be described in such detail to get the narrative arc to work. As a survivor, these scenes hurt to read, from either POV. They weighed down the story, and made it difficult for me to root for them as a couple. I was brought around to that in the last third of the book, but this wasn’t an easy journey. I’m impressed that Parker got me to root for them.

I appreciated seeing Beck agonize over these scenes, trying to honor what the heroine said she wanted, what she seemed to need, and how she acted (all of which conflicted), and struggling to parse what was going on and how he should act. He cared so deeply about her consent and well being and pleasure, and that’s part of what made me fall for him. I also adored that he was just gone over her, both because of her tremendous strength and will and because of her vulnerability. I was glad when he honored how the sex made him feel, and how wrong it felt for him, and drew the boundaries that he needed for himself.

I also really appreciated the way he honored her boundaries throughout the book. This is one of the few m/f romances I’ve read where there’s a separation and it doesn’t somehow justify a John Cusack kind of stalking and coercion (e.g. Say Anything, High Fidelity, Grosse Pointe Blank) to get the heroine back. It really stood out, how much he honored her no’s and yeses in the story, and that he cared so much about not overstepping. My kind of hero.

I liked Jubilee so much, her emotional armor and her adorable pajamas and her determination as an athlete. She was caught in a chaotic whirlwind of traumatic grief and fear and trying to make it through that the best ways she knew how. I felt for her, and all the ways she was stuck and struggling, and was really charmed by the inadvertent sweet moments between them. I loved that she intervened when he was being sexually harassed, and I really enjoyed reading about them skating from her POV.

This romance mostly worked really well for me, in pacing and characterization, and the complexities that it grappled with, and the sports competition arc was gripping. It had so much going for it. And then I got to the chapter where the conflict is resolved and we see the HFN. (Which becomes an HEA in the epilogue.)

I was troubled by the resolution of the conflict, and I really wished that it had been resolved in a different way. I wanted her to have a BFF who would call her on her behavior and kick her butt and help her to see that she wanted to take a risk even though she was scared, and support her in figuring out how to go after what she wanted. I would also have gladly taken a therapist doing that, or a relative, or all of them together.

I don’t think there’s a way to talk about the issues I had with the resolution without spoilers, so highlight to read. Jubilee is deeply afraid to let herself be in another relationship because of her traumatic grief from the sudden death of her husband/skating partner, of an aneurysm. Beck gets scans of his brain done to prove to her that he is not at risk of an aneurysm, and offers to get a full range of tests to prove he has no health problems or risk of sudden death. This is the beginning of the conversation that results in her deciding to risk a relationship with him. (One where he also points out that he could still get hit by a bus, there are no guarantees.) I get that she’s terrified of losing someone she loves again, but this thing where he decides to prove to her that he has no health problems, and that being the thing that convinces her…it felt awful to read, as a disabled reader with multiple chronic illnesses and PTSD. It was this terrible gut punch, that this is the thing that convinced her, that he was required to be in perfect health in order for her to give him a chance, that he of course felt certain of his perfect health as the key that would get her to open up and take the risk. It was a slap in the face that her traumatic reaction and the phobia that came from it would be resolved so easily. That’s not how trauma works. There are no long term guarantees of continued health, and even if there were, it should not take “proof” of health for the person you want to be with, to try a relationship with you. This is a deeply ableist resolution to a story that was actually handling traumatic grief and risk of disability and disfigurement quite well up until that point.

I think fans of The Cutting Edge might really appreciate some aspects of this romance between couples skating partners, featuring an ice queen heroine. I don’t think this book is for everyone, as the reviews I’ve read reflect; folks had concerns about the tone, the heaviness in the story, and the way the sex scenes worked. I didn’t mind the shift in tone towards angst and a grief arc. I struggled a bit with the sex scenes but was generally enjoying the pacing, the arc, the characters, the competitive sports element quite a lot, and it was this ableist ending that didn’t work for me. That said, I did like much of the book a great deal, and it is one of my favorites in the series.

Representation

  • Heroine dealing with traumatic grief

Content Warnings (in white, highlight to read)

The heroine is a widow, and her traumatic grief at the loss of her husband is a huge part of the story. Sexual harassment, which gets challenged. On the page sex, including detailed descriptions of sex that includes verbal consent but no enthusiasm, participation, or pleasure. References to queer hating comments in the past. References to disfiguring injuries in the past. Ableism embedded in the resolution of the romance arc. 

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via Netgalley
  • I have had Twitter conversations with the author.

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