Book Review

Pursuing Pandora by Maggie Brown

When I read the blurb for Pursuing Pandora I was overcome with a burst of excitement. I immediately messaged Shana, with the comment “this book sounds so bananas that I’m tempted to check it out” and she agreed that I must.

Check this out:

Corporate lawyer Winter Carlyle is the first to admit that she’s become jaded with romance after a very messy public breakup.

When her bossy aunt asks her to visit a high-end nightclub to check on her young cousin, Winter reluctantly agrees. Poking her nose into her cousin’s love life is the last thing she wants to do. So what if he has a giant crush on Pandora, a lounge singer thirteen years his senior? The cougar just might teach him a thing or two.

For Pandora, the sultry siren with the slinky low-cut gown façade is all an act. It’s showbiz. She dislikes the adulation and the numerous advances, especially from the Russian gangster and the aging playboy. Besides, she has an ulterior motive for being at the club, and romance is definitely off the agenda.

But uptight, reserved Winter is a complication she hasn’t foreseen. And even with the best intentions, love has a way of striking at the most inopportune times.

In just four short paragraphs, it mentions:

  • Family drama
  • Corporate lawyer + lounge singer pairing
  • A Russian gangster and an aging playboy
  • Pandora (the singer) “has an ulterior motive for being at the club, and romance is definitely off the agenda”

And you know what? I’m glad I read it! I had some serious problems with this book, which I’ll get into below, but Pursuing Pandora also had exactly the balance of crazysauce that I needed, making for a fine distraction from my pandemic stress.

Before I get going, I’m going to throw down a disclaimer: I don’t usually read thrillers. I know, I just reviewed one a couple of months ago. But seriously, that’s two more thrillers that I’ve read this year than in the last five. That means I have no idea if Pursuing Pandora is a good thriller. I just know that I had a lot of fun reading it and I had a very hard time putting it down. I would also like to dedicate this review to Shana who let me Slack her the whole time I was reading, because I needed someone to say “look at this!” to.

As indicated in the blurb, Winter Carlyle is the corporate lawyer in Brisbane, Australia. She’s still smarting from signing her divorce papers when her aunt Gussie (short for Augusta) invites Winter over because she needs some help. Winter’s cousin Michael has been talking about how he’s going to get married even though he’s only twenty-one. Even worse? His wife-to-be is a lounge singer in her thirties, so Gussie is convinced the woman is just out to get the family money. Winter knows the only way to get Gussie to calm down is to agree to help her, so Winter arranges for a few friends to join her at the club where Pandora sings so she can check her out.

Pandora used to have dreams of pursuing a singing career. Unfortunately, an illness in her family when she was leaving school put an end to that. More than a decade later, she’s sort of got it going with the lounge singing. And while she might enjoy the actual singing part of her job, Pandora doesn’t love that she has to play nice with the patrons even when she’s not interested in them. Like, say, the Russian mobster and aging playboy mentioned above, as well as Winter’s cousin, who has been following her around like a puppy. When Winter throws a “WTF?!” at Pandora about Michael, Pandora makes it clear that a) she has zero interest in him and b) that she’s gay. So, Winter and Pandora hatch a plan to get Michael to go away: Winter will throw herself a birthday party, Pandora will bring Winter’s best friend, Jessie, as a date, and Michael will see that he could never be with Pandora because she’s a lesbian.

Things get hilariously complicated from that point on. Pandora and Winter are attracted to each other and fight their feelings a lot. Jessie develops a massive crush on Pandora, even though she’s described as a notorious player and falling for any one person isn’t her style. Jessie keeps trying to set Winter up with women that Winter isn’t interested in and these women crush on her. There’s that whole thing about Pandora’s ulterior motive for being in the club. And that birthday party? There is SO MUCH about planning that party, all the events leading up to it, and everything that happens at the party itself. This book is chock full of over-the-top family and friends drama.

I worried I wouldn’t like Pursuing Pandora when the first chapter came across as unnecessary while I was reading it. It opens with Winter signing divorce papers, which is the first time she’s in the same room with her ex-wife, Christine, since they split up two years prior. As soon as Winter signs, we get a flashback of the moment they split up, when Winter walked in on Christine banging the much-younger pool boy in their guest house. I wondered why we needed that chapter. Why couldn’t it have been a few sentences somewhere else in the book? Y’all… it turned out to be totally worth it when I came across some of the finest shade I’ve seen in a story.

Open if you want to see the payoff for sticking with that first chapter. I’m only hiding it so you can have the unspoiled experience I enjoyed if you choose to read this book.

This is from when Winter goes to visit Gussie. I howled when I got to that last line because it’s like a compliment and slap in the face at once.

“He’s taken up with a most unsuitable girlfriend. Let me rephrase that—not a girl but a woman well into her thirties.”

“So?” Winter drawled. “He’s twenty-one. Guys that age are obsessed with girls…or women. And we both know Michael’s no different. He was dating Nanette when he was nineteen.”

“I’m well aware of that, but he’s so fragile emotionally,” groaned Gussie. “You know how dreadfully depressed he got after breaking up with her, and this is far more serious. He’s obsessed with this woman and claims he’s in love with her.”

Winter nearly rolled her eyes. In her opinion, Michael wasn’t fragile, just spoilt rotten. “Let him alone. Even if she’s a lot older, there’s nothing you or I can do about it. I wouldn’t fuss. At his age, it won’t last. Besides,” she added with a shrug, “he might learn a thing or two from an older woman.”

“I’m going to ignore that last remark,” said Gussie solemnly. “It is not funny. This has been going on for months. He’s talking about marrying her and he’s still got two years left at uni. He’ll be lucky to pass.”

Winter was suddenly struck with a feeling of déjà vu. Was the woman another Christine, wanting a toy boy? “I’m hardly an expert on the subject,” she said with a bitter edge.

“Of course you are. Christine had an affair with a young man. That’s why I’m asking you to help.”

That incident was the first of many that kept me on my toes. Sometimes it was in good ways like how that thing behind the spoiler tag left me laughing. Sometimes it was in less good ways, like when I found some of the complications I mentioned above bewildering. That was especially true in regards to Pandora and Winter’s other potential love interests.

It took me a while to figure out why I was so thrown and then I hit on it: for the first half of the book, I kept forgetting that it’s a romantic thriller and not a contemporary romance. Once I could keep that in mind, I was able to forgive any sins I’d typically hold against a romance. For example, Winter going out for a lunch date with a woman who’s crushing on her, even though she and Pandora are starting to get romantically entangled (and seriously, I felt so bad for that woman, because she really thought it was a date and they were going somewhere). Or Pandora still going to the party with Jessie even though she and Winter definitely have feelings for each other at that point. I may not have understood WHY they were sticking with the over-engineered party plan, but I didn’t mind because it was part of the book’s over-the-top nature that I enjoyed so much.

Speaking of Jessie, her characterization is one of my biggest issues with this book. Jessie and Winter are so antagonistic with each other that I had a hard time buying that they’re best friends. I understand the idea of being friends with someone for so long that they become a permanent fixture in your life. But given the way they treat each other, I was shocked that they’re still talking to each other. Winter is super judgy about Jessie being a player. Jessie is kind of an asshole when she realizes Winter is interested in Pandora too, and tries to direct Winter to the type of woman Jessie thinks would be suitable for her.

“[…] Can’t you see Pandora wouldn’t suit you at all. You’re so bloody naïve when it comes to women and sex.”

Winter stared at her. Was there a challenge behind the words? Mockery? She frowned. “Just because I’m conservative doesn’t mean I’m stupid.”

“Really? Hell…you let yourself be Christine’s doormat for years.”

Affronted, Winter couldn’t help but respond angrily. “I might have made the wrong choice there, but at least I made one.”

Jessie glared back at her. “What makes you so damn self-righteous. I’ll settle down one day, and when I do it’ll be with someone who fits with me.”

“Meaning what?”

Jessie gave a nonchalant shrug. “Meaning you’re going for the wrong types. You need someone sweet, nice, with not too many expectations, not too sophisticated…like Linda.”

Sometimes her attitude really ticked off Winter. She glowered. “Slightly dipsy, you mean?”

“Well…in the way…yeah. Someone uncomplicated.”

“And you think I’d be happy with a partner like that?” Winter snapped, itching to wipe the smug look off her face. “You know, sometimes I think you don’t know me at all. We’ve been best friends forever, but you’ve never seen past that awkward shy young girl I was when we first met. Believe it or not, I grew up. If you’d bothered to pay more attention to your friends rather than your next shag—”

She broke off, appalled at herself for letting Jessie get under her skin. She rocked back on her heels. “What are we doing? We never used to argue.”

They’re arguing now when they didn’t before because Winter’s character arc in Pursuing Pandora includes building confidence that she didn’t have before.

The way Winter judges Jessie for wanting sex without strings is gross. There’s a lot of sex negativity coming from some of the characters, especially directed towards Jessie and Pandora (I mean them as individuals, not as a couple). Even Pandora’s first impression of Jessie is judgy: “Pandora knew her type very well. Charismatic but a perpetual player who was afraid of commitment, no different from the aging playboys who frequented the club.” Like, it’s not quite slut-shaming, but it sure feels like it’s in the same ballpark.

And then there’s the perceptions of Pandora, particularly Gussie’s. Gussie refers to her as a “hussy” and a “slut” a number of times. Even when Winter finally tells Gussie that Pandora is a lesbian, Gussie refuses to believe it, calling her a “maneater,” saying she’s “just experimenting.” It’s super shitty and I got increasingly tired of it, although I was heartened when Winter’s mom tells Gussie to shut up. Also, in one truly “what am I even reading???” moment, Winter uses a slur while thinking about how beautiful Pandora is.

CW for slur usage
“Pandora would be a woman who aged gracefully. She had that sort of timeless gypsy beauty.”

I just…

What The Hell Just Happened Reaction GIF

 

I can’t believe she thought that, when it reinforces stereotypes about Romani women being hypersexualized. It’s not okay AT ALL.

I know I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the stuff that’s weird or didn’t work for me, but I did enjoy it way more than I expected to. I especially loved seeing Winter warm up (hurr) to the idea of finding love again. While I won’t say what Pandora’s secret is, I also enjoyed seeing what was really going on and how she has to make some choices about her life and her priorities. Also, I still can’t quite nail down what it is, but this book has that certain something that kept me saying “just a little more”. It didn’t push me into proper Bad Decisions Book Club territory, but it was damn close.

I honestly don’t know if I recommend Pursuing Pandora. On the one hand, I was often frustrated by the characters, especially how they treated each other, and there was likely more going on in the book than there needed to be. On the other hand, it held my attention, keeping me well distracted from my pandemic panic. For that, I am truly grateful. The best I can say is this: if you pick it up, make sure you have a friend standby, so you can share some of your WTF energy with them too.

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Pursuing Pandora by Maggie Brown

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  1. 1
    Riley Kirkwin says:
    1+

    On the one hand, it’s a pity, because I like the review a lot and the book sounds really interesting, but I think dropping the G slur (in that context, no less! ***ugh***) is probably a deal breaker.

    On the other hand, maybe it’s for the best? I’m *so* leery of the ‘protagonist’s same-gender ex cheated on them with someone of a different gender’ breakup trope. Like, it doesn’t HAVE to be biphobic? But it almost always is. (Also I feel like the idea that ””straight”” infidelity is somehow worse than ‘gay’ infidelity comes with some inherently biphobic baggage and almost always shows up in scenes/plots like that.) Even though I probably won’t read the book, I’d still be interested to know if you noticed whether or not that was the case here. (Though the fact that the plan is ‘show up with a woman so he’ll know you’re a lesbian’ is not super encouraging – Did You Know that sometimes women who date women… ALSO date men???? Wow, imagine that! …Sorry, I’m salty.)

    Hope this is on-topic and coherent – it’s pretty late here (and I’m kinda bitter that even when I find queer lit/romance I still have to watch out for the Microaggression Gutpunch).

  2. 2
    Tara says:
    1+

    @Riley It didn’t actually come across as biphobic to me! Because I’m bi, I’m definitely on hte lookout for it, especially in f/f books, because there was a real bad biphobia trend in there when I first started reading them 8 or 9 years ago. In this case, it came across as that her ex was an asshole and she was just a gigantic cliche. I hadn’t thought about how stupid the plan was in relation to that (given it was just so stupid all around, when Winter could have just told him “fuck off, she’s not into you at all), so that’s a great point!

  3. 3
    Riley says:
    1+

    @Tara
    Thanks, that’s weirdly a relief even though I wasn’t planning on reading it? I’ve actually read a lot more m/m than f/f (working on fixing that, but also working on reading more queer romance on general, ah the struggle), and I haven’t had *terrible* luck, but even in more inclusive books I’ve suddenly gotten slapped across the face with biphobia and it sucks worse somehow, so that I’m just really gunshy unless I know and trust the author (or sometimes the publisher). I honestly probably haven’t had to wrangle as much as you, though, tbh – I didn’t find Actual Queer Romance until a couple years ago, so I was mostly reading fanfic, which comes with its own very different pitfalls. XD I totally know that vaguely old-school exclusionist-lesbian attitude, though.

    Actually, the trust thing may be part of the reason for the gender disparity now I think about it – I stumbled onto authors I trust in m/m and now I read them first!

    Her ex does sound like a total douche, and I’m honestly kind of annoyed that now I can’t read or write those kinds of scenarios without breaking out the microscope and looking for Unfortunate Implications, but such is life. Well, my life. I’m kind of a nitpicker, hashtag no regrets. Er. Very few regrets.

    Also, I have definitely reached the point where when a character hears that somebody else has/had a boyfriend/girlfriend and then is like ‘ah, damn, that means they must be straight/gay!’ I roll my eyes until I sprain something and am usually too annoyed to enjoy the rest of the chapter. Bi and pan people exist! Ace people exist!

  4. 4
    Zuzus says:
    1+

    That’s some interesting cover art for a f/f romance, no?

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