Jane has mentioned before that the contemporary romances that doesn’t feature vampires, campy vampires, werewolves, immortal peril, mortal peril, suspense out the wahoo, or extraordinary extraterrestrial extraneous circumstances seem to be fewer and far between. Every now and again I hear declarations that the contemporary romance is a dying subgenre and it’s harder and harder to find, and that if you’re not an established name, you’ll never get anywhere, because fewer people want to read contemporary romance.
So when we read Flat Out Sexy by Erin McCarthy, we were both blathering to each other about how awesome it was and how refreshing to have actual conflict between people caused by realistic tension stemming from ordinary life experiences between two marvelous characters. Contemporary romance done right? More please! So, following this review, read more about a multi-level contest sponsored by Dear Author, Smart Bitches, Berkeley and Erin McCarthy, a contest we hope will be a semi-regular feature here and at Dear Author where we try to Save the Contemporary.
Let it be said: This is a NASCAR romance. I had a ball reading it. There’s a lot of assumptions made about NASCAR fans and the folks who participate in the sport, particularly as far as class and intellect are concerned, and many of those assumptions are plain looneytunes. From the skill and endurance needed to be a successful driver to the extensive education in engineering (at a minimum) needed to be in a pit crew, NASCAR is a greatly misunderstood but very interesting culture. Hm. I wonder if there are any book genres like that.
NASCAR creates a unique environment for contemporary romance in particular because it allows for an entirely new setting for some traditional elements of romance. First, there’s the class and status that come with belonging to a racing family, or being a crew member thereof. Then there’s the wealth of the drivers, their families, and the generations ahead and after them that continue in the racing circuit, and the sheer shitfuckton of money involved in the foundation of the sport itself. Add to that literal life and death stakes and you have plenty of opportunities for external tensions acting against the protagonists that, when placed on a NASCAR track, seem completely different and allow for a new examination of traditional tropes.
What makes Flat Out Sexy so charming and refreshing is that the conflict between the couple stems mostly from between the couple and their perceptions of themselves, but I never once got the feeling they were standing in their own way merely to prolong that tension. Single mom Tamara Briggs is finally reentering her old social circle a few years after her NASCAR driver husband was killed in a race. Elec Monroe is one of the hottest rookies in the current group of drivers, but since he’s a handful of years younger than Tamara, she doesn’t recognize him when she literally runs into him at a cocktail party. Theirs is an instant attraction, and Tamara decides that a one night stand with a man as hot as Elec can’t be a bad thing. And of course, the sex is as incredible as the attraction hinted it would be. But when they wake up the morning after and she realizes that not only is he younger than she is but the son of a family that’s had a longstanding feud with her husband’s family, she’s horrified at herself and decides that once ought to have been enough.
Trouble is, she doesn’t necessarily want that to be the case, and Elec definitely doesn’t want theirs to be a one shot deal. The conflicts large and small that affect their relationship range in size and tenor, from the feud between their families to Tamara’s own feelings of insecurity about her body after giving birth to two children. There’s also the fact that she has children and has been a single, independent mom for a few years now, and is fiercely protective of her family, her routine, and their privacy – particularly in a sport like NASCAR with its own gossip mill. Elec has his own set of issues, including a very personal and sad secret that he keeps from everyone. But Elec is determined to swerve past all of these blocks and simply be with Tamara.
What impressed me time and again about McCarthy’s skill in creating these two characters was their responses to everyday human conflict: they acted like grownups about it. Seriously. Even at her most embarrassed, Tamara owned up to her self consciousness about her body, and Elec was dumbfounded (because really, what guy notices the things a woman notices about herself?) and deliberately thoughtful in how he responded because he wanted to be careful of her feelings. When Elec faced a rip roaring confrontation with his sister, who handles his PR, he admits to having completely forgotten about an appointment she’d made for him, and apologizes. No spoiled diva behavior, no taking for granted his sister’s hard work: he mans up and says he’s sorry. McCarthy’s skill with dialogue – never once did I think “Come on now, people don’t talk like that,” – yields true characters, protagonists and supporting cast alike, who are wonderfully realistic, with nuanced depth and at times heartbreaking problems.
I was rooting for both Tamara and Elec equally throughout the story simply because they had to deal with realistic problems and because they dealt with each one like adults – adults who have the serious hots for one another and can barely see straight from the spicy hot attraction. Dinner parties will never be the same again in my imagination, lemme tell you. Plus, can I say how awesome it was to read about a romance heroine who is middle aged, who has two kids who are elementary-school aged, who holds down a full-time job plus manages her home and family and yes, finds it exhausting but doesn’t need rescuing from her existence? Tamara would be the first to tell you her daily routine is tough – particularly when the kids have the chicken pox – but never once would she wish for some knight on a stallion or some stallion at night to come sweep her out of her life. She loves her life. But sweeping her off her feet for hot sex? That’s another story. She’s on board for that. Me, too.
So what kept the book from solid A status? There was one particularly monumental conflict between them that was never explained in full, never really amounted to the Big Freaking Deal that it did in Tamara’s head, and was never truly resolved even after they’d experienced their super shiny happy ending. (Highlight to read teh spoilerz)
The family feud between the Briggs family and the Monroe family originated with the fathers, and the bad feelings between them come up several times from different characters during the course of the story. But the cause of the feud is never explained, even after Tamara and Elec’s relationship is public, and despite their relationship, the reader never learns how the Tamara’s father in law and Elec’s father deal with the bad blood between them. It’s a huge plot thread that seems to be left dangling, and the lack of resolution is jarring.
As I mentioned, McCarthy has Mad Character Creation Skillz, and the population of characters surrounding Tamara and Elec are ripe for stories of their own. I believe that the next one is about Ty, another NASCAR driver, and Tamara’s teaching assistant, Imogen, a super-intellectual Yankee who decides that a close and personal examination of the social and sexual culture of NASCAR is a great subject for her thesis. I’m down with that. Particularly because the initial sparks between Imogen and Ty are as incendiary as those between Tamara and Elec. Erin McCarthy is a fiercely skilled writer, and I’m upgrading my pants from happy to gleeful that I’ve found a contemporary romance that is complex and fascinating, but based firmly in the reality of human conflict, emotion, and triumph.
And Now: Buy a Contemporary, Save the World
Here’s the deal: we dig this book. We dig this book like damn and whoa, and we think you will too. So, in order to spread the word and the opportunity to read it we’re doing a multi-level giveaway in tandem with our reviews of Flat Out Sexy.
Part the First: free books! Leave a comment, and you’re automatically entered to win a copy. We each have 10 copies of the book to give away, so drop a word here and at Dear Author and double your chances. Comments will be open for 24 hours starting now.
Second: Spread the Word! Below is a Sprout widget about our campaign, and a simpler animated graphic. Right-click-and-save the graphic, or grab the Sprout for yourself, and put it on your site. Let us know that you’ve done so via email, and you’ll be entered to win a copy of the book, and a $100 gift certificate to Amazon.com, where you can buy many, many books. Oh, the delightful zest of the phrase, “Many, many books.” Spread the word, let us know, and you’re entered to win. That’s it.
The Spread the Word winner will be announced in 1 week, so tune in on Monday 27 October to see who wins a fierce Benjamin in our quest to Save the Contemporary.
Why? Because if there’s one thing that makes us sad, it’s the idea of contemporary romance dying out. So spread the word, buy a contemporary, and save the world.