RITA Reader Challenge Review

RITA Reader Challenge: A Conflict of Interest by Barbara Dunlop


Title: A Conflict of Interest
Author: Barbara Dunlop
Publication Info: Harlequin January 2013
ISBN: 978-0373732173
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Book A Conflict of Interest This RITA® Reader Challenge 2014 review was written by Megan S. This story was nominated for the RITA® in the Short Contemporary Series Romance category.

The summary:

She tried to stay away from him….

More than once, White House PR specialist Cara Cranshaw has considered that reporter Max Gray might want her only because he can't have her. Given their work, a relationship is dicey—and impossible now that the president has taken office.

For Max, their relationship may be a lark, a fling—maybe she's just another woman in the long line that forms a part of his bachelor lifestyle. But for her, what they have is different. She's all but given him her heart. And now she is having his baby.

And here is Megan's review:

I wasn't the ideal reader for this book. I signed up to read it because I previously enjoyed a Desire book with a similar-ish premise: political milieu, two people with incompatible jobs, an unplanned pregnancy. Unfortunately, A Conflict of Interest built nothing interesting out of its bland conventions and what it did build was less than convincing.

Starting with the good: the dialogue was often enjoyable to read. Cara is good with words, fitting for a public relations specialist, and she has conversations with her boss, her friends, and her sister that were fun to read.

This leads to the other aspect of the book I enjoyed: I really enjoyed the way the main women in this book were portrayed. They were not demonized. Even when they disagreed on how to handle things (from Cara's friend Ariella Winthrop–the newly discovered daughter of the president–choosing to flee from the scandal, to Cara's own desire to not tell Max about her pregnancy), the women often argued rationally with one another and ultimately supported one another and tried to understand each other's choices, which is something I love in romance novels.

Also on the list of awesome: while billionaires are a dime a dozen in romance series, there's only one billionaire (okay, ALMOST a billionaire) in this book: Cara's awesome sister, Gillian, who is a jet-setting business tycoon:

“Did you turn into a billionaire when I wasn't looking?” she asked her sister.

Gillian grinned from the doorway. “No yet.” Then she turned to speak to the pilot, her voice too soft for Cara to hear.

“Yet?” Cara prompted as Gillian moved toward her.

“Maybe someday. Well, really, depending on how things go in India,” said Gillian as she plunked down across from Cara. “Fingers crossed. If you're curious, I can check with my accountant and see how close we're getting.”

Also on the list of unexpected awesomeness, and going unmentioned by the blurb, is that the protagonists spend a portion of the book snowbound alone together after an avalanche hits the ski lodge where they're both staying. Snowbound-together! is totally a potent strain of catnip for me, and I was delighted when it popped up in this book.

The majority of the book didn't work for me, however. The way the unplanned pregnancy was handled was the most egregious element, but I admit that most of my reaction came down to personal taste. I am not a fan of secret baby books. I have a hard time buying into most justifications for keeping a child a secret from one of the parties responsible for its creation. It's not that I wave the banner for men's fatherhood rights or that I believe that fathering a baby is a magical automatic cure for immaturity, but justifications for secrecy that I find valid–such as concerns about abuse from the man or the man's family–never seem to be found in romance novels, so I seriously struggle when I encounter this trope because of the weak justifications for it.

The weakest and most infuriating justification, in my eyes, is when the woman doesn't tell the man because she knows that he doesn't want to be a father. Cue my utter lack of sympathy. A woman prioritizing the desires of a manchild unable to handle the consequences of having sex? Coddling him by letting him avoid the confrontation of “I'm pregnant because of you and as I'm choosing to carry the fetus to term, let's make a plan on how to handle this like the adults we supposedly are”? (Okay, I know no romance heroines talk that way, but still.) That is NOT the sort of engine I want to have revving a romance.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what is taking place in this book. The story centers on Cara's mixed emotions as she attempts to keep her pregnancy a secret from Max and attempts to not have a relationship with him despite their mutual attraction. The two of them need to end their casual relationship, because Cara thinks a White House PR person should not be sleeping with a famous journalist. Okay, fine. Sure. Kudos to Cara for drawing an ethical line, even though it turns out she barely makes an effort to stay behind that line. But when Cara gets pregnant, she decides not to tell Max, because Max expressed his lack of interest in ever having children. “I'm not about to foist an innocent baby onto an unwilling father,” Cara says, which makes me wonder how she thinks she ended up with that innocent baby in the first place, because I assume in order to get Cara into that state, Max was doing some “foisting” of his own.

It is basically taking the most tiresome of all romance conventions (willful refusal to communicate in order to keep the protagonists apart), adding a layer of banal declarations of forbidden love a la “We cannot be together because of our careers!” (and there are no actual demonstrated consequences or threats regarding their oppositional jobs, so all thoughts of the titular conflict of interest were unfired Chekhov's guns of manufactured angst), wrapping it all up in a flimsy secret baby candy shell.

Actually, TWO secret baby candy shells!

In addition to Cara's secret pregnancy, there's also the larger, external plot, which I assume is threaded throughout the Daughters of Power: The Capital continuity series, in which Cara's boss–aka the President of the United States–discovers he has an illegitimate daughter born when he was a teenager. This daughter is Ariella, a prominent D.C. events planner and one of Cara's good friends, who had no idea the president's her biological father. As this occurs over the course of this book, and Cara is in the front row witnessing Ariella's life fall to pieces due to this revelation, I have to wonder just how thick Cara is, thinking having a secret baby of her own would be a good idea. While it might seem like there was good angsty potential in this book, there was no real follow-through. There were these dramatic scenes where Cara and Max make grand declarations of their non-relationship/love-that-can-never-be:

“Promise me,” she pressed, capturing his gaze. “No more dropping by my apartment. No more seeking me out at events. No more leaving your watch behind.”

“No.” No way, no how. She was entitled to her perspective, but he had a right to make his case.

A sheen formed in her eyes, and he felt like the worst jerk in the world.

“You have to let me try.” There was a pleading tone in his voice.

She blinked. “If you try, I'll get hurt.”

“I won't hurt you, Cara.” He found himself gathering her close again, voice rumbling with emotion. “I swear I won't hurt you.”

There was a catch in her tone. “Stay away, Max. If you care about me at all, then stay away.”

Max felt a block of ice settle into his chest. He'd sworn he'd do anything for Cara. And this was the thing she asked of him. For that reason, it was what he'd do. He'd do it for her. Even if it killed him.

And this would totally be a powerful and emotional moment and direction for the book to take, a man respecting the wishes of a woman he loves, even if they're against his own wishes. EXCEPT this is not what happens. Like, right away, Max doesn't even try to keep his word. Max keeps pushing Cara's boundaries, Cara remains wishy-washy, the two continue sleeping together and whining about conflicts of interest and wallowing in feelings of jealousy and possessiveness.

The way Cara's pregnancy is revealed to Max is pretty representative of the ugh-ness of the whole book. Cara goes to her obstetrician for a check-up. Max, wearing his investigative reporter hat, tails her, thinking she's meeting with a source for the illegitimate-presidential-daughter scandal. He manages to con and force his way into the exam room, where, to his shock, Cara is consulting with her own doctor about her own pregnancy.

Please, please, please tell me that in the real world, medical practices do not allow this to happen, that they do not let a complete stranger claiming to know a woman follow her into an exam room. Please tell me that a front desk receptionist's reaction to a man saying, “I'm with Cara, the woman who arrived before me!” is to beam and say, “Oh, you must be the father! Go on in!” is something that only happens in Romancelandia. Because reading that scene, I was just overwhelmed by thinking of how awful such an action could be if that man were a stalker, an abusive partner, or…well, it's awful in general. The consequences were bad enough in the book, when Max was just a dickwad investigative journalist, not someone who planned to harm her. (And the narrative tries to spell this out. Max expresses jealousy over Cara possibly having dated other men while the two were not together, and he has murderous feelings toward these imagined, non-existent men, but the narrative explicitly removes Cara as a possible target of his imagined violence and possible manifestation of his anger. I mean, I personally wouldn't trust him still, because I think that level of possessiveness is in fact dangerous to the woman involved, but the book tried to tell me otherwise.)

At this point, I was thinking Cara should switch medical practices and also try to realize that Max's inability to respect her boundaries, and his justifying this boundary-pushing by waving around his investigative journalist credentials, is a bad, bad, bad sign.

Despite all this, I did like how the book depicted Max's changes in feelings toward fatherhood. Sure, the book deployed the token standard scene where the man who doesn't want kids has a positive interaction with a child who thinks he's totally rad, but what convinced me was that, at the end, Max didn't suddenly profess to want lots of kids or suddenly even like them in general. He realized he'd love his and Cara's kid because it was their kid, and that was good enough for him. I liked that it was fairly understated. And, of course, the supposed conflict of interest between their careers was resolved by Cara suddenly realizing she could quit her job and start her own PR company. Yawn.

Overall, A Conflict of Interest was very, very conventional. It employed worn-out tropes without irony and without interesting twists. The relationship between Cara and Max was not my idea of romantic, given how much it relied on them not respecting each other by refusing to communicate and by refusing to respect boundaries. The book was well-written in the sense that its prose was fine and in fact sometimes even lively. A reader more sympathetic to secret baby plots and less sensitive to overbearing heroes would enjoy this book more than I did.

This book is available from Goodreads | Amazon | BN | Kobo | All Romance eBooks

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    CC says:

    I so appreciate all the RITA Reader Challenge reviews, but the apparent mediocrity of the books makes me question whether being a RITA winner means anything at all. The best out of a sea of meh? Not a ringing endorsement.

  2. 2
    Cate says:

    Good lord. I’ve seen obstetricians in two countries (Canada and Australia), and they only let my HUSBAND in after I made it clear I wanted him there. Fathers do not just get to waltz on in there (uh, “there” being the exam room in case that sounded dodgy).

    Romancelandia, I love you, but I’d hate to live there.

  3. 3
    Vicki says:

    How we handle it in my (pediatric) office:

    I’m with the woman who just went in.

    If you will give me your name, sir, I will check and see if she wants you in the room for the visit.

    I think that letting the dude in unrestricted would cause me to, in this case, throw my nook across the room and stomp on it. Thanks for the warning.

  4. 4
    ML says:

    Megan, believe it or not, there are romances where the heroine says to the hero that she’s pregnant, keeping the baby, and let’s deal with it. There’s an old Harlequin Desire called Just a Little Bit Pregnant by Eileen Wilks. And it starts out with the heroine walking into the hero’s office, telling him that she’s pregnant and keeping the baby, and then laying out paperwork discussing child support and visitation rights.  Yes, it can happen…..

  5. 5
    Megan S. says:

    ML, that’s awesome! I’m going to track down that book now.

Comments are closed.

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