solitary man, by carly phillips: a review

solitary man

A few weeks ago, I was contacted about reviewing a book (or more) by Carly Phillips, who is, the email told me, a bestselling author. I don’t typically review books here (I have, however, reviewed some for Literary Kicks), but I do write about books on my blog from time to time, so it’s not entirely unreasonable for me to do a review from time to time for my book nerd audience. Though I’m not sure the set of people who comprise my book nerd audience intersects with the set of people who read a lot of romance novels (and who like Venn diagrams — I’m having a hard time not succumbing to the urge to draw one now), but who knows? Maybe someday I’ll conduct a poll. I’m not typically one who reads romance novels either, though I’ve read several and will probably read more. I’m not a finicky reader; I’ll read anything (exceptions: books with unicorns on their covers, and Twilight) and I like love stories. It’s like that line in that song by that band — Love’s the greatest thing. So, in short: sure, I’ll review this romance novel.

Romance novels are genre fiction, so they’re going to follow certain conventions. You know going in to one that the couple is going to get together in the end. In romantic fiction, the man is going to be hyper-masculine and he’ll either be a cop or firefighter or contractor or, on the other end of the economic spectrum, a business tycoon who, I don’t know, works out a lot (in historical romances, he’ll be a duke, or possibly an earl or marquess). He’ll be tall, dark and handsome — forbiddingly so — and he’s going to have some type of dark past that, on the exterior, makes him difficult, probably cynical, but underneath he has a heart of gold. Meanwhile, the woman is usually a fair bit younger than he is, feisty and sweet, she’s the only woman in the history of women in his life (with the possible exception of his mother and/or sister) who doesn’t take any of his crap. She’s probably a virgin, but if not, she’s a widow, or perhaps she once dabbled in sex with someone who turned out to be some kind of rogue. The sex is never merely passable and generally non-traumatic with potential for getting better once they learn more about their partners’ bodies. It’s always good, (nay, mind-blowing) with none of that new-partner or first-time awkwardness, which is, I think, supposedly proof of how these two are meant for each other. Oh sure, they’re going to face some type of misunderstanding (often of the type that could be settled by having a grown-up conversation) that will drive them apart for awhile, but never fear, because it’s all going to work out neatly in the end.

With that in mind, I think it’s not up to me to judge the originality of the plot but instead to write about how well the book works within the conventions of the genre. For the curious, this is the publisher’s plot synopsis:

When tough Boston cop Kevin Manning promised to care for his fatally wounded partner’s family, a one night stand with the man’s grieving sister wasn’t part of the plan. No matter how intense the night had been, a woman like Nikki Welles deserves much more than a broken man like Kevin can give, and he leaves the next day. When he returns months later, everything has changed. Nikki can’t forgive Kevin for abandoning her nor can she regret the baby she’s now carrying. And she can’t stop wanting Kevin. But can this solitary man come to believe he’s worthy of love?

(Note: he sure can.)

Solitary Man is the author’s first novel (or one of the first), and according to the press release, it’s “much deeper in emotional exploration than her recent works.” Having not been familiar with any of the author’s work prior to reading this one, I can’t say for sure. It’s not really a good book, which normally would make it open to evisceration, but I’m having a hard time with this one. I don’t want to gut it. It’s like I’m having some kind of weird crisis of guilt. I haven’t written any books, so, you know, shut up, blogger. And it’s my hope that as this writer did more writing, she got better at it. (I don’t know why I care, but I do. I really do.) Because while her author’s note at the beginning states that she knows she’s matured and changed as she’s written more, this book (along with the other two of her first novels, all written under her real name, Karen Drogin) will always hold a special place in her heart. I get that. I’ve created stuff that I sentimentally love even though I later gained more skill and created better stuff. So that’s my problem with reviewing this.

My problem with the book, however, is that I couldn’t help but think that the whole thing could’ve been cleared up a lot faster if our hero had stood outside with a boombox, Lloyd Dobler style. Except instead of playing “In Your Eyes,” he could’ve gone with “I Want You Back” by the Jackson 5, which is really a catchy little jam. (Maybe I’m listening to it right now.) Think about it, romance writers: ladies love Lloyd Dobler.

My other — and main — problem with this book is that the prose is fairly clunky. I can read anything, even if the plot leaves something to be desired, as long as it’s well-written, but this one isn’t really well-written. Here’s the book’s fourth sentence (this is where it lost me):

“How ironic it was that the woman in his bed had done what a bottle of scotch could not.”

I get what this sentence is going for, but wow. See, the thing is, there’s really nothing ironic about a woman being able to do things (in or out of bed) that a bottle of scotch can’t accomplish. Because a woman is a living being, and a bottle of scotch is — provided that it’s not enchanted — an inanimate object. I’ve created a side-by-side analysis for you:

I mean, a bottle of scotch can’t drink itself. That’s just crazy.

It doesn’t really get better after that fourth sentence. It’s kind of lifeless, and, on Nikki the pregnant heroine’s part, there’s an awful lot of bemoaning how everything would be perfect if only Kevin loved her. (I’m just saying: boombox, Jackson 5, bada-bing! short story). I kept reading, but my heart wasn’t really in it anymore. I can’t help it. Don’t doubt me: I really am that big of a jerk. I know that every sentence I write isn’t exactly golden, and for proof, all you need to do is read this post, but people don’t pay to read me, either. Maybe someday before I’m 50 I will write a book (no guarantees, though, since right now I’m really busy not living up to my potential), and someone else will pick it apart and hooray for karma, etc., however, I do know the difference between irony and a black fly in your chardonnay.

So, to sum up:

Didn’t really like it, thinking about myself in comparison to a bottle of scotch makes me feel like an incredibly talented individual, and I’m probably going to watch Say Anything… sometime in the near future.

8 thoughts on “solitary man, by carly phillips: a review

  1. The pithy line right smack on the cover – “Leaves a lasting glow of joy!” – from Rendevous (whatever the hell that is cause the interwebs don’t offer much of a clue) pretty much confirms what you took the long road to find out. Thanks for taking the bullet for Solitary Man’s 25 potential readers!

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    1. I think Rendezvous is a trade magazine for romance fiction, but I might just be making that up. I have a bit of a headache today, but maybe that’s what a lasting glow of joy feels like. (Or maybe that’s shrapnel from the bullet.) In any case, this is part of building some publicity before the release of the author’s newest book (due out next month, I think). And I don’t think I helped much, but… I really hope she got better at the whole writing thing.

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  2. An enchanted bottle of scotch could probably drink itself, then fill itself back up! SNAP!

    As not only a rogue, but also a cynical, difficult, dark-past haver, I have a thorough inability to read romance novels of any flavor (vampire, pirate, werewolf, witch, Amish, etc). I fear I’d spend most of the time throwing the book across the room and/or screaming, ‘Oh, come ON!’ and scaring the dogs to the point of their leaving presents all over the throw rugs. Fantasy stuff involving magic and dragons and wenches carrying flagons of mead hither and yon strikes me as more believable than the plots in romance novels.

    Having said all of that, your review was wonderful and left me with a long-lasting glow of joy.

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    1. The only book I ever threw across a room was Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Fucking druids.

      I don’t read romance novels too terribly often (I used to read them more when I was a teenager, because even though I dressed in black and listened to The Doors and scowled a lot, I was, deep down, INCREDIBLY SAPPY) but when I do read them, it’s not so much for their realistic rendering of how love works, but because oh hey, there’s a book lying around and I needed something to read. I’m not that picky. (Which is a lie. I am that picky. It’s complicated.) But since you are a cynical rogue with a dark past, I can imagine that reading books about yourself would be terribly trying, especially if they get you all wrong.

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