Review of Fumbled

Fumbled by Alexa Martin. Berkeley. 2019.

Content Warnings for review: Discussion of ableism and internalized ableism. Brief references to misogyny, cissexism, queer antagonism, anti-sex work sentiment. Brief discussion of stalking, hero’s controlling behavior.

Note: I do not recommend this book to disabled readers.

Fumbled by Alexa MartinI wanted to read this because I enjoyed Intercepted and was looking forward to another book in the series. This one also had a strong voice for the heroine, some great friendships, and a soapy feel, with a striking illustrated cover. Unfortunately, this book didn’t work for me nearly as well, for a number of reasons.

This is a second chance football romance with a secret baby trope. Ten years after they became estranged, they meet again, and the sparks are very much still there. But now she is a single mom and wants nothing to do with him. The initial set up worked for me, tropewise, but as things began to unfold, the plot kept building on itself in a way that didn’t work for me, structurally. There were so many different antagonists it was hard to track, and as the story went on, it really felt like the determined, no nonsense heroine who really knows what she wants and owns her complex mixed feelings got rather lost underneath all of the things that were happening to her, and was buried by them for much of the story.

That kind of story can work for me if it really makes me feel connected to the heroine, but I wasn’t as invested in her or in the romance as I need to be for that to work, in this case. I found myself struggling with the fact that the antagonists were overwhelmingly other women, that there was so much harassment and stalking going on throughout the story but it wasn’t really taken seriously (which is hard for me as a survivor reader), and I had a hard time with the lesbian jokes, cissexism, slut shaming, misogyny and anti-sex work sentiment in the story. (These are things I generally struggle with in romances; they are not uncommon, and not worse in this story than they are in other similar romances.)

I also had a harder time with the rescue storyline in this book vs the one in Intercepted, and I think partly it was because the stalking went on for most of the story and it didn’t seem like the heroine actually felt in danger or worried about her child’s safety, but also because it felt like the hero was in general more controlling and seemed to think he got to just make decisions for all of them in a way that really got my back up and that it felt like he thought was perfectly okay. I really didn’t understand what she saw in the hero, beyond finding him physically attractive and having sexual chemistry with him.

That said, where it went off the rails for me completely was in the way it approached CTE. There are a number of sports romances grappling with CTE in recent years (as contact sports are grappling with it in life more openly and more research is coming out about it), and I’ve read five at this point (Fumbled, Hard Knocks, Swagger, The Right Swipe, and Imaginary Lines). Many of these stories approach the subject from the framework that having CTE is tantamount to a death sentence and will destroy your life and the life of anyone you choose to partner with, and that in general, potential partners would be better off if you chose to be alone instead. This is a rather simplified framework for understanding a workplace risk of disability and for understanding how brain injuries work, and it feels like it’s coming from a deeply ableist place, to me.

A deeply ableist place that is rather common across representation of other disabilities in genre romance, I might add. One that draws from one of the most pervasive societal ableist lies, that disabled folks are simply and solely a burden, and potential partners would be better off without us. This lie is often treated as fact in genre romance about disabled folks, or presented as a deeply held belief on the part of an abled partner who learns to accept a disabled partner over time (an acceptance romance), or presented as deeply held internalized ableism that the disabled partner eventually comes to realize is not true and they do deserve love in this one miraculous particular case where they find an able partner who does really want to be with them and will choose them and teach them to love themself (a self acceptance romance).

This book doesn’t go the acceptance or self acceptance route. It digs in to the belief that CTE is a destructive force and will harm your family and loved ones, that they would be better off without you if you have or are in a profession that risks acquiring this disability, particularly as it is likely to worsen or progress. This is at the root of the central conflict in the romance arc, and pretty much the entire story hinges on it.

Had I known that going in, I would not have picked up this book in the first place, as I already know that a story built on that sort of ableist belief is not for me. These stories feel awful to read, as a disabled reader, particularly because they fold so easily into societal ableism around disabled people not being worth or deserving of love or care or the kind of partnership we might want in our lives. I have several progressive illnesses (not CTE, other things) and the idea that it is wrong to form relationships with a progressive illness felt terrible to read. It felt like this idea was never challenged in the story by anyone, was just accepted as fact, and that tanked my reading experience.

I have complex feelings about the risk of CTE in contact sports, and understand that books like this bring the workplace conditions of athletes into the light, which may help improve those conditions and reduce risks for athletes going forward, and help hold the system accountable for the way it treats players. I know that the author of this story is writing from her own experience as the wife of an NFL player, that kind of realistic detail is one of the great things about her books. I get that this approach to CTE may be drawing from that experience, and that Poppy’s perspective on this issue may come from that. That said, while I think it is likely a difficult needle to thread, I do think it’s possible to write about the risk of CTE to athletes in a romance novel in a way that doesn’t lean heavily on ableist frameworks and tropes, and grapples with the complexities of this issue with more nuance. For me, as a disabled reader, I would have appreciated knowing ahead of time that this story grappled with these issues, and had a first person POV centering the heroine, as I likely would not have read it. As a disabled reader, I find stories that center the perspective of the partners of disabled folks are often particularly painful for me to read, and generally attempt to avoid them.

Representation

  • Black woman heroine.
  • Disabled hero.
  • Black woman author.

Content Warnings for the book (in white, highlight to read)

Casual ableist language. Casual fat antagonism. Jokes about becoming a lesbian and falling in love with women. Cissexist jokes. Racism in the workplace. Misogyny in the workplace. Sexual harassment in the workplace. Anti-sex work slurs and insults. MC was disowned by her family as a teen. Stalking plotline. Jealous and controlling hero. Characters get injured from playing professional football. Major conflict around CTE and not wanting to be with a partner who becomes disabled. Internalized ableism and the belief that potential partners are better off without a partner who has CTE. Sex on the page.

Disclosures

  • Source of the book: ARC from the publisher via NetGalley
  • I have had no contact with the author.
  • All links to Amazon will be affiliate ones. If you buy through those links, I will make a small amount of money on that sale (which I plan to use to buy more books to review), but it will not add any to the cost of your product. It comes out of the company’s profits.

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