When Cosmo and Harlequin launched the “Red Hot Reads” novella collection, the novella I heard the most about from my friends and fellow readers was Cake by Lauren Dane. I read or heard enough positive commentary about it that when I had a moment to buy a copy, I already had that very nice and warm, “I think I'm going to like this” feeling when I click-click-bought it.
Dane's novels don't always work for me. Sometimes the characters speak in what I think of as “plot language,” as in,
“We are saying these things to explain backstory!”
“Or, perhaps to explain where we are and why we are here!”
“Ok! Let's do that some more!”
I don't always buy the conflicts or the reasons why characters are together, but I do like her characters' independence and their creativity. Just about every Dane character is creative or artistic in one way or another, and it makes for interesting reading. They have a reason for doing things that isn't just “I like this person so I shall focus my life energy on them and orbit around them like a hungry mosquito!” They have their own stuff to deal with, and as a result are more interesting as people.
Cake is a novella about Wren, an art student who earns a living as a bike messenger in Seattle, and Gregori, a Russian artist who is approaching exceptional fame (and income) for his creations. Gregori is described as muscular, pierced and tattooed, with a mohawk he wears upright for formal occasions (such as his gallery showing) (and yes, I totally snort-laughed when I typed that) (mohawks! NOT for the SUBTLE innuendos!). Wren and Gregori know each other because Gregori's assistant is Wren's friend and cousin, and she dispatches Wren to Gregori's apartment when he has paperwork to sign or real life paper-type things to deal with. Gregori and Wren have become casual friends when the story opens, and Wren and Gregori both are aware of but trying to ignore their attraction to one another. Wren enjoys her visits to Gregori's home because he's often in the middle of a piece of artwork, and is just as often shirtless while he works.
I thought Wren was a pretty excellent character. She's an art student who is focusing on her graphic novels, and, at one point, when she and Gregori debate her decision to attend art school, with Gregori scoffing at the idea of going to school to learn art, Wren points out that it wouldn't have worked for him, but it works exceptionally well for her, as she's learning different approaches to refining her own creations. I liked this about Wren because it would have been easy for her to adopt Gregori's view or at least consider it, especially because Gregori is a powerful and somewhat hypnotic personality for Wren. But she stands up to him, argues for her own decisions, and debates him without being cowed by his talent or his prestige, though she is aware of both.
Another element of Wren that I liked was her determination not to ask Gregori for anything, or use his connections for her own gain, even when he offers. She is determined to make her own way, not surf easily in the wake of someone else's success. She is hesitant to show Dmitri her own work, both because she admires his and because she's a little intimidated by what he might say, even though she's proud of her own accomplishments.
At times Wren and her friends fell into bits of “plot language,” and often spend a lot of time and dialogue on Wren's evolving friend-lation-ship with Gregori, which was a bummer. I loved that she had wonderful and strong friendships around her, and her life wasn't just art, school, messengering and Gregori, but at times I felt her friendships were gloss and plot-direction-pointing, and not real relationships. There weren't any subtext to the friendships she had, and that made them seem a bit false and less realistic to me. They're all bestie-mc-besties with no tension, no subtext despite being long-term friends. When contrasted with the layers and meaning woven into the building relationship between Gregori and Wren, her friendships seemed flatter and one-dimensional.
Gregori is a very interesting character. He's thrived on total focus on his art, making his living through selling pieces which are going for increasing amounts of money. For awhile, he was living a rather wild life, and his now-ended marriage to his ex-wife was an illustration of how he's different now (in the present time of the story) vs. then – and how easy, with his increased success, it would be for him to go back to parties and sex and drugs and parties with sex and drugs and parties. One of the things pointed out to him is what a different person he was at that time, when he was married and when he “relapsed” into a toxic temporary relationship with his ex-wife, and how he's a better human being now that he's broken off permanently with her and with the life she wanted.
Gregori, however, is not totally onboard with changing major relationships in his life after ending his connection with his ex, and he is not willing to consider a relationship with Wren, in part because he values her presence in his life too much to risk that their time together would end as badly and painfully as his marriage did. Their conflict is simple and layered: do we risk the present pretty good for the potential of future awesomeness, with the chance of epic crap if it goes wrong? Wren is all for taking a risk to find something she wants – she left college for art school, for example, after realizing that was where her passion was – but Gregori is not as willing, and when he fully understands his his hesitation, he's miserable, and he panics, and he almost screws things up.
When compared to Wren, Gregori is much less developed, both in his conflict and in his total character. Wren experiences more changes, has goals and aspirations that she's working on, and loves her life as it is and as she wants it to be in the future. Gregori is moving forward much less, probably in part due to the fact that he's already pretty successful as an artist. But because his big risk was “the friend-lation-ship potential” and Wren had so many other things she was risking personally and professionally, Gregori seemed much less vibrant, less developed, and less dynamic and multi-dimensional compared to Wren.
The one thing I wished was better was the ending. I can't go into the biggest of detail because it would spoil it, but I was torn between thinking that it was much like Wren to really go after what she wanted and that it was interesting to see this example of the women deciding they know best for the man-dude who is being a bonehead, and between thinking that her actions made her seem suddenly more dependent than independent. The final scenes diminished my enjoyment of the novella and I'm still not 100% sure what I think of the ending.
The title comes from the fact that whenever Wren delivers something to Gregori's home, he has some sort of pastry in the house to feed her. There's cake, obviously, and cookies and chocolate and various other forms of deliciousness, so don't read this novella if you're hungry. You'll go buy expensive French pastry type things to eat. But if you're in the mood for a bit of edgy creative characters and direct and honest dialogue between the hero and heroine, you might like Cake. I'd be curious to hear what you think of the ending.