REVIEW: Juliana Stone’s THE DAY HE KISSED HER, Or “Down, Wanton, Down”

The_Day_He_Kissed_HerMiss Bates loved volume two of Stone’s “Bad Boys of Crystal Lake” series, The Christmas He Loved Her. Indeed, it was one of her favourite 2013 reads. As a result, expectations were high for volume three, The Day He Kissed Her. Miss Bates’s response to this romance novel was a reiteration of what she says about romantic heroes and heroines: a hard-to-like heroine, bring her on … a hard-to-like hero? Um, no. It’s difficult to redeem the assholey hero. Though Stone weaves much back-story torment for hero Mackenzie Draper, his behaviour is such that there is hardly redemption for him … and, as a result, not much of one for the novel. The lovely writing and strong use of metaphor that Miss Bates found in The Christmas He Loved Her was, sadly, absent from The Day He Kissed Her. The richness of the former’s relationship between the heroine and hero was not present, shared history and care and friendship, no … the sole link between heroine and hero in The Day He Kissed Her is a one-night stand. And once you get to know these two, there’s not much to build on.  It’s a pale companion to the previous book in the series. And yet, when Miss Bates reached three-quarters of the way into the novel, she was affected, moved, by the narrative. Stone has that capacity: to touch and haul you in emotionally. It was too little, too late, but it was there.

Memorial Day week-end finds Mackenzie Draper in Crystal Lake, Michigan, visiting his buddies, Jake Edwards, hero of The Christmas He Loved Her and Cain Black, hero of The Summer He Came Home. Glimpses of the couples’ connubial bliss serve as foil to Mackenzie’s love-’em-‘n’-leave-’em attitude. Except he carries an amorous bee in his bonnet since a one-night stand with Lily St. Clare, Jake’s best friend, who lost her brother in Afghanistan as Jake did. There’s minor “history” between Mackenzie and Lily, but not much. He pursues her, scaring away other men and behaving like a chest-thumping “my woman” irritant. Lily is helpless before her attraction for Mackenzie; attraction turns to love in no time … which is okay, Miss Bates guesses, if there were sound reasons for it, but there aren’t. Mackenzie and Lily sort of date and have wild monkey sex, but they don’t converse, or share much beyond that. Family complications arise in the form of messed up siblings, but those scenarios are strictly offstage from their relationship. Miss Bates couldn’t understand why these two fell in love and wanted to be together. Certainly, she lost sight of that for Lily: who seemed, at least initially, to be a heroine who knew her mind, but took a turn for ninny-hood half way through and never looked back.

“He was the one who left. The one who made the rules. The one who didn’t want a commitment.” That sums up hero, Mackenzie Draper. His attitude toward women is atrocious; yet, characters like Jake keep telling us he’s a great guy. Lily characterizes him as a wounded little boy. If Miss Bates were in her shoes, well, Mackenzie Draper would have received his walking shoes. Note how he thinks and speaks about women he’s dated, “The woman, Dru, had kicked up a fuss, and he’d felt bad at the sight of her tears, but hell, he hadn’t promised her anything more than a good time.” Oh, it’s gets worse, folks: “He was used to women who pouted when they didn’t get their way, women who used their bodies to try and change his mind.” Because he’s such a gift. He gets his comeuppance when he meets the nonpareil of womanhood in Lily; then, he can point to other women’s shortcomings when he compares them, “Mac didn’t like the predatory gleam in her eye. In fact, there wasn’t much about the woman he liked. She was so far from who Lily was, it was hard to believe they belong in the same gene pool.” Olivia Waite wrote an amazing post about the Other Woman in romance wherein she argued that “the symbolic function of the Other Woman is to demonstrate the distance between the heroine and herself.” (There’s so much more brilliance; you should read it.) In this case, there are many named and unnamed “other women.” They are described as sexually rapacious and repulsively sultry: the opposite of the blond softness and desirability of the heroine, Lily. Mackenzie’s attitude towards the women he’s been with doesn’t do him any credit. His frequent humiliation of Lily only added to Miss Bates’s distaste for him. The nail in the coffin lay in this: “She [Lily] was independent and had her own money, so she wasn’t always whining for him to buy her something.” On the contrary, she makes dinner and brings it to his place. But, hey, when he wooed Lily, he did bring her coffee one morning … we really can’t say that he didn’t buy her anything. Mackenzie Draper is as stingy with his feelings as he is with what’s in his wallet … but he’s generous with what’s in his pants. Drippy Lily can’t resist his Golden-Boy looks and sexy ways …

“His mouth curved into a slow grin, and Jesus, her nipples went hard.” Lily is a nebulous character, an inconsistent one. She is introduced as tough-as-nails sexy, someone who won’t take Mackenzie’s gaff. Miss Bates liked her: she got in a few jabs and seemed as willing to play this as “friends with benefits” as Mackenzie. But we learn that Lily is near lily-white and it takes Mackenzie to set her sexually free. Indeed, her reaction to him is so hyper-charged that her nipples greet him first All. The. Time. Here are only minor samplings, “But with just one look, he’d made her gut clench, and right now, her freaking nipples were standing on end … Her nipples were saluting him and not caring one damn bit … her sensitive nipples poked against the fabric.” This goes on and on. We know more about Lily’s nipples than we do about her because, after Mackenzie brings her sexual joy, she turns into a self-sacrificing Madonna, so giving, loving, soft, and pure that … here we go, he doesn’t deserve her. Except he still treats her pretty crappily. At least her happy nipples are matched by his ready and equivalent tumescence. Unfortunately, Miss Bates didn’t find any of this sexy or interesting.

“It wouldn’t take much for him to cross the line into Ben Draper territory.” Mackenzie Draper is right: it wouldn’t take much for him to turn into his abusive father. Stone works hard to elicit sympathy for her hero. She paints him a horrific childhood. There is not, however, much to admire in the man he’s grown into. He never sought help for his rage. Take his response to men who might be interested in Lily: “A broken nose on Hubber looked pretty damn good right about now.” Hubber being Crystal Lake’s mayor and a pretty great guy. He’s proud that he “nailed” Lily: preens like a peacock when other men smirk and indulge in sexual innuendo about her. Then, he turns he-man protective. He’s either unhappily wallowing in a bottle of Jack Daniels, or raging: ” … the everpresent anger inside him, the one that was never far from the surface, had the muscles across his shoulders tightening.  He knew his mood would turn black.  There was no stopping it.  He downed his wine and pushed back from the table.  He need to run or punch something … His temper always got the best of him and shit happened.” He’s never sought therapy for his temper and anger, nor for his binge drinking; by the HEA, however, he’s a reformed man. It’s difficult to take this as a given, understanding that what Mackenzie suffered and what it turned him into takes a lot more than happy times with Madonna-figure, who, in the end, holds him to her bosom and forgives and excuses all. If Mackenzie and Lily were Miss Bates’ neighbours and/or friends, she’d be worried about them.

In the end, uninspired writing, an inconsistent portrayal of the heroine, and a hero so problematic it’s near-impossible to see him as heroic (a victim, yes, but not heroic), demanded of Stone’s The Summer He Kissed Her “a high claim to forbearance,” Emma. Stone’s emotionally-charged writing did make an appearance in the last quarter of the novel and found Miss Bates taken into its wake, but in the cold light of day, too little, too late. (With apologies to Robert Graves)

Juliana Stone’s The Summer He Kissed Her is published by Sourcebooks Casablanca and has been available since April 1st in the standard formats and vendors.

Miss Bates is grateful to Sourcebooks Casablanca for an e-ARC, via Netgalley, in exchange for this honest review.

Problematic heroes? Who are they in your reading? What was your response to them? Which ones worked for you and why? Who didn’t and why not?

4 thoughts on “REVIEW: Juliana Stone’s THE DAY HE KISSED HER, Or “Down, Wanton, Down”

  1. Two books immediately came to mind regarding problematic heroes: “Lady Gallant” by Suzanne Robinson and “Lily” by Patricia Gaffney. Both “heroes” do some really dastardly deeds to their heroines, but one’s redemption was believable and the other left me feeling. . .miffed.

    Christian de Rivers in “Lady Gallant” is offensive and insulting to Nora from the beginning, but after he begins to get past his reputation as the hottest thing in trunk hose, I actually liked him a lot. After he and Nora marry, he discovers she’s involved in spying. For her treachery, Christian then devises his own personal version of the ninth circle of Hell for Nora. She is subjected to much cruelty and humiliation at his hands from imprisonment in their home to denial of even the smallest comforts. There’s one punishment engineered by Christian solely to break Nora, to force her to confess what she knows of the spy ring. Instead of confession, it serves as a death knell to the love Nora had still harbored for Christian. For me, it was one of those scenes that in any other novel would have been a deal breaker. Even though the scene is open to interpretation, it still was one of the most awful scenes I had ever read whether he did what it appeared he was doing or not. Thankfully, Nora does not instantly forgive him. There was a point in “Lady Gallant” when I really wondered if there would be an HEA for these two.

    I think Christian and Nora worked as a couple by the end partly due to Nora’s transformation from a quiet mouse into the mouse that roared. I loved the way her spirit is never broken by Christian’s cruelty, and how she held him accountable for what he did. Also Christian spends a great deal of time, effort, and care afterwards to not only make amends but to WIN Nora’s heart back. Because he does KNOW he’s lost her. She doesn’t just let him waltz back in with a few pretty words and token gifts.

    I read “Lily” for the first time in 2008 when I was just getting into romance novels. I remember really disliking Devon and thinking Lily was a doormat. I didn’t like the way Devon humiliated Lily time after time, and each time she forgave him quite easily because she “loved” him. I read somewhere that Patricia Gaffney referred to Devon as “Sebastien in training” and since I’d just read “To Have And To Hold,” I was curious about the comparison and picked up “Lily” for a re-read. Unfortunately, Devon didn’t really improve on second reading. He is physically abusive, threatens to kill Lily, and when she eventually runs, he pursues her. At one point, Lily asks Devon why he didn’t just kill her and be done with it. He replies along the lines that this way is better. Sheesh! None of this sounded vaguely “heroic” to me.

    Even after he begins to make quasi-amends, there was a deceitfulness or dishonesty about his actions. He lies to Lily about believing her innocence and threatens to take their child from her. Lily, of course, forgives him, and I did wish that I could have, too. Devon made Lily pay dearly for each glimpse of vulnerability he showed, and her willingness to forgive and forget just made her appear weak.

    Despite my problems with Devon and Lily, my second reading of “Lily” brought a deeper appreciation of Ms. Gaffney’s writing, and I enjoyed the gothic atmosphere of the book. I thought she did a pretty good job showing what life could be like for those who are relegated “below-stairs.” So even though Devon’s problematic status stood firm the second time around, there were things I liked about “Lily.”

    In “Lady Gallant,” I think what worked for me was Christian did change (almost as much as Nora), and he actively worked for Nora’s forgiveness. His internal transformation was manifest in his actions. That was missing with Devon who appeared to be the same asshole on the last page as he was on the first. Also, the resolution of Devon’s misplaced suspicions/accusations about Lily had little or nothing to do with an essential change within him as a character as Christian’s seemed to be. Instead, Devon is provided proof of Lily’s innocence very near the end from an external source, followed by more forgiveness and then. . . Pffft. “The End.” No repercussions for him, no self-examination required. It made me wonder if Ms. Gaffney had written herself into a corner and couldn’t find a way out otherwise.
    Um, sorry for the really long response. :-$

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    • This is such a terrific analysis of these two books and the problematic hero: how can an author redeem him and make us believe in the HEA? The fact is that, by creating a problematic hero, it makes the narrative, at least potentially, more compelling, more challenging, for a reader. You are so right and astute when you say that the key is two elements, and they would be the two that Miss Bates upholds as essential too: a believable transformation, a “metanoia” (from the Greek, for “mind” and “beyond”) in the sense not only as a change of mind, but of heart as well (“nous” is so difficult to translate) and the subtlety with which this is developped by the writer. Miss Bates would say that the writing “sin” of the romance writer is the declarative sentence: he is reformed because the writer tells us so. Well, no … not to sound like a schoolmarm, but SHOW US! Therein lay the problem with this Stone novel: Miss Bates knows she can do better; indeed, did do so in the previous novel. So, short of downright offensive material, anything can and does work in romance with authenticity of writing and the focus of the writer. Sometimes, Miss Bates would say, the speed with which romance is written results in the “declarative sentence” death knell: but writing is slow and our world is fast, for example, Miss B. is writing this in the 15 minutes she has on Sunday morning, so … it won’t be terribly coherent.

      Moreover, she wants to read Lady Gallant! She read, last summer, To Have and To Hold, and was shocked by it and loved it. She was fascinated by what she learned in your comment about Gaffney, Lily, and Devon as proto-Sebastien! There are two aspects to the problematic hero that need to be developped in the subtlety of the writing: the hero has to experience a deep sense of shame for his actions and he has to take actions to redeem himself vis-à-vis the heroine; he doesn’t just get to grovel and apologize, he has to do stuff. Take, for example, the heroes of Neels’ romance novels: they’re aloof, seemingly cold and indifferent at times, but they’re always there in the background doing good stuff and paying attention to the heroine. My beloved Konstantijn from Tulips for Augustus, his flowers and his little gifts, not extravagant, but saying to his Augusta, “I honour you. I know you.” This is why Miss B. couldn’t forgive the rich hero (the heroine is rich too) of Stone’s novel: it’s not the cost, it’s the attention and consideration that matter. (In anthropology, “gift-giving” is an important and elaborate ritual study and fascinating; so Miss B. loves to take note of gift-giving in romance: must write post.)

      Thank you for a wonderful, thought-provoking comment! 🙂

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  2. Oh, I hope you will do a post on gift-giving in romance. I think that would be fascinating.

    Also, I am borrowing for future use “metanoia.” What a great word to signify a change of heart and mind!

    I loved Tulips For Augusta! I fell in love with Konstantijn right at the beginning when he sent Augusta a profusion of yellow tulips that covered up the dreary paperwork on her desk because she needed a sunbeam. Now that’s romance! 🙂

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    • Thank you! Miss B. hopes her post-hopes don’t get eaten up by procrastination and lazy summer days.

      And with each bouquet of flowers, Konstantijn showed Augusta that he knew her better, understood her better … and then the gifts from the churchy bazaar: my favourite!!

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