Samantha McNead is the PR director for the Pacific Heat, a major league baseball team in California. Wade O’Riley is the catcher, both in the sense that he crouches behind home plate and grabs 90-mph fastballs, and in the sense that women throw themselves at him.
ETA: Forgot a paragraph – oops! When a crazy fan fakes a pregnancy and claims the baby is Wade’s, a decision is made to have Sam and Wade pair off for awhile in the public eye to take the negative attention off of him and to give him a person in his life that will keep both crazy fangirl and other potential crazy fangirls away. Their fake relationship begins at a wedding Wade is in, and being in close proximity forces them to confront a moment in their past that both Sam and Wade have been trying to forget.
So many times Shalvis sets up what could be a cliched tension or character, and she could have stopped there. It would have been familiar, though lame. There’s a series of examples of how she could have left something before drawing it out, and each time she takes the extra step (and another and another) to make the character, the situation, the plot into something more powerful, more important, just more.
For starters, the book begins with Sam and Wade going to the weekend wedding away,sharing a hotel suite, and pretending for the public to be a couple. Shalvis could have stopped there, or kept most of the book set at that weekend wedding, or made the wedding a week long extravaganza of sexual tension. Or it could have been a long, But no: Wade and Sam deal with their past, and their fradulent-but-sort-of-not-really present relationship and then move on from that weekend to reenter their lives. It’s not as if they escape into a wedding weekend and everything works out when they return home. They escape their lives temporarily, much like they do when they travel for away games. There is still “home” and problems that come with it every time they return. And since it’s baseball, they run home a lot.
Another example is Tag, Sam’s nephew. Tag’s father is checking into rehab, and sends Tag to Sam without warning or even explanation. Just ‘Hello, there’s a kid here for you.’ Tag moves into her condo, and begins life on the road with Sam and the team, learning from a tutor and trying to figure out what to do now that he’s not wanted by his mother or father. Sam initially accepts him because he’s family, and he’s a child, and she’s got a truly good heart, but ultimately, she learns to care about Tag in a way that scares her. But even with that fear, she perseveres because Tag is more important than her fear. In most things, she’s a grown up – how refreshing.
Tag could have been just a pesky kid who disappears and reappears at convenient plot points, but Shalvis takes him, like everything else, into new and dangerous territory. I didn’t always believe that Tag was so quick to adapt to the massive changes in his life, but Shalvis didn’t blink when it came to portraying the phases of adjustment Tag was going through. First he does everything perfectly to avoid being sent home, then he tests her to try to make her make him leave and prove that her promise of permanence (or semi-permanence) was a lie.
Sam’s relationship with Tag is as important in the story as her relationship with Wade. Sam is indelibly shaped by the men in her life, and this is a male of the next generation after her own, one who isn’t weighed down by the same pressure that was thrown upon Sam from an early age. Nevertheless, it’s difficult to understand how Sam, who is not a terribly instint-driven person, goes from not knowing Tag at all and having seen him twice in his life, to feeling a deep and prominent love for him such that his place in her life is crucial within a matter of weeks or a chapter or two. Theirs is a strange kind of familial insta-love that worked on some levels, but really didn’t on others.
Tag also serves as a mirror for Wade. Both males think they are temporary fixtures in her life, and are afraid to trust her completely, even though they both want to, and even though she’s given them no reason not to. All three of them are afraid for various reasons, and the steps of their learning from each other how to trust and be trusted are tiny and real and memorable.
Wade is a piece of work. Wade’s lazy. He hasn’t had to work terribly hard to be charming, and probably the greatest effort he’s exhibited is for baseball, and even then he makes it look easy. So with Sam, he figures he’ll take what he can get and doesn’t ever see himself permanently involved with her or anyone. Wade is a master avoider, and a lazy bum to boot, and seeing him have a fire lit under his ass and watching him realize that he has to face his own feelings to ever grow in any direction is wrenching and realistic. He’s also charming for the reader, and very likeable.
Wade’s father was a neglectful abusive alcoholic, and his father now wants to be part of his life. Wade avoids him, too, until he can’t avoid his father anymore, and must face his father and his father’s alcoholism and his past. Shalvis did a real job of portraying Wade’s dad’s withdrawal from alcohol. She could have left alcoholic father to experience miraculous recovery, but Wade’s dad goes through everything, and it’s painful. Shalvis also doesn’t flinch from revealing how badly Wade needed to tell his dad what a shit he was so they could both recover. Wade’s dad is a painful but powerful character to read.
Wade’s father, however, provides an unhappy contrast with Sam’s family: for a force of males who have influenced her profoundly, we don’t see much of them, and when we see them, they’re stereotypes or fixtures. I wasn’t sure how she hadn’t told one or all of them to go fuck themselves a long time before the start of the novel because they did little of importance and mostly existed as distant, cold, scary assholes or just complete wastes of breath. I think Sam, though not as explicitly as I would have liked, identified with Tag as an outcast in his own family, and she was instantly sympathetic to him because she could create the kind of family environment that she and he both ought to have had. But the Insta-Love for kids is a tough sell when there’s nothing to contrast that with, especially since her brothers and dad were really absent, and the reader had to take Sam’s word for it, and Wade’s to a lesser extent, what real buttholes they were.
Wade avoids, and Sam gives, and eventually, the two of them step over their own fears and challenge one another – and the last scene, though not nearly long enough for my liking, was a powerful moment for Wade. As usual Shalvis delivers a memorable hero, and a heroine who is his match, both in the coupled sense and the game opponent sense. There were moments when I couldn’t stop reading, especially in the first two-thirds of the book, because so many “could have been cliche” moments coalesce into big, real, and delicately powerful problems that I had to keep reading. The resolution is too fast in some ways, and I wanted more of the “more” that Shalvis built on standard cliches, but either way, I finished with a smile on my face.
Want a copy? I’ve got 15 to giveaway to random commenters. Just leave a comment here and tell me about sports romances – like or not? Baseball or no? One thing about Shalvis’ Pacific Heat series, it’s made fans out of readers who proport not to like baseball (Can you imagine?). I’ll pick 15 winners after midnight on Sunday, 31 January, 2010. Standard disclaimers apply: I am not being compensated for this review and the copies are being provided by the author from her stash from the publisher. Freshest if eaten before date on carton. Limited time offer, call now to insure prompt delivery. Beware of dog.