Book Review

Playing with Fire by Amy Knupp


Title: Playing With Fire
Author: Amy Knupp
Publication Info: Harlequin July 2010
ISBN: 9780373716463
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Playing with FireI bought this book because I love beach stories, romances set in small beach towns, friends-to-lovers plotlines, and, I’ll be honest, I liked the cover, too. In the end, I struggled to finish it because while the beginning grabbed me, the middle let go of realistic emotion that I wasn’t sure whether to finish it – except that I wanted to know what happened to the heroine at the end.

Macey has just returned from two years away in Thailand in the Peace Corps where she used her business degree to help small family businesses develop working plans to grow and become more successful. She’s decided to take her six week vacation on San Amaro, a small Texas island, to help her childhood best friend Derek come back to the land of the living. Derek has taken over his uncle’s beach bar and removed himself entirely from his former career of fighting fires after a terrible and tragic fire killed his girlfriend Julie five months prior. Macey has had it bad for Derek for a long time, and while she knew Julie vaguely as she and Derek fell in love – prompting Macey to join the Peace Corps – she can’t stand knowing Derek has pretty much stopped living in his guilt and grief. It’s time to wake him up.

You can probably guess my major problem with the book: the time line. If Derek has just lost his girlfriend, about whom he was pretty serious, in that same year, is it really appropriate to prod him into anything, much less a new relationship? Macey doesn’t throw himself at him, and tries very hard to separate her desire for Derek from her desire to see him wake up and begin recovering from his grief, but over and over, I found myself thinking, “Girl, that is so not your call as to when and how he lets go of his own grief.” Sometimes I could support her decisions, like asking Derek to stop working around the clock day after day, hiring new people to help staff the bar – which is slammed during the summer tourist season – and inviting him along on tourist-y outings to get him to escape from his very limited routine.

But other times, and more often, I wondered where the hell she got off telling him what to do, and whether her determined interest in Derek, which became less and less separated from her own desire, was over the line of inappropriate:

“Derek. What the hell is wrong with you? I know you’re grieving, but what happened today?”

He sat there in silence for so long she wanted to kick a reaction out of him.

“Today’s her birthday,” he finally said, his voice so quiet and full of anguish that Macey barely heard him. “I’d planned on asking her to marry me.”

Macey had no words. She sat down heavily, straddling his legs just above his knees, giving no thought to the contact now, too wrapped up in trying to somehow assuage his pain even though she knew she couldn’t. She took both of his hands in hers and squeezed them.

Derek raised his chin and stared at the ceiling. Swallowed hard. “Sorry I skipped out on work.”

“We did okay. But I was worried. I wish you’d told me what you were up against. I would’ve understood.”

He met her gaze head-on. “I forgot it was her birthday, Mace. She’s only been gone for five months and I’m already moving on, acting like I don’t care.  Forgetting the date I was going to propose.”

“You’re not acting like you don’t care. I can tell you care, can tell you’re mourning her in every single thing you do.”

“I forgot her birthday.”

“No offense, but I’ve seen no evidence of you moving on, Dare. You’ve practically stopped living.”

He shook his head and looked away.

He ran his beat-up hand through his hair and flinched, which told Macey his knuckles hurt worse than he was letting on. “I need to work.”

“The world won’t stop spinning if you take one night off.”

He rose from the floor slowly. “I can’t stand being in this place for the rest of the night. I’ll come to work.”

That she could understand. “Okay. If that’s the case, get your butt in the shower. You smell like a gym. And call Gus. He’s worried.”

He stared stubbornly at her and then lifted the muscle shirt over his head, revealing that sculpted chest that had been burned into her mind since she’d watched him sleeping. Before Macey could react, he lowered his shorts.

“Going to stay for the rest?” he asked.

She couldn’t help it; she looked down, thinking he’d surely left his underwear on. But holy cripes…nope. She averted her eyes, not quickly enough. He was staring at her, saw her reaction, which had to be all over her face because she’d never been able to hide a thing. Her cheeks warmed.

Derek’s lips twitched into a humorless near smile.

“Careful who you boss around.”

He turned away and walked to the bathroom and, Lord help her, she couldn’t not check out his butt. Just for a second. Long enough to see that it was as beautiful and perfectly toned as the rest of his body. She whipped her eyes back up and wanted to sink through the floor when she realized he’d looked over his shoulder and again caught her staring at him. She hurried out of the room to wait at a safe range. Like maybe Alaska.

From extreme painful grief to checking out his butt? This is not the whiplash I was looking for.

I think Knupp took a very big risk in placing the story so soon after Derek lost his girlfriend, and I don’t think that risk entirely paid off. Mourning someone that close to you takes a long time, off and on for months of up and down grief, and even if Macey didn’t know Julie too well, Derek did, and the manner in which he was maneuvered and pressured into moving on away from his mourning left me very uncomfortable. Not only did she push him into more enthusiasm for life and new experiences but she wanted him to get back to firefighting, too. Eeep!

Aside from the conflict between the main characters, there were many other things I liked about the book, when I wasn’t getting that funny, “Oh, dear,” curl of squick in my stomach. I loved that Macey was re-entering her old life at home in Texas with the confidence and self-assurance she found in Thailand after two years in the Peace Corps. I loved the ways Derek’s family drove him nuts and how his bar was his second home, and not in an entirely bad way. The beach bar is a wonderful setting, and I could imagine people queuing up for bar food and drinks, imagine the employees and the cook in my mind, and picture the other characters who become “regulars” in the bar. I liked the close community – and beach towns are wonderful for that – and I liked how the tourist influx determined how some of the other characters entered the story and how it changed the way they acted.

Knupp has some skill in the ancillary character department, and I’d be pleased to see her name on another book, but not one that tangles with such closely-kept and recently-endured grief. I had doubts about the happy ending because up to and including the last scene, I couldn’t trust the hero’s ability to recognize his own emotions, much less act on them in a justifiable manner. His forced exit from understandable grieving (especially considering the details of his girlfriend’s death, which are revealed in the story) at the cheerful and persistent prodding of Macey left me in a definitely un-romantic mood. I struggled with the grade for this book, wavering between D+ and C-, and went higher because of the strength of the collection of characters, the setting, and the writing. I’d be curious to hear from other readers if the time line bothered them as much as it did me.

Playing with Fire is available as an ebook on sale now at eHarlequin’s ebookstore, and at Book Depository, IndieBound, Powell’s, and

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Beki says:

    I’ve not read it, but simply on your description, the time line bothers me.  This speaks of someone who possibly hasn’t experienced the death of a person very close to their heart, though I hate to make that assumption since we all deal differently with our grief.  But such a large issue, something as simple as the time line of grieving, could have been fixed by moving everything forward twelve months.  His increased grieving on the date of her birthday/his planned proposal (we’d have been married by now possibilities) all that would still have worked.

    The rest sounds wonderful and just taking your word on it, I love a book with a full cast of true characters.  Simply moving his grief forward by twelve months would make the heroine more likable and make the entire idea of romance less icky.  Because, the very idea of him entering into a romance after losing his almost-fiance in a tragic fire only a few months previous feels very, very wrong.

  2. 2
    Star Opal says:

    Haven’t read the book, but I had a problem as soon as I read five months in the second paragraph of your review. That’s more of an emotional state to take advantage of someone than have them fall in love with you. Extremely squicky.

  3. 3
    Jeannie says:

    I try to steer clear of romances where one of the main characters has lost a previous love interest to death, no matter what the time line. They’re just too depressing from the get-go. Yes, 5 months is way too soon!
    I’m also not a fan of lead female characters who act too much like bossy cheerleaders, especially when she’s in love with the person she’s prodding along. It comes off as her trying too hard.
    Not a big fan of the “tamer” Harlequin novels.

  4. 4
    Suzanne says:

    Speaking from experience (car crash not fire), five months is no time to have some busybody coming in and disrupting the grieving process. Particularly if that busybody is just wants in your pants… I am sure the story had a happy ending but their relationship would never have lasted. People don’t let go that easy…

    Eugh, he died 11 years ago, and I am tearing up now thinking about him. :(

  5. 5
    nj says:

    Lurker here, never posted until now, but this review immediately brought to mind a real-life situation with a friend whose wife died last year after a long struggle with cancer. Within 6 months of her death, he’d fallen in love and remarried. I don’t doubt for a moment that he grieved and is still grieving the loss of his first wife. I also don’t doubt that he genuinely loves his second wife. They seem happy, and I really like his new wife (even though it makes me feel incredibly disloyal to his first wife) and I don’t begrudge him happiness. This man’s been through the hell the last few years…but…wow, 6 months? Really? And yet even as I type that I know I’m being incredibly judgmental. Really, I have no idea what he’s been through. I can imagine, I can empathize, but I sure haven’t walked in his shoes. I can’t see myself falling in love and remarrying within 6 months if my husband died…but just because I don’t think I could doesn’t mean that’s wrong for someone else. “They” say there’s no timetable for grief. I think there’s no timetable for love, either.

    And yet…6 months?

    I’m all over the place with this comment. Anyway, just reading the review made the above all flash up in front of me. I don’t think I’ll be checking out this book.

  6. 6
    Donna says:

    FIVE MONTHS!? This is wrong on so many levels. Moving in on someone at this stage of their life seems slightly… vampiric. My best friend lost her husband 18 months ago and, while he was an alcoholic jerk & I personally don’t miss him, it never occured to me to tell her it was time to buck up and move on when she told me she still can’t sleep through the night.

    Suzanne, I’m sending you some sunshine.

  7. 7
    SB Sarah says:

    @suzanne: I’m so sorry for your loss.

    I know more than a few people who have moved on to new marriages after the death of a spouse, and I think they’re very happy people who did what worked for them – but in this particular case in this narrative, I never got the sense that Derek said, “By golly, you’re right! Mourning for five months after a traumatic loss is way too long! Let’s be together forever!” of his own volition, or that he truly believed it was time to move on. I think he was being told it was, and so ultimately he believed it. Which made me sad for him, not happy.

  8. 8
    Laurel says:

    @ Lurker/nj: That does sound a bit fast but it’s also a completely different situation. Long battle with cancer vs. tragic accident sets up very different (though completely valid) grieving processes. I’ve lost people I loved both ways and a long term illness doesn’t make you “ready” to let go but you’ve had a long time to prepare yourself. You do a lot of grieving before the person is gone.

    Either way, in fiction five months is way too short a time line for me to be comfortable. I like a little dramatic angst as well as the next girl but that birthday/ get naked and head to the shower scene…ewww. I lost a boyfriend, one I hadn’t even discussed marriage with, in an accident and still had a hard time with his birthday three years later. No way I would have been interrupted in a private moment and space and proceeded to take my clothes off. It would have been more like: “You need to go. Now. I have your phone number if I decide I want to talk about it.”

  9. 9
    Sue Rice says:

    Coming up on the first anniversary of my husband’s death, I am no more open to a new relationship than to grow wings and fly.  Moments, TV shows, movies, songs still reduce me to a puddle of tears.  Five months—give me a break.

  10. 10
    Anony Miss says:

    I just want to point out that the heroine’s neck is looking a leetle too long on the cover.

    Like it hurts to look at it.

    Now back to our regularly scheduled grown up discussion of grieving…

  11. 11
    holly says:

    Okay, maybe I’m a bit more judgmental here, but the fact that the title of this book is “Playing With Fire” when the hero lost an almost-fiance to a fire seems utterly tacky and wrong. Add to that the whole grieving timeline and it’s just – not something I would be willing to read. Yuck.

  12. 12
    jennifer armintrout says:

    @Holly: I can’t believe that marketing dropped the ball that badly on the title.  I’m not going to criticize the author for it, because sometimes we don’t have a choice in what they’re going to call the manuscript we hand them, but really?  No one said, “You know, I think there might be a problem with this title”?

  13. 13
    raj says:

    nj, I’ve got to agree with Laurel – while losing a loved one to an illness like cancer is always difficult, there’s a difference between losing someone to an illness and losing someone to an accident.  As much as I believe you can’t really be prepared for someone’s death, it is much easier to cope with the actual death when you’ve known it’s been coming for a while.  (Coping with the disease and the inevitability of death is another matter, of course, but you do a lot of grieving before death in those cases.)

    I have a relative who remarried less than a year after losing his wife.  No one in the family thought it was all that strange, because his first wife had died after an illness.  However, if he’d remarried less than a year after his first wife died in a horrible accident?  I suspect that the family would have been far less accepting and happy about the new wife.

    As for this book, there’s not a right way to grieve, but the details of this book do not make me eager to read it.  Plots like this ought to have more realism than this.

  14. 14
    Amanda in Baltimore says:

    Whoa, Anony Mill, you aren’t kidding about that neck. SB Sarah forgot to mention that the heroine was a were-giraffe!

  15. 15
    Amanda in Baltimore says:

    Whoa, Anony Miss, you aren’t kidding about that neck. SB Sarah forgot to mention that the heroine was a were-giraffe!

  16. 16
    Jennifer says:

    I would concur to losing someone after a long illness would be easier to move on from than from sudden death.

    I used to know a guy and his wife. She died unexpectedly. I was told that within months, this guy (a) dropped everything he and his wife did together, which is why I never saw him again—I knew them through a mutual hobby, (b) married very quickly, and (c) took up her hobbies, which included traveling, and got out of Dodge ASAP. I couldn’t help but think, “man, sometime that grief you’re putting off is gonna bite you in the ASS.” So reading a story like this would probably disturb me as well.

  17. 17
    Laurel says:

    Ditto on the title. Ack. Ditto on the giraffe neck. Awp.

  18. 18
    SB Sarah says:

    SB Sarah forgot to mention that the heroine was a were-giraffe!

    I was trying to keep that part a secret, seeing as it’s a were-giraffe contemporary romance, the first of its kind.

  19. 19
    Not Tellin' (just in case) says:

    My uncle was diagnosed with cancer in May and died in late August.  His widow was dating by mid-October.  Before we had the memorial service, even.  I am EXTREMELY judgemental about that.  I live a long ways away, so I haven’t had the opportunity (thank god) to say anything to her face that I’d regret later.  And yes, we all grieve in our own ways.  Still.  Not even two months. 

    Hm.  I like the were-giraffe conversation better…

  20. 20
    Minna says:

    Sounds too icky, the whole had it bad for Derek for a long time and comes swooping in after the death of his girlfriend premise would no doubt make me want to throw this at the wall.  Love your blog.

  21. 21
    Julie T says:

    She sat down heavily, straddling his legs just above his knees

    Ok. I don’t know about you, but there has never been a time in my life among my guy friends where this would be acceptable and not looked at in a completely strange and sexual way.

    Also in an unrelated note that would make me never able to read this book, well one of the reasons I couldn’t anyway, my best friend’s name is the name of our hero and his dead almost fiancee shares my name. Slightly gives me the creeps…

  22. 22
    zinemama says:

    Well, dang. It would have been nice to find true love and romance awaiting me on my immediate return from the Peace Corps. Not with some grieving guy, though.

  23. 23
    Jina says:

    Minna said:

    Sounds too icky, the whole had it bad for Derek for a long time and comes swooping in after the death of his girlfriend premise would no doubt make me want to throw this at the wall.

    Interesting point.  If Macey just came in as a platonic friend and they fell in love … I might buy it, even after just 5 months.  But it seems really icky when she has an ulterior motive for helping him deal with his grief – like she’s bullying him for her own gain.  Ugh.

  24. 24
    vivian Arend says:

    Hmm, now I have to hop in and share my .2¢—and Canadian is at par, so we’re good.

    I read this book, and frankly, the 5 month thing didn’t bother me. I felt like Macey’s attempts to bring Derek back to the land of the living were needed. It’s true that it’s important to be allowed to grieve a traumatic loss like Julie’s death. Derek wasn’t just grieving, he was wallowing in guilt and the friendship part of Macey’s interventions were sorely needed. You can’t begin to heal if you keep cutting open old wounds. The attraction that developed between them made sense.

    The part that annoyed me was the heroine’s insistence that Derek leaving firefighting was horribly, terribly wrong. I don’t care if someone was a fabulous, amazing career in any field. That’s not who they are, and the skills learned in one job have carry over to others. Every time Macey pulled a fast one regarding firefighting, I wanted to slap her upside the head.

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