Walnut“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” is from Leonard Cohen’s sublime song, “Anthem.” These words echo for Miss Bates every time she reads a Ruthie Knox romance. It was the case for her favourites, Ride With Me and About Last Night, as well as her most recent read, Flirting With Disaster.

Knox is good at cracking open her characters to expose vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and secret, deep shame. She especially likes to do this to her heroes, though her heroines are put through the wringer too. She builds them back up, bolsters them with a credible HEA. The “light” part, that’s the HEA; boy, does she ever love the cracking open, though: sometimes Miss Bates is so embarrassed for them, she squirms in Her Reading Chair. Knox splits them like a walnut, exposing the whirls and whorls of their personalities. The aftermath to this laying bare differs for hero and heroine: the heroine has to reach self-acceptance; the hero has to change. It was so in “Making It Last” (see Miss Bates’s review here), and it is so in Flirting With Disaster. 

The problem with Flirting With Disaster, and the reason it won’t be one of Miss Bates’s faves, is that the plot ran amok; rather than serving character, it dominated and pushed the compelling hero, heroine, and romance to the periphery. Knox flirted with narrative in Flirting With Disaster and lost. She went for the broad stroke and ensemble cast and plunked her readers in a maze, where we search for what-was-such-a-wonderful romance amidst the brambles of a poorly executed, predictable, too lengthy mystery plot.

But Knox is such a good writer that any romance aficionado must read her for this reason alone. This is evident in Flirting With Disaster. Knox doesn’t suffer from the wordiness and awkward phrasing that readers encounter in many a romance novel. Her writing is pithy and succinct and funny! In the first chapter, we learn that our heroine is “looking for torrid” and our hero is slouching beside her “emanating stony disapproval.” Miss Bates loved the heroine’s recollection of meeting “Granite Man” hero for the first time, “She’d greeted him pleasantly and he’d responded by backing away from her like a vampire threatened with a crucifix.” Here’s another encounter, “No way was she going to sit down shirtless … She was in good shape, but nobody was in that good a shape. Things would fold over other things. Pieces of her would bulge unattractively. But they would do it underneath a T-shirt, as nature had intended.” Funny, and true. Who hasn’t had these thoughts? See what Miss Bates means? Just a few phrases and you’ve got a world of personality.

We meet the heroine of Flirting With Disaster, Katie, (Caleb’s sister, the hero of Along Came Trouble) riding to a security job with the taciturn Sean Owens (Caleb’s field agent). Sean and Katie went to high school together, lost track of each other when Katie went to Alaska to marry her high school sweetheart and Sean to California where he developped a lucrative software company. Sean returned to Camelot seven months ago to bury his estranged mother and deal with her house and effects. What he’s actually dealing with is residual guilt over his troubled relationship with “Mommie Dearest.” Little does Katie know that the seemingly silent and icy Sean has: (a) been carrying a torch for her all these years (b) a debilitating childhood stutter which returns with a vengeance whenever he talks to her. Katie too is in a difficult place, though not in crisis as Sean is. She is trying to recover a lost sense of self and confidence after suffering the humiliation of her husband abandoning her and absconding with their entire joint account.

There’s so much here to crack open; when combined with unresolved attraction, the e-reader simmers. Hurrah, thought Miss Bates, a winner. Enter the mystery plot, which involves Katie and Sean’s mission to discover who is sending threatening messages to dissipated, still-wildly-popular singer, Judah Pratt. Their romance goes on the back burner while the mystery of Judah’s mess-of-a-life is cracked open. It takes a long time to do this, or at least it felt long. Miss Bates wanted Sean and Katie at the front and centre of the novel. Knox encountered a problem. It is one that we see often in contemporary romance. The reasons why Katie and Sean shouldn’t become lovers are lame: he works for her brother, she doesn’t want to fall in love with a guy who’s not staying in Camelot, he doesn’t want to take advantage of her vulnerability after her demeaning marriage … blah, blah, blah. So boring and so easily overcome: all it takes is a storm in a snowbound SUV and a lot of pent-up frustrated desire. And while Miss Bates, in general, finds Knox’s romances too explicit for her taste, she also thinks the love scenes are so well-written. More importantly, they are not token; what happens in them makes sense in the context of the couple’s relationship. Even more important, each one is unique to the couple and where they are in their relationship. The love scenes REVEAL personality, just as dialogue (and the dialogue in them is part and parcel of that), or habit, or the stream of a character’s thoughts do.

However, once Katie and Sean become lovers, their reasons for remaining apart don’t wash. And Knox tries; she really does. She has Sean think, “He wished he had some means to turn away from her. It wasn’t a blessing, loving someone this much. It was a constant ache, a stitched-up wound always threatening to rip open and make a mess of him.” She has Katie say about Sean’s inability to admit to his feelings for her, his mother, his town, his past, “”He wouldn’t let go of the control that had saved him all those years ago, and until he did, there was nothing she could do for him. No chance for them.” Miss Bates loved Sean and the irrepressible Katie, even though their issues were somewhat adolescent (was Ms Knox thinking of the NA niche she’ll be writing for?), but what is evident in the quotations here is the best of Flirting With Disaster. For the most part, Katie and Sean are swallowed up by Judah Pratt and a plot that is uncertain and not as subversive as Knox might have initially conceived. (There is also an awful chick-lit scene as the women from the previous books gather at a seamstress’s shop to be fitted for Ellen’s wedding and tease Katie about Sean. Awful.)

Miss Bates hopes that you read Flirting With Disaster because what Knox does with the romance genre is consistently interesting. She challenges herself as a writer and we are the winners. This is not her best, but it is still worth reading for great writing from “a mind lively and at ease.” Emma

(Miss Bates deliberately neglected to upload the cover of Flirting With Disaster because Katie and Sean look like awkwardly contorted mannequins. Awful. None of Knox’s Loveswept covers for the Camelot series have done honour to the quality of the stories. “Badly done,” Loveswept, “badly done.” Emma)

Despite the above cover snark, Miss Bates is grateful to Loveswept for an ARE she received via Netgalley in exchange for this honest review. You can download Flirting With Disaster from the usual places.

The other writers Miss Bates loves who “crack open” their characters are the incomparable Jen Crusie and S. E. Phillips. What of you: what romance writers, or novels have you noticed do this? Miss Bates is always on the look-out for this stripping-bare of character. Let her know in the comments ’cause the TBR ain’t big enough!

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